Wojo: This Lions defense shouldn't fear Rodgers

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — This used to be the Lions’ most frightful trip of the year. Whether they had high hopes or nope, they’d go to Green Bay and get booted by ghosts and greats.

The Packers have long been the Lions’ barometer and barrier, the primary reason Detroit hasn’t won a division title in 26 years. That has shifted of late, with the Lions winning four straight partly because Aaron Rodgers was injured. Now, in a huge Monday night showcase in Lambeau Field, we get to see whether the shift is real, and the Lions are real.

At the risk of looking like a buffoon, I’ll go ahead and suggest the Lions (2-1-1) are as legitimately equipped to compete with the Packers (4-1) and the rest of the NFC North as they’ve been in years. Rodgers is 35 and not as prolific (yet) in new head coach Matt LaFleur’s offense. Matthew Stafford is off to one of his better starts, back to throwing deep balls to dangerous receivers.

Aaron Rodgers

But if there’s a significant difference, it’s with the Lions’ defense, put together by Matt Patricia and coordinated by Paul Pasqualoni. We’re only 20 games into the Patricia regime, way too early for any anointment. But after a rough first season here, he’s showing signs his defense can travel — maybe all the way from New England to Detroit.

The Lions have alerted the NFL with their quarterback-antidote knack. From the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes to the Chargers’ Philip Rivers to the Eagles’ Carson Wentz, the Lions have used a formula that forces quarterbacks to work harder and drive longer to score. They give up yards and don’t blitz much, but they’re defending the pass as well as anybody in the league.

‘Third down, money down’

Go ahead and throw, they say. Instead of cowering, they’re covering. Detroit has held opposing quarterbacks to the third-lowest completion percentage (55.4) and the lowest on third downs.

“Third down, money down,” said Darius Slay, the effervescent star cornerback. “You gotta get off the field, that’s how you make your money. First and second down, you do your job, but third down, money down.”

The interesting part is, the Lions do it without committing much personnel to rushing the quarterback. They blitz 11 percent of the time, lowest in the league, generally rush only 3-4 guys and trust their secondary to play sticky man-to-man. Now you see why GM Bob Quinn paid so much for versatile cornerback Justin Coleman, who’s fourth in the league in passes defended, with the Lions fifth overall.

The trade-off: The Lions rank near the bottom in yards allowed and sacks, but with their defensive line, that could change at any moment. Rodgers has been sacked 10 times and ranks 22nd in passer rating. He seems less willing to take risks (one interception) and will be without star receiver Davante Adams (toe). The Packers do have a blossoming run game with third-year back Aaron Jones, doubling the Aaron factor.

We can dissect Rodgers’ game any way we wish, but he did lead the Packers to a 34-24 victory in Dallas last Sunday, and historically he’s the Lions’ bogeyman, just as Brett Favre was for years. Before the Lions won three of the past four meetings in Lambeau, Green Bay had won 20 straight in Wisconsin. From 2005-13, the Packers won 15 of 16 against Detroit no matter where they played.

I don’t really need to recount all of it, do I? OK, quickly. Rodgers is 13-5 against the Lions, and while Detroit has won the past four meetings, Rodgers missed two games and barely played in another. The one he finished, he threw for 442 yards in a 31-23 Lions victory. And lest your nightmares fail to remind you, Rodgers threw one of the all-time memorable Hail Marys in 2015 to beat the Lions 27-23 in Ford Field.

That doesn’t matter now, unless you believe in mystical measures. Most pundits believe in Rodgers’ measures, and according to NFL Pick Watch, 92 percent of analysts are predicting a Green Bay victory. The Lions are four-point underdogs, and certainly aren’t downgrading Rodgers’ ability to light it up.

“To be a quarterback in this league, I think you gotta be elite, but some are a different level of elite,” Slay said. “Definitely this one. Very very very very very very very elite. But we’re always up for the challenge.”

Rodgers is especially dangerous when he escapes the pocket, although Slay doesn’t draw a distinction.

“He’s dangerous when they put the ball down and say ‘hike,’” Slay said. “It doesn’t matter. When he trots out there on the field, oh, it’s go time.”

Slay catches a slight break with Green Bay missing Adams, who had 140 yards receiving in the first meeting last season. But the Lions also have a banged-up defensive line, with Da‘Shawn Hand out and A’Shawn Robinson questionable, and even Slay is working through a hamstring injury.

This is where the Lions must prove they’re authentic, in less-than-optimal conditions in Green Bay, where it’s forecast to be 36 degrees. They should be better-equipped because they have a serviceable running game with Kerryon Johnson and big tight ends. Mostly, they’re better-equipped because Patricia’s defense has ways of frustrating elite quarterbacks.

Blueprints of success

After New England beat the Rams 13-3 in the Super Bowl last year, Bill Belichick credited Patricia for the blueprint to slow Los Angeles quarterback Jared Goff. The Lions lost to the Rams 30-16 but held Goff to 207 yards and the third-lowest passer rating of his career.

After the Colts beat the Chiefs last week, Mahomes also mentioned the effects of the Lions’ defense, which held him without a passing touchdown the week before. The Packers are well aware of the Lions’ tendencies, which probably means the defense will have to sprinkle in a few more wrinkles.

“The thing they do such a great job of is, they present so many different looks, and it really truly is a challenge not knowing what you’re going to get on each and every play,” LaFleur said. “I’ve always had a lot of respect for Matt Patricia … just all the different looks out of the same personnel groupings, out of multiple personnel groupings — they can do a lot.”

The Lions can do a lot to alter narratives and shift perceptions, and even take over first place with a victory. Rodgers is mostly healthy and Green Bay has reemerged as the division favorite after missing the playoffs the past two seasons. It’s a great early test for the Lions, and it’s time to start grading them on a tougher scale.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

Lions at Packers

Kickoff: 8:15 Monday, Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wis.

TV/radio: ESPN/760

Records: Lions 2-1-1, Packers 4-1

Line: Packers by 3