At last it has come to this -- an epic struggle between Titans, a war for Northern supremacy, waged on that frozen plane of oblivion, Lambeau Field. Those who emerge victorious will avoid the fate of spending next weekend in the hellish abyss of... Dallas, I guess.
The biggest question going into Week 17 is whether the Detroit Lions defense can slow down Aaron Rodgers enough to win in Wisconsin for literally the first time in my Lions fandom. More specifically, can the Lions avoid giving up more than 14 points?
If one trend has emerged in the Green Bay Packers' losses this season, it has been the team's inability to hit the deep ball. In losses to the Lions, Seattle Seahawks and Buffalo Bills, Rodgers has posted the following stat line on throws more than 16 yards downfield: 3-for-21, 59 yards, 0 touchdowns. Given that the Bills and Lions share similar defensive makeups, I wanted to compare the ways in which both teams successfully shut down Rodgers en route to victory.
Unsurprisingly, the Bills and the Lions showed similarities in coverage. Both stayed predominantly in nickel packages -- and the nickel essentially serves as the base defense for most NFL teams these days, anyway -- and played man-under (i.e., man coverage by defensive backs at the line of scrimmage). The biggest observable differences came in the alignment and use of the Bills' and Lions' safeties.
For the Bills, a big part of the defensive game plan was pretty obvious: don't let Jordy Nelson beat you; make the Packers do it with anyone else. Against almost any passing formation by Green Bay, the Bills ran man-under with a free safety shaded inevitably to Nelson's side:
With the single-high safety committed to preventing the deep ball to Nelson, other Packers wide receivers enjoyed opportunities on the opposite side of the field, particularly down the sideline. In many cases, that wide receiver was Davante Adams.
With Stephon Gilmore going stride for stride with Adams down the sideline in the above screenshot, the pass falls incomplete. A perfect pass beats perfect coverage every time, but Rodgers puts the ball behind Adams, almost as though he expected the receiver to turn on a back-shoulder throw.
The Bills even shifted into a man-under free look, with a single high safety roaming (and still shaded toward Nelson), after showing two-high before the snap.
Here, the Bills motion the safety above the hash marks down behind the right defensive end. The Packers respond by motioning Nelson (bottom) to just outside the standup tight end, but even with both shifts, the free safety stays well toward Nelson's side. The result, again, is a deep ball to Adams down the left sideline, and another incompletion against sticky coverage.
No team is stupid enough to run the same defensive look on every snap, but Week 15 honestly felt like the one time the Bills should have made an exception. On occasions when they ran zone coverage, the Packers got Nelson free and nearly tipped the scales in Green Bay's favor.
Oh, look, two deep safeties! But alas, the man-under is not to be found among the cornerbacks on this play. Instead, the Bills sit in what appears to be a Cover 2. Nelson runs a slant while the corners sit in the flats, and the safety pulls a real Louis Delmas and gambles hard on the slant. That's when Nelson turns upfield and tragedy strikes:
Nelson runs free into open territory and Rodgers floats one directly into his hands... and then out of them. The Bills dodge an absolute bullet on the play, one that likely wins the game for Green Bay and changes the narrative on the following Monday.
The Bills committed themselves to eliminating Nelson as a deep threat and trusted their cornerbacks to hold up in man coverage, and that's just what they did. Randall Cobb got his, and Nelson still got 12 targets, but those targets were limited largely to throws fewer than 10 yards downfield.
The Lions employed similar principles in coverage against the Packers in Week 3, though with some differences. Like the Bills, the Lions also ran man-under; unlike the Bills, the Lions kept two safeties deep more often.
The Lions showed a pattern with their safety alignment. It wasn't a textbook two-high look, as only Glover Quin regularly stayed beyond 15 yards of the line of scrimmage. While the Bills lined up their safety according to Nelson's location on the field, Quin's alignment was determined by the number of offensive personnel. Regardless of where Nelson lined up, Quin almost always lined up to the side of the formation with more wide receivers. The strong safety, meanwhile, stayed 10 to 12 yards off the LOS to cover any inside routes by the lone WR in two-and-one or three-and-one looks.
The Lions show the same look here; Isa Abdul-Quddus (starting in place of the injured James Ihedigbo) is in position to cover a slant by Nelson (bottom), while Quin stays deep above the hash marks.
At the snap, Nelson breaks outside, and Darius Slay runs down the sideline with him. The play ends with Abdul-Quddus tipping away the ball in front of Nelson after Rodgers scrambles outside the pocket. He scrambles because this happens:
That's our old friend Nick Fairley almost taking the play-action handoff an instant after the snap. And therein lies part of the problem for Sunday. The Lions rushed four for significant portions of the game, and they were able to do that because Fairley and Ndamukong Suh went scorched-earth policy on the interior of the Packers' offensive line. Without Fairley, the Lions front four is still incredibly good, but perhaps not otherworldly, as it was in stretches with a healthy Fairley.
The Lions' success against the Packers will likely come in some version of what they showed in Week 3, or what Buffalo ran in Week 15: keep a safety deep, have the cornerbacks run man underneath and trust the defensive line to break the pocket before Green Bay wide receivers can get free. Can Suh have the game of his life? Can the Lions' less-exalted cornerbacks hold up when tested in one-on-one coverage down the sideline? If I'm going to get buck wild on Sunday night, the answer to those questions will be yes.