The Detroit Lions (1-7) have the unenviable task of coming out of the bye to face a Green Bay Packers (6-2) team that has just lost two games in a row. The Lions are in the middle of a full upheaval of management, while the Packers are now in a two-team race for the NFC North crown. Though the Packers have faced some adversity in the past two weeks, these teams don't seem to be anywhere near each other on the "struggling" scale. Vegas seems to agree, as the Packers are a big 11-point favorite. But do the Lions have a chance?
Matthew Stafford and the Lions' pass offense has had a really up-and-down season. For all of the slack the unit has taken, it is a bit surprising to see that they have performed around averages all season. Part of the reason for the offense's perceived failures is the difficulty of their schedule. Six of their eight opponents rank in the top half of the league in terms of passer rating allowed.
That being said, there's still cause for concern for the Lions passing game. They rank just 25th in yards per attempt (6.7), 26th in passer rating (82.0) and 18th in completion percentage (63.4). Strength of opposing defenses can account for some of these statistics but not all. The Lions struggled against a poor Chargers defense and performed well below passer rating averages in the Chiefs and Broncos games.
What started as one of the best pass defenses in the league has slumped lately. Through the first five games, the Packers didn't allow more than 251 passing yards in a game nor a passer rating above 92. However, in the last three games, all opponents easily outgained those benchmarks.
Part of the reason for this large shift in play is injuries. Cornerbacks Sam Shields and Quinten Rollins were both injured in the Broncos game and didn't play against the Panthers. However, it seems like the Packers secondary is finally getting healthy again.
Overall, the Packers pass defense is still pretty good. They rank fourth in passer rating allowed (79.0), 20th in yards per attempt allowed (7.6) and third in completion percentage (57.7). If that seems like a weird combination, it's because it is. But as Christopher Tomke pointed out earlier in the week, this is because the Packers are particularly susceptible to giving up big plays through the air. Green Bay has allowed the third-most passing plays of 40+ yards with nine.
Player to watch: Julius Peppers. Peppers has notoriously tormented the Detroit Lions. In his 14 career games against the Lions, Peppers has 13.0 sacks, his second highest total against any team. Peppers leads the Packers this year with 5.5 sacks.
Advantage: Packers +1.5. A lot of this matchup depends on the health of the Packers' secondary. Specifically, if Shields can go, it will be a big boost for Green Bay. But even if he can't go, it will be an uphill climb for the Lions. Protecting Stafford will prove difficult with pass rushers like Peppers and Clay Matthews lined up on the other side of the line. The Packers defense has a tendency to force mistakes, and I expect to see a few from Stafford and the offense on Sunday.
Lions run offense (32nd) vs. Packers run defense (21st)
The Lions running game seems to have slightly turned a corner recently. At least in terms of yards per carry, the Lions have been more-than-acceptable over the past three games. The problem is they faced some poor run defenses during that time, and they still weren't able to have a consistent running game for the entirety of any of those games.
Detroit is still only averaging 3.7 a carry (26th) and earning first downs on just 14.7 percent of carries (32nd).
The Packers have been a mixed bag defending the run this year. They have been absolutely dominated on the ground in three games (Bears, Rams, Broncos), but have remained relatively stout at stopping the run in the other five games. Still, only two opponents failed to average at least 4.0 yards per carry against this defense.
Green Bay ranks 25th in yards per carry allowed (4.5) and 28th in percentage of rushes earning first downs allowed (24.8).
The Packers have faced a lot of good running games this year, but they still rate out as a below-average run defense.
Player to watch: Ameer Abdullah. After only seeing the field for five offensive snaps against the Chiefs, Abdullah promises to get a lot more playing time in Green Bay. This week, offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said Abdullah's role "will be growing."
Advantage: Packers +0.5. Although the Lions are trending upward with their running game, they have still yet to put together a full game of solid running. Even their apparent successful game against the Bears comes with an asterisk: Lions running backs averaged just 3.8 yards per carry in that game. The Packers don't have a great run defense, but the Lions' run offense ranks worse.
Packers pass offense (5th) vs. Lions pass defense (30th)
Aaron Rodgers' yardage numbers have been pedestrian this season, but that doesn't mean he hasn't been successful. As you can see, his passer ratings have fallen within the defense's averages or above in every single game this season, including the Packers' embarrassing loss to the Broncos. When taking into account the defenses that Green Bay has played over the past two weeks, the Packers' offensive struggles through the air have been extremely overstated lately.
They rank fourth in passer rating (108.2), eighth in yards per attempt (7.7) and 13th in completion percentage (64.7). Where the Packers have struggled, however, is pass protection. Though Rodgers has been sacked just 19 times (14th-most), Green Bay's protection seems to be getting worse. In the past three games, Green Bay has allowed 11 sacks and 26 quarterback hits.
Luckily for the Packers, they will not be a facing defense that remotely resembles those of the past two weeks. The Lions have allowed every single opposing quarterback to outgain their yearly passer rating average. Though they aren't necessarily ceding a ton of yards through the air, the Lions are allowing opponents to pass effectively and efficiently. Opponents are completing 73.1 percent of passes (32nd) for an average of 8.7 yards per attempt (32nd) and a passer rating of 111.1 (31st). That's bad. That's really bad.
Player to watch: Rodgers. Though Rodgers is dealing with a patchwork receiving corps, he is the kind of quarterback that doesn't need all-stars catching the ball. He's going to get the ball to where it needs to be.
Advantage: Packers +4. This is an absolute nightmare matchup for the Lions. Don't let the media fool you, this Packers passing offense is still very good, despite how it looked against two of the best defenses in the league. Combine that with arguably the worst pass defense in the league, and you're left with an assured slaughtering.
Packers run offense (12th) vs. Lions run defense (29th)
Green Bay is going through a bit of turmoil in the running game, as the team announced this week that James Starks would take starting duties over Eddie Lacy. That seems like the right decision considering Lacy is averaging just 3.7 yards per carry and his longest rush of the year is 16 yards. While Starks, on the other hand, is earning 4.3 a carry and has three rushes of 20+ yards.
Overall, however, the Packers have been quite efficient running the ball. They have hit the century mark in five of eight games this season, and are averaging 4.4 yards a carry (11th).
One underrated part of the Packers' running game is Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers is fifth among quarterbacks in rushing yards (213). Going against a defense that allowed Alex Smith to rush for 78 yards last game, Rodgers could be a surprising x-factor in the running game.
The Lions run defense has been wildly inconsistent all year. At times, the defense looks like the smothering unit from last year, but then they'll allow a few big runs and suddenly they're ranked at the bottom of the league again. Detroit has held five of eight opponents below their YPC average, but five of eight opponents have also surpassed their rushing yardage average.
Detroit is allowing 4.3 yards per carry (21st) and first downs on 23.2 percent of rushes (21st). Again, it is the long rushes that are killing this defense. The Lions have allowed a league-high four rushes of 40+ yards and the third-most rushes of 20+ yards (eight).
Player to watch: Starks. Though Starks only has 48 total rushing yards in the past two games, he should see more success this week in the starting role. Also, look out for Starks in the passing game. The running back hauled in six catches for 83 yards last week against the Panthers.
Advantage: Packers +1. The Packers have shown general consistency running the ball, while the Lions have been anything but stopping the run. I don't expect Green Bay to dominate on the ground, but I have a hard time imagining the Lions completely shutting them down.
Lambeau Field. It is my journalistic duty to remind you that the Lions haven't won in Green Bay since 1991. Did you know that in 1991 there was a different president, gas prices were lower and a song you barely remember was atop the billboard charts? It's true. Look it up.
Last game's prediction:
Though I got the winner right, my modest prediction of 23-13 Chiefs was nowhere near the 45-10 final. In the comment section, Singledigit was the only person to predict a blowout. He is this week's winner. Here's your prize:
Your prize is a (picture of a) Sega Game Gear, America's most popular Christmas toy of 1991. I never owned a Game Gear, but I remember specifically playing Home Alone on my best friend's Game Gear. That game was impossible and really gave me perspective on how impressive Macaulay Culkin's performance was against the Wet Bandits. Kevin McCallister +3.
This game's prediction:
The Packers have a huge +7 advantage and hold the edge in all four matchups. There aren't many scenarios that I can play out in my mind that result in a Lions victory. Detroit will have to take advantage of the Packers' questionable pass protection and try to force Rodgers into a few mistakes, which is a nearly impossible task in Lambeau. Offensively, the Lions have a chance to put up some points, but they will need to show drastic improvement on that side of the ball if they expect to keep pace with Green Bay. That's a lot of ifs. Lions 17, Packers 38.