Thanksgiving Day has always been associated with the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers, as they have faced off more frequently than any other teams since the NFL adopted the game. The most memorable matchup on Thanksgiving came in 1962 when the Lions beat the 10-0 Packers, handing them their only loss of the season. The Lions neutralized the Packer franchise quarterback with a relentless pass rush that sacked Bart Starr 11 times in that game. While that game is a very good parallel, the other noteworthy fact is being overlooked. The Packers are the only team to lose to the Lions since Matt Millen began destroying the franchise 11 years ago.
On the surface, both teams are very similar; young franchise quarterback, excellent receiving corps, good tight ends, average offensive lines, solid pass rush and play making defenses. Both teams are designed to build a big lead and then protect it and both defenses are coordinated by two of the most ingenious and inventive defensive coordinators in the league in Gunther Cunningham and Dom Capers.
While there are plenty of similarities, there are some big differences as well. The Packers are consistent while the Lions are not, the Packers have won big games and the Lions have not, and lastly the Packers are America’s precious little darlings and the Lions are “evil”, “dirty” and hated. It’s no wonder this game is getting so much hype, but how will the game turn out? Let’s take a look.
Which gameplan do the Lions go with? The ill advised spread the field and throw deep plan that has led the Lions to halftime deficits in seven of 10 games? Or the balanced plan that gets the ball out of Stafford’s hands quickly and mixes in the running game to keep opponents off balance? The plan that has dug the Lions out of the halftime deficits in four of those seven games?
The Lions cannot afford to take sacks, turn the ball over or go three and out frequently against the Packers. They need to set the tempo and make the Packers try to go the length of the field against the best pass defense they’ve faced. To do that, they need to use the running game to keep out of 2nd and 3rd and long situations. They need to work short to intermediate pass routes against the Packers’ lackluster linebackers and then once the defense is off balance, take shots down field.
The Packers are vulnerable to the run and Kevin Smith gives the Lions the presence in the backfield they have been missing since Mikel LeShoure got hurt. He can run between the tackles, pick up tough yards and catch passes in the flat. He has more speed than Maurice Morris but runs with the same aggressiveness. The Packers’ weakness on defense is AJ Hawk, the most overrated player in the NFL, and the Lions can exploit him in the running game and the passing game. Hawk struggles to get off blocks and he has no instincts in pass coverage, so if the Lions can establish the run Pettigrew can become a huge factor catching passes over the middle especially off play action.
The Packers’ secondary gives up tons of yardage and big plays, but always seem to generate turnovers at opportune times. That is why it is imperative the Lions don’t just take shots down field early in the game. The Packers aggressiveness in the secondary makes them susceptible to double moves and pump fakes if they have been giving up yardage underneath. If you try to beat them deep early, they play the deep ball more honestly and they have a lot of players in the secondary that can makes plays on the ball.
The Packers’ pass rush is nonexistent if Clay Matthews isn’t able to generate pressure and just double teaming him is not going to do the trick. Matthews’ may not have the numbers of previous years, but he is still the catalyst. The best way to take him out of the game is to have a balanced attack and use his pass rush against him. Screen passes, draws and three step drops neutralize him better than double or triple teaming him ever will. If Matthews gets in Stafford’s face, the Lions offense will be in big trouble.
The Lions have the talent to beat the Packers offensively, but only if they can dictate the game to the Packers. If the Lions get one dimensional and the offense has to keep up with the Packers, there is no way the Lions can go blow for blow and win.
Once Favre left town I thought the love affair with Green Bay quarterbacks was over, but everywhere you look you see people heaping praise on Rodgers and the season he is having. For good reason mind you. The Packers live and die by Aaron Rodgers and he has been almost unstoppable so far. Rodgers is tough to put pressure on because he gets the ball out quickly and he is extremely mobile so he can escape the pocket. Rodgers absolutely eats the blitz alive, so the only way to beat him is get pressure with the front four, which happens to be the Lions’ specialty.
It’s no mystery why the Lions and Bears were the only teams the Packers really struggled with last season. They both get pressure with the defensive lines and drop seven into coverage. Speeding up Rodgers decision making is the best way to force him into mistakes because he rarely makes unprovoked bad throws. The Brute Squad can get pressure against the Packers’ offensive line, but the strength of the Packers’ offensive line matches the strength of the Lions’ defensive line.
Josh Sitton and Scott Wells are playing better than any interior lineman I’ve seen all year. They will be responsible for keeping the best defensive tackle group in the league at bay. Sitton and Wells limited Suh, Sammie Hill and Corey Williams to one sack in two games last year, but now Nick Fairley has joined the rotation which should give the Lions a better chance this time around. Cliff Avril vs Brian Bulaga and Kyle Vanden Bosch vs Marshall Newhouse should favor the Lions, so winning the matchups in the middle are vital to keep Rodgers from stepping up in the pocket away from the outside rush.
The Lions’ back seven matches up well with the Packers receivers and tight ends, but they are a dangerous group. Jordy Nelson has become the go to guy for the Packers and he is a big physical receiver with the speed to get deep. The Packers like to move him around to exploit matchups, so expect to see him in the slot and in motion. Greg Jennings is having a quiet year by his standards, but he is still a threat. I don’t expect the Lions to do anything special in coverage other than mixing in some man to man coverage to keep the Packers off balance.
Jermichael Finley gets a lot of attention for the headaches he can cause teams, but the Lions have linebackers and safeties that are very capable of sticking with him in coverage. Finley is not very physical, so the key to defending him is hitting him at the line and disrupting his timing. Stephen Tulloch has been a nightmare to throw on this season and don’t think Rodgers isn’t aware of that. Tulloch has a great feel for coverage and gets his hands up to tip passes, it makes quarterbacks think twice before throwing because those tipped passes are almost always trouble.
While the Lions have been weak against the run, I don’t expect the Packers to challenge them on the ground as much if James Starks is out. Ryan Grant is a good back, but he doesn’t have the same burst this year as his 3.7 yard per carry illustrates. If Starks does play, the Packers will use him on off tackle runs to attack the Lions’ over aggressiveness, just like everybody else has.
The wild card in this game is Scott Linehan, just like he will be for the foreseeable future. If the Lions come out trying to beat the Packers deep, they will lose and lose big. They can’t play the comeback kids against an offense as potent as the Packers. They need to control the ball, let the defense catch their breath and keep the crowd in the game. The Lions have dominated the second half of games this year because of the balanced approach they have taken, that balance is the most important factor in this game.
As much as I like the Lions’ chances on paper, I have little to no faith in the playcalling changing. I think the Lions are going to come out throwing and they will hit a wall again. The Lions had a much larger margin for error against teams like the Vikings, Cowboys and Panthers but they don’t have that with the Packers. As much as I want to see the upset, I think the Lions run their record to 1-11 in Thanksgiving games since the turn of the century.