Wojo: No excuse for Lions' ill-prepared defense
Green Bay, Wis. — You could see this coming, and the Lions froze like a team that knew it was coming. You start with a feisty Aaron Rodgers in the Packers home opener, combine it with a battered Lions defense, and this is what you get.
The Lions essentially were beaten by halftime, beaten by a great quarterback dogged by silly talk of his alleged decline. It didn’t end up as a blowout on the scoreboard, to the Lions’ credit, which basically shows it didn’t have to start that way either.
The Lions fell to the Packers 34-27 Sunday after trailing 31-3 late in the first half. And this is where they are right now — half a team capable of playing half a game. Thanks to Matthew Stafford and Marvin Jones Jr., they rallied and nearly got the ball back with a chance to tie it, at least turning an embarrassment into something interesting.
Ultimately, the defense didn’t give them a chance, not on the final drive, not on the first six drives. It’s not the first group carved up by Rodgers, and the defense was better in the second half when Green Bay was intent on running the ball and the clock. But based on the opening two weeks, this wasn’t the Big Bad Pack, and Rodgers had been prone to mistakes. The Lions didn’t force him into any, and there’s no excuse for an NFL team to trail 31-3 before halftime.
Rodgers fired perfect touchdown throws to Davante Adams and Richard Rodgers, and two more to Jordy Nelson. When he needed a clutch conversion, he ran or threw for it. Even when it appeared the Lions were in position, Rodgers beat them. On the 17-yard touchdown pass to Nelson that made it 31-3, Darius Slay was right there, got nudged by Nelson and couldn’t knock the ball away.
“A-Rodg is one of the best, and he made a play,” Slay said. “You can’t let him sit back there all day.”
There’s only one antidote when Rodgers is hot, and the Lions were awful at it. You have to get pressure on him, and they finished with two sacks and only two quarterback hits. Some of that can be traced to the absence of their two best defensive players, Ziggy Ansah and DeAndre Levy. But it also was flawed strategy by Jim Caldwell and coordinator Teryl Austin, who didn’t dial up anything creative to disrupt Rodgers.
“We certainly don’t talk about injuries prohibiting us from playing,” Caldwell said. “The way they played in the second half kind of proves that. They played well and played tough, they just played poorly in the first half. Any time (Rodgers) is back there, you gotta be able to change it up on him. We didn’t get as much pressure on him as we’d like.”
Rodgers got rid of the ball quickly, or bought time with his legs, and he clinched it on a third-and-8 scramble for 11 yards with 2:30 left. If the Lions get one stop there, they have a chance to cap a monumental comeback. Instead, as in the loss to the Titans last week, they couldn’t complete it, an incomplete team.
Before we pin too much on the injuries, understand the Packers’ defense was battered too, missing five starters. Stafford was able to take advantage, helped by his receivers’ nifty sideline footwork. Jones was terrific, with 205 yards and two touchdowns, and if you’re inclined to focus on the positives, that’s where you start. The Lions actually outgained the Packers (418-324), but couldn’t stop Rodgers at the start and couldn’t stop big back Eddie Lacy at the end.
Green Bay scored on its first six possessions (not counting a short drive at the end of the half), and it was staggering how easy it looked. Rodgers reportedly told offensive lineman T.J. Lang “I’m back” after one touchdown, although the quarterback downplayed the redemption talk. His rough stretch dated to last season — 14 games without a passer rating above 100 — but he was at 129.3 Sunday.
“I’ve always felt like myself out there,” Rodgers said. “(Lang) might have misunderstood what I was saying and gave the edited version. But it’s good to get in a rhythm like that.”
Rodgers did what he does, which logical people knew he still could do. With two prolific quarterbacks going against two weakened defenses, it’s no surprise the score mounted. The Lions even lost another player, safety Tavon Wilson, with a neck injury in the game.
This is where their depth will be severely tested. Young end Kerry Hyder collected another sack, his fourth, but others must rise too.
The Lions didn’t foolishly tout the virtues of the comeback, recognizing they must be better, and based on the second half, should have been better. But they weren’t backing down either. Several lamented a pass-interference call on Nevin Lawson that resulted in a 66-yard penalty to the 2, setting up the Packers’ third touchdown.
Lawson got slightly tangled with Trevor Davis but disagreed with the call, as did Caldwell. Slay termed it “terrible.” Safety Glover Quin struck a reflective tone, knowing the Lions had a chance, if only they’d given themselves a chance.
“We just gotta do a better job coming out faster, not letting them get the momentum,” Quin said. “Obviously, we’ve seen we can stop (Rodgers). It’s not like it’s impossible. If we make the plays we’re supposed to make, we’re a good defense. It’s not like we need to invent the wheel and change everything.”
If this is who the Lions will be for a while, missing defensive stars, they’ll have to be more inventive and considerably more aggressive. In one game, in two distinct halves, we saw how the impossible can turn possible, and how much they still have to overcome.