The Detroit Lions are hosting the Green Bay Packers at Ford Field in Week 9, and each team is looking to end an excessive losing streak—the Lions have lost their last five games, and the Packers lost their last four.
Let’s take a closer look at the key things the Lions need to do against the Packers in order to stop their losing streak. Check out the odds for this game courtesy of our friends at DraftKings Sportsbook.
Packers’ base schemes
Packers coach Matt LaFleur bases his offense on two main systems he has experience with. His passing attack has influences from his time with Sean McVay and the Rams, while the rushing attack brings Mike Shanahan’s outside zone concepts from LeFleur’s time with him in Washington.
On defense, former-Lions defensive coordinator Joe Barry runs a hybrid front that is based on 3-4 concepts but does shift between series, which has led to inconsistencies and frustrations—but more on that in a bit.
Typically Barry leaves five defensive backs on the field at all times, then shifts the remaining players, alternating between 2-4 and 3-3 fronts. Essentially, because he deploys two pass-rushing outside linebackers and a MIKE off-the-ball linebacker at all times, the remaining three defenders are either all interior defensive linemen, or two interior defensive linemen, and then adding a second off-the-ball linebacker.
Here’s an example of the 2-4 front:
And now the 3-3:
You’d think the stouter 3-3 concept would be most effective against the run, but you’d be mistaken because that is the front that is typically gashed.
This brings us to our key matchup:
Key Matchup: Lions rushing attack vs. Packers run defense
The Packers run defense ranks 31st in DVOA—that’s one spot below the Lions—and is allowing over 141 rushing yards per game.
Kenny Clark is one of the better run stuffers in the league, but he’s been getting no help from those around him—and it’s hurting his productivity. His fellow interior defensive linemen, Dean Lowry and Jarran Reed, are average at best, while linebacker De’Vondre Campbell (arguably their best run defender) has slipped a bit, is injured, and may miss this game. To make matters worse, rookie linebacker Quay Walker is hesitating and letting the play come to him instead of attacking, which leads to missed assignments. They’re also getting little to no help from their safeties, Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos, who have both seen their tackling take a step back.
“This is a nightmare matchup for Green Bay’s defensive front,” Tyler Brooke of Acme Packing Company wrote. “With a lack of talent on the defensive line, a veteran ILB regressing, and a rookie ILB struggling with being a decisive, downhill player, the Lions are in a great situation to run the ball all over the Packers. If Detroit can establish the run and maintain possession, it will limit the time their struggling defense is on the field, and limit the time that Aaron Rodgers and company have to get their offense clicking.”
Meanwhile, the Lions are getting D’Andre Swift closer to full health and Jamaal Williams continues to consistently punish those in front of him on the way to the end zone (eight rushing touchdowns on the season).
The Lions rushing attack hasn’t been as strong as it was through the first two weeks of the season when Swift was healthy, but they have still consistently been a top-10 unit (DVOA: 7). Now, if this is indeed the week Swift returns, things could quickly get back to where they were.
To illustrate this point, let’s go back to the 3-3 front look (and the play I highlighted above), and turn to another Acme Packing Company writer, Rich Madrid, who created a video dissecting how this front is failing them:
For more detail on this, check out Madrid’s article, “Packers Film Room: 2 plays that illustrate what is wrong with the Packers run defense.” Enjoy.
Keep pressure on a frustrated Packers defense
It’s safe to say the investment the Packers have made on defense has not paid off this season. There is a lot of talent at all levels, including seven (!) first-round picks, two of which came from the University of Georgia in this previous NFL draft. And with all this talent failing to live up to expectations, the finger pointing has started, with several landing on defensive coordinator Joe Barry.
“According to sources close to members of the Packers’ defense, players have grown frustrated with the defensive scheme and playcalling,” ESPN’s Rob Demovsky wrote. “One source said there has been ‘a declining confidence in the defensive scheme and what’s being called, and it’s led to overall frustration with the defense.’ Another source confirmed that sentiment.”
The Lions have had a knack for jumping out to early leads this season—they were up 14 on the Dolphins last week and entered the half up 10 points—but have had lapses in concentration in one (or more) quarter, allowing teams to take advantage. The Packers will assuredly do that if the Lions don’t tighten things up, reduce the mental mistakes, and keep the pressure on.
Focus on Aaron... Jones, not Rodgers
Aaron Rodgers is not having an MVP season. As Jeremy Reisman pointed out in his scouting report, Rodgers is statistically down in multiple categories, including yards per passing attempt, touchdown percentage, and interception percentage.
Rodgers’ struggles seem to be centered around his confidence in his pass catchers to come through for him and he has scaled back his higher-risk/reward throws. This past offseason, the Packers lost three of their main wide receivers, and while the cupboard is far from empty, the remaining players aren’t producing at the same levels as past groups. As a result, Rodgers is making shorter, quicker throws, which is resulting in a higher level of efficiency (Passing DVOA: 9th) but a lower level of scoring—the Packers are 26th in points scored.
On the ground, it’s a different story. The two-headed duo of Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon is difficult to stop. Jones is currently fifth in rushing yards (575), while Dillion checks in at 31st (355).
The Packers, even when trailing by multiple scores, will not turn away from their running game because of its efficiency. Last week’s game against the Bills perfectly illustrated this concept. Despite being down 17 and time-clicking off the clock, the Packers continued to lean on their running game. It led to an impressive 208 yards on the ground, but they also lost by 10 points.
That output on the ground in Week 8 was by far their best performance on the road this season. In their previous road games, the Packers have rushed for 111 (Vikings, Week 1), 67 (Bucs, Week 3), and 38 (Washington, Week 7). They lost all three of those games too.
Right now, the running game is the Packers’ offensive engine. Yes, they have an MVP quarterback driving the train, but if his engine falters, you have a chance to derail their offense off the tracks.
Don’t be scared of a shootout... just have the ball last
Despite Rodgers’ struggles, history says he’s still going to get his share of yards and points against the Lions. And as Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said on Thursday:
“Well, they still have that guy (Rodgers), so as long as you have that guy you have a chance.”
History also shows us that the Lions’ lapses in concentration/judgment (mentioned earlier in this piece) tend to show up each game. It’s all part of the package of operating with a young, inexperienced team.
But despite these types of obstacles being in their way in most games, the Lions still seem to find themselves in games with a chance to win late. Against the Eagles, Vikings, Seahawks, and Dolphins, the Lions finished the game with a loss of four points or less.
In their most recent game, they were down four points to the Dolphins and got the ball with 8:19 left in regulation. After five and a half minutes of methodically marching down the field, the Lions were in a great position to drain the clock and set up a score against a Dolphins defense that was struggling to stop them.
Then came the fourth-and-2 play.
“Typically as a play-caller, there’s the ones you want back, particularly in critical situations that–like shoot, I wish I had called something different,” Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said on Thursday. “With that particular one, we had going into the game, that play-call really was three calls, and they gave us a pressure look. We checked to our pressure answer for that play, and they bailed out of it, so when that happens, our options are little bit limited, and Jared (Goff) and Josh (Reynolds) were trying to make a play. It was a one-on-one opportunity, and we came up a little bit short. So absolutely in hindsight, a different play would have been better.”
It’s easy to forget that Johnson only has seven games under his belt as a play-caller, but he needs to learn from these mistakes, rapidly. The opportunities for wins are there, and the Lions offense is capable enough that they shouldn’t be scared of getting into a shootout with any team. They just need to have the ball last and figure out how to close out a game.