Given the events of the past few weeks, the Detroit Lions traveling to Green Bay right out of the bye week seems an unnecessarily cruel punishment for this team and its fans. If there's a more discouraging way to begin the second half of the season, I can't think of it. You really have to chuckle at the universe's sense of humor, though. After all, we finally got what we asked for.
The Lions' generation-long losing streak at Lambeau Field has seemed like an afterthought in the media this week, which is indicative of this season as a whole. Sunday's game is itself pretty much an afterthought--no reasonable person expects anything other than for the Lions to show up, hit the quarter-century mark, and head home. Barring a minor miracle, that's exactly what will happen. (I say this while acknowledging that I will still pick the Lions to win.) Is there any glimmer of hope in this bleak, apocalyptic hellscape? This is the NFL, guys—there's always hope. Let's grasp at some straws!
It goes without saying that the Packers are a far better team than the Lions, but as Jeremy Reisman pointed out this week, there are cracks in the façade. The Green Bay offense has been absolutely stifled for large stretches of the past two weeks; issues with the running game, struggles in pass protection, and injuries to the team's receivers have the Packers offense looking like a tarnished reflection of its past self. Can we reasonably expect the Lions defense to have a decent showing against Aaron Rodgers on Sunday?
Absolutely not. God no. As a wise man named Gusto once said, "I'm crazy but I ain't no fool." The Packers offense may be struggling relative to its normal lofty standards, but it's been doing so against the two best defenses in the NFL. The Lions might as well be playing Australian rules football for as much as the defense resembles Denver's and Carolina's right now. The Packers offense still ranks 5th in Football Outsiders DVOA. They'll be just fine. If you're going to find any scant optimism for Sunday, you'll have to look at the other side of the ball.
An overwhelming amount of evidence suggests that the Lions offense isn't equipped to go drive-for-drive with Rodgers. The entire unit is too maddeningly inconsistent and prone to breakdowns to sustain long possessions. One way to mitigate that weakness is by hitting on a few big plays. Strangely enough, the Packers defense has proven itself susceptible to the deep ball in the team's recent losses. This was particularly true last week, when the Carolina Panthers repeatedly worked Green Bay's safeties to hit passes downfield.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is the single-high safety here, with the Packers showing what looks like man-free (i.e., one deep safety playing center field, man coverage underneath). Watch Greg Olsen, who is split out on the left side of the formation. When Olsen comes across on a deep dig route from the left, no less than four Packer defenders account for his presence: both linebackers (dropping deep middle after their keys stay in to protect), Damarious Randall (23, in man against Olsen from the start), and crucially, Clinton-Dix. When the deep safety breaks off his backpedal to jump Olsen's route, he allows Devin Funchess to get behind him on a deep post route, with room inside. Cam Newton drops an absolute dime of a throw into Funchess's hands, and the Panthers have themselves a 52-yard gain. Two plays later, it would be a touchdown.
With the Panthers backed up facing a third-and-16 here, the Packers drop eight men into coverage in a Cover-3 look. Burnett, the strong safety, jumps to cover the curl while Clinton-Dix (21) rolls coverage to man the middle deep-third, with both outside cornerbacks dropping deep.
Watch the twins at the bottom. The inside WR makes a double move to go upfield at the numbers, while the WR lined up outside, Jerricho Cotchery, comes inside to run up the seam. With both receivers staying left, Clinton-Dix breaks outside to continue running downfield, only to have Cotchery come directly across the field underneath him. Because the cornerback at the top of the screen is covering the deep out route on his side, Cotchery runs into an enormous open pasture toward the sideline and catches a bomb from Cam Newton. Newton extends this play on his own, and it's a long time for a team to stay in coverage, but at the same time, the Packers are only rushing three. They should be prepared to cover for an eternity here, and Clinton-Dix simply lets a man run unscathed across his zone.
Even with Newton's 300 yards through the air (on only 15 completions, no less), the Panthers left some big plays on the table, again because Green Bay's safeties were too slow reacting in coverage.
With the Panthers showing an empty backfield, the Packers call some sort of combo coverage to the trips side. The linebacker jumps the first in-breaking route, trading off the inside receiver (Olsen) to Burnett, the safety in the middle, who sits back and to the outside. Olsen proceeds to completely freeze him with an outside step before bursting wide open up the seam to the end zone. However, Newton puts it just out of his reach, leaving six points unclaimed.
The most optimistic thing you could say about the Lions is that they have a puncher's chance on Sunday, and even that feels a bit generous. The Packers defense may have proven vulnerable to the deep ball in recent weeks, but that was against actual, competent NFL offenses. I'm not sure what to call the Lions offense at this point. In order to even have the opportunity to hit a big play, the line has to provide enough time for receivers to get downfield, or the quarterback has to buy seconds on his own. Neither of those things have happened with any regularity this season, and I'm not sure it'll start happening on Sunday. But like I said, this is the NFL—crazier things have happened. Crazy has been the norm around here lately, anyway.