Lions-Packers shaping up as a high-octane shootout

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Sunday's matchup between the Lions and Packers matches up two of the more potent passing attacks in the league.

With the passing combinations of Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson and Detroit's Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson, it could be viewed as an offensive coordinator's dream — or a defensive coordinator's nightmare.

Each respective offense is viewed as the stronger unit, which could lead to a high-scoring offensive display, putting a premium on executing with the ball, but also getting a key stop on the defensive side.

"I do think you have to score on them to win," Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. "If you're playing good, solid defense, you know that they're going to get some points; they have too many weapons and they're going to be able to move the ball into scoring position. But I certainly like the matchup. I think it should be a lot of fun."

In the last 14 meetings, dating to 2007, the Packers have scored more than 20 points in 12 of the matchups with the Lions. Among the two outliers was the Lions' 40-10 domination last season, a game that Rodgers missed.

In two games this season, Rodgers has found a connection with Nelson, who has league highs of 18 catches and 292 yards. Handling Nelson and preventing him and Rodgers from getting into a rhythm is one of the keys, according to Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin.

"(Nelson) is an outstanding player. You have to know where he is," Austin said. "Last year, when we were in Baltimore, they had those three guys (Nelson, Randall Cobb and James Jones) and we had to know where he was, and he hit us for a big play.

"So, we know about him and we know why he gets targeted. He catches the ball, he has run-after-catch ability and he can take a small one and make it a big one."

The Packers' passing combination will be the biggest challenge for the Lions, who rank ninth in passing defense. The defense wasn't tested much in the opener against the Giants and didn't give up many big plays last week against the Panthers. But with some injuries in recent weeks, the secondary depth will be tested, with free agent Danny Gorrer being added to the mix this week.

But with Don Carey (hamstring) likely to return and James Ihedigbo (neck) on the mend, there could be some additional experienced players in the secondary.

Another area of emphasis is getting a consistent pass rush to Rodgers so that he doesn't get comfortable in the pocket and have as much time to throw. Cornerbacks Darius Slay and Rashean Mathis have been solid in coverage in the first two games, so the pass rush has had time to create some pressure on the quarterback.

"I think the thing we're doing a good job of secondary wise. We're giving up some plays in front of us. We don't want the ball to go over our head," Austin said. "And if the ball doesn't go over our head, we have a chance to rally, tackle and then go play good defense and hold them out of the end zone — and that's really what our charge is.

"As long as we don't give up big play touchdowns, we should have an opportunity to win."

Lions in attack mode

The Packers face a similar dilemma in guarding the Lions' receivers. With Stafford leading the passing attack, the Lions are ranked fourth in passing offense (297 yards), but questions still linger, after a 35-point outburst in the opener but only seven points against the Panthers, a much tougher defense.

That puts an emphasis on executing on offense and matching the Packers' scoring output. It's a tall order to produce as much as the Packers have in the last three seasons of winning the NFC North, but the Lions offense is looking to achieve that same success.

"(We're) not envious, but listen, we're working on getting there," offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said. "We certainly have a goal to be a highly efficient, high-scoring offense."

Though the Lions' passing game has shined, the running game is lagging behind, ranking 28th with 73 yards per game. That disparity will need to be balanced in order to keep the Packers defense honest.

"I don't think there's any question that we're going to continue to improve in that area — we have to. I mean, it's a must," Caldwell said.

The Lions also may have an advantage at tight end, where the Packers are without Jermichael Finley, but rookie Eric Ebron, who had his first catches against the Panthers, might be able to make some headway.

"He caught the one flat route that he turned up and I was right there on the sideline and it was pretty impressive watching him run," Lombardi said. "You get a little flash of what he can do and then the corner route that he ran he caught in the red zone got tipped and you can see him concentrate and catch it.

"It was good to see him get some touches and you can see some of the potential that we're excited about with him."