The dust of the regular season has finally settled. Only two teams remain in the NFC North: the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions. One game left. The winner receives the divisional crown and a first-round bye in the playoffs. The loser will have to pack their bags for a road playoff game. The stage is set for the Lions to win their first division title since 1993 and sweep the division.
Looking back on their matchup in Week 3, the Lions seemed to have figured out a way to slow the Packers down. If they can repeat their performance in the regular-season finale, they will have a good chance of winning the game despite being huge underdogs and despite what the experts are picking. So what did they do back in September to pull out a convincing victory over the Packers? They exploited their weaknesses, of course.
Finding a weakness among Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense is a nearly impossible act. They are the best offense by Football Outsiders' DVOA rankings (second in passing, fifth in rushing). They've scored the second-most points and gained the fifth-most yards.
But early in the season, the Lions seemed to have figured out a way to stop them. Detroit held the Packers to just 223 yards and seven points, both season lows for Green Bay.
The biggest key for the Lions defense was stopping the Packers' running game. Green Bay tried to establish the run early and often against Detroit, rushing a total of 15 times in the first half alone. But Detroit held Eddie Lacy to just 36 rushing yards, forced a fumble that was returned for a touchdown and even tallied a safety. And the Lions defense was able to be successful defending the run without committing too many players into the box.
The Lions only have six men in the box facing five offensive linemen and a tight end. That is typically a matchup that the offense should win, but the Lions' "Free Hurt" defense defies the odds. Watch both linebackers pick up on the play quickly. DeAndre Levy shoots the gap and forces Lacy to the outside. Stephen Tulloch's quick pursuit beats the lineman heading to the second level and forces Lacy back inside. Throw in Jason Jones' excellent hustle from the opposite side of the field and Nick Fairley somehow freeing himself from a double team and you've got a minimal gain on first down.
Devoting a minimum amount of players to stopping the run game is absolutely key against Green Bay. This allows the defense to deploy as many resources as possible to stopping the Packers' passing game, which is where Green Bay does the majority of its damage. And that's exactly what the Lions did in Week 3.
It's first down, and the Lions again only have six men in the box, unafraid of the Packers' running game. This is a rare moment in the game in which the Lions aren't playing two deep safeties, but it pays off. After Fairley creates pressure and forces Rodgers out of the pocket, he's left with little options because of the blanketed defense.
Rodgers' first option is completely gone, with triple coverage leaving no option there. He's left to rely on Jordy Nelson's curl route, which is already being blanketed by Darius Slay. But because Isa Abdul-Quddus was playing a middle zone, he's able to make a good break on the ball and almost intercept the pass before it reaches Nelson.
But look at the overall picture in that second screenshot. The Lions are devoting seven players into coverage, while the Packers are only running three routes. Because the Lions are so impressive at stopping the run with so few defenders, they are able to give themselves a huge advantage in pass coverage. If they're able to stop Lacy again with minimal resources, they'll be able to put themselves in a good position to stop Rodgers as well.
The Packers' defense isn't flashy, but they were effective against Detroit last time around. The Lions were only able to score 10 offensive points, and one of those drives was aided by extremely good field position. (It is worth noting, however, that the Lions missed a short field goal and had a red-zone turnover as well.)
Regardless, the game at Ford Field did give us a little hint as to what the Lions can do on offense successfully against this mediocre defense.
The biggest impact player for the Lions that Sunday was Reggie Bush. Bush had 99 total yards in the game, including the Lions' only offensive touchdown. The Packers had absolutely no answer for his speed in the running game (12 rushes, 61 yards) or the passing game (six receptions, 38 yards).
There's nothing fancy about this play. Bush just beats the Packers safety to the edge and scampers in for a touchdown. The Packers' linebackers and safeties are their biggest vulnerabilities on defense because of their hesitation. The biggest weapon against hesitation is speed, and Reggie still has that.
Even though Joique Bell has been the better, more consistent runner all year, expect Bush to get a significant amount of touches this week. His speed and elusiveness will prove to be valuable against a Packers back seven that struggles to diagnose plays quickly. This will be especially helpful with a Lions offensive line that will feature two rookies this week. The Lions won't be able to pound the rock up the middle, so they'll need Bush to reach and exploit that second level.
The game plan last time the two teams met was perfect. The Lions outgained the Packers 353-223 despite turning the ball over three times on the day. Although games against division opponents rarely look the same as the first time around, the Lions would be wise to come out with a similar game plan. If they can execute it like they did in Detroit, they may win their first division title in over 20 years.