View from the other side: Lions vs. Packers
Lions at Packers
►Kickoff: 8:15 Monday, Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wis.
►Records: Lions 2-1-1, Packers 4-1
►Line: Packers by 3
Bill Huber of Sports Illustrated, who has covered the Packers since 2008, breaks down Green Bay for The Detroit News, answering five questions heading into Monday night’s game. You can follow him on Twitter @BillHuberSI.
View from the other side
►Question: Aaron Jones led the NFL in yards per carry last season and is coming off a huge outing against Dallas last week, but he's been held to or under 3.0 yards per carry in three of five games this season, including two of the past three. Was there a common theme in why those opponents were able to limit Jones?
►Huber: It was the newness factor. Coach Matt LaFleur installed a zone-blocking scheme but Jones missed half of training camp with a hamstring injury and didn’t get a single preseason rep with the offensive line. In fact, the line only played in one preseason game. That delayed the entire process of building the running game – an obvious problem when LaFleur’s offense in general is predicated on establishing the run. In the long run, I think the running game should continue to be a strength. Three of the five starters up front – tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga and center Corey Linsley – are significantly above-average players, and rookie left guard Elgton Jenkins should only get better with more snaps. And Jones, with his one-cut-and-go style, is a natural.
►Question: Like the Lions, the Packers installed a new offense this season. What's been some of the more noticeable changes from the previous scheme?
►Huber: So much of the old offense under Mike McCarthy was based on quarterback Aaron Rodgers creating things on his own. There was nothing wrong with that philosophy when Rodgers was surrounded by a premier group of receivers. Eventually, someone would get open and Rodgers would deliver a strike. He hasn’t had that group for a few years, though, and that made the entire offense bog down into an all-or-nothing slog. The talent isn’t any better now but LaFleur is giving Rodgers some easier options in the passing game. There’s been a lot less of Rodgers moving around the pocket for 5 seconds before throwing the ball to the bench. Plus, running the football really is a priority. As everyone knows, if you can run the football, then you can dial up play-action passes.
►Question: What's had a bigger impact on the Packers' defensive success this season, the upgrades at safety or the upgrades at edge rusher?
►Huber: Edge rusher. I was a skeptic about the signings of outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith. They got great-player money even though they had never been great players. Za’Darius Smith was only a part-time starter in Baltimore last year, when he had a career-high 8.5 sacks. Preston Smith had only four sacks last season while opposite perennial Pro Bowler Ryan Kerrigan. But they’ve been phenomenal in being monumental upgrades over Clay Matthews and Nick Perry. They’re both in the top six in the league in sacks, and the pressure has been relentless. The Packers had a lot of sacks last year but the quarterback often had enough time to read the paper, grab a snack and check his portfolio. Not this year. The Packers had three sacks and 19 quarterback pressures last week at Dallas; Dak Prescott had only been sacked three times and pressured 34 times in the first four games. When you combine a strong pass rush with a secondary that can get the football, you get what the Packers have accomplished the first five weeks.
►Question: The receivers didn't do much against the Cowboys with Davante Adams sidelined. While he heals up, can the Packers continue to be successful with that kind of production from the receiving corps?
►Huber: That’s the story for this game. The Cowboys smothered Green Bay’s receivers last week, with Rodgers completing just 4-of-12 passes to that group, but Jones ran wild. If I’m Matt Patricia, I’d put an extra man in the box to stop Aaron Jones and dare Rodgers to win with his receivers. Marquez Valdes-Scantling was the final pick of the fifth round in 2018. Everybody else – Geronimo Allison, Jake Kumerow, Allen Lazard and Darrius Shepherd – went undrafted. That’s not exactly an ideal scenario considering the Lions’ cornerback group of Darius Slay, Justin Coleman and Rashaan Melvin have been pretty darned good. Rodgers is going to need protection to buy that group some time to get open.
►Question: The Packers win this game if?
►Huber: They make enough big plays. When Green Bay has the ball, I’m not sure there’s enough firepower on offense to methodically move the ball for 10- or 12-play scoring drives if the Lions are able to take away Jones. They’re going to need some chunk plays, whether it’s Valdes-Scantling getting behind everybody or Jones making defenders miss to get in the open field. Defensively, the success has been built almost fully on big plays. The run defense has been awful but the pass rush has been great and the coverage generally has been pretty darned good. On special teams, Green Bay’s kickoff coverage has been awful. It’s going to be cold, so Mason Crosby won’t be able to simply kick the ball out of the end zone every time. That puts the pressure on the coverage unit to thwart Jamal Agnew.
Packers to watch
►Aaron Rodgers, QB: A knee injury that limited Rodgers in practice all week won’t sideline him for Monday’s game. The NFL’s all-time career passer rating leader has led the Packers to a 4-1 start under new head coach Matt LaFleur. Rodgers has thrown for 1,307 yards and six touchdowns; the Lions have given up 1,123 passing yards in four games. Although the Lions have swept the Packers the past two seasons, Rodgers has won seven of nine starts against Detroit at Lambeau. (The Lions beat the Packers 31-0 on Dec. 30, 2018 with DeShone Kizer at the helm after Rodgers left the game early.)
►Aaron Jones, RB: Jones ranks 18th in the NFL in rushing yards with 302, but he’s No. 1 in rushing touchdowns with eight – four were scored in Week 5 against the Cowboys. Jones has scored at least once the last four games and is averaging 3.9 yards a carry on the season. Fellow back Jamaal Williams is expected to play after clearing concussion protocol, though Jones’ production has outpaced Williams’ so far.
►Rashan Gary, LB: The first-round pick from Michigan has been improving, coach Matt LaFleur said this week. Gary has recorded eight tackles so far, and in a Week 3 win over Denver, he had a fumble recovery and a sack. “It takes those rushers usually some time before they really come into their own and reach their full potential,” LaFleur said of Gary.
Julie Walker Altesleben contributed to this report.