Ending The Bye Week Blues

It's been a rough fortnight for me, Packer fans.  Not only did Green Bay lose round one of FavreFest 2009 (while watching Jared Allen and his lame-unless-he-was-on-your-team stirring sack celebration), but they headed into the bye week at 2-2, re-signed an old favorite who may or may not be ready to play, and draw a feisty Detroit Lions team that looks like it's charging back towards middle-of-the-pack status.

So there's that whole deal.  Combine that with the fact that the Milwaukee Bucks are wrapping up their preseason (and Brandon Jennings looks even less ready than we thought he would), the World Series is shaping up to be a showdown between the Dodgers and Yankees (after yet another disappointing Brewers campaign), and hockey is less important to me than the price of high heels in Sri Lanka, and you can see that it's a tough time for a Wisconsin-native sports fan.  Even my fantasy teams are imploding (1-4 and 2-3 in the leagues that matter).

It's tough to lose your last game before a bye week.  It gives you an awful taste in your mouth about your chances afterwards.  But then I remember that the Packers are playing the Lions at Lambeau this week.  That makes me feel slightly better.

DET rushing vs. GB defense: Every time I think of the Detroit running backs, I think of Kevin Smith, and every time I think of Kevin Smith, I think of Clerks 2, and every time I think of Clerks 2, I think of the scene where Randal and Elias debate which trilogy was better: Lord of the Rings or Star Wars (definitely NSFW).  Specifically, I think of the part where Randal reenacts the LOTR movies by simply...walking. 

That scene is oddly parallel to the story of Detroit's run game.  Detroit's top 4 running backs (Smith, Maurice Morris, Aaron Brown, and Jerome Felton) are averaging less than 3.6 yards per carry.  Not that we're used to dominant running performances around these parts, but Kevin Smith and his 3.1 average (287 yards on 94 carries) does not strike fear into opposing defenses. 

It's not even that Kevin Smith is a below-average running back.  He has good size (6'1", 217), and excellent speed and agility.  He regularly breaks off 10+ yard runs, and is even a decent pass catcher (19 receptions for 143 yards).  But his line is giving him no help. 

Jeff Backus (6'5", 305) and Gosder Cherilus (6'7", 325) are capable bookends (especially Cherilus, who is a nasty run blocker), but the interior linemen, Daniel Loper (6'6", 320), Dominic Raiola (6'1", 295), and Stephen Peterman (6'4", 323) simply aren't able to move defenders and open running lanes.  Smith is the type of running back that needs space to gain momentum and use his second gear, but he can't get started because he's constantly running into brick walls.

Green Bay has fared well this season against opposing running backs.  Besides Cedric Benson (who has looked every bit like the player Chicago wanted him to be, including breaking Baltimore's streak of 39 games without allowing 100+ rushing yards to a single player), the Packers have effectively bottled up opposing running backs.  As a team, Green Bay is only allowing 3.5 yards per attempt, in no small part because of the "Big Okie" formation that puts 5 linebackers on the field, allowing effective pursuit to the ball, stringing plays out to the sideline, and cutting off gaps.  Brandon Chillar is a surprise tackling leader this season (26 on the year), but 7 other players in the front seven have at least 11 tackles. 

Advantage: Green Bay.  As a team, the Packers do an excellent job of closing running lanes, while Detroit does not do a good enough job at opening them up.

DET passing vs. GB defense: When I was a kid, 'Transformers' was awesome.  When Michael Bay tried to turn it into a summer flick, it made me want to further repress my childhood so that I'd have no memory of ever enjoying the battle of Autobots vs. Decepticons.  But there's still one guy that makes me glad to have watched that cartoon: Calvin "Megatron" Johnson.

Whoa, nelly.  Megatron is a beast.  I know I gushed about him last year, but I don't care.  The 6'5", 236 lb. Georgia Tech product managed to put up 1331 yards and 12 touchdowns on the putrid 2008 Lions squad.  He is big, fast, strong, has great hands, and can make any catch at any time.  He has been limited in the last two weeks because of injury, but coach Jim Schwartz says that it isn't serious and he is currently listed as probable.

After Johnson is where the problems start.  Bryant Johnson is a first round pick who never lived up to his promise.  Dennis Northcutt is a Jacksonville castoff, which is saying something.  Derrick Williams has some promise, but is buried on the depth chart.  Yamon Figurs is a recent addition, but will likely focus on return duties.  Will Heller is a career backup at TE, and first-rounder Brandon Pettigrew was injured in training camp and is still trying to figure out his role.

Behind center, Detroit went all-in on Matthew Stafford, which I thought was a terrible decision back in April.  Stafford hasn't looked awful, but he certainly hasn't outplayed fellow rookie Mark Sanchez (who is on a much better team).  Stafford has a big arm (894 yards, 3 TDs), but merely average accuracy (56.8% completion) and questionable decision-making (6 INTs, 65.6 QB rating).  Basically, I didn't think that Detroit should have spent first-overall money on a guy who may or may not work out at the pro level, but the jury is still out on him.

Ever since dislocating his kneecap against Chicago, however, the Matthew Stafford debate is moot for the time-being.  With Stafford likely sidelined another week, Daunte Culpepper takes the reigns again.  And you know what that means:

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I've got these tiny hands...

While we remember his time with Minnesota in the earlier parts of the 2000's, Culpepper has never been the same since his 2006 knee injury.  He's bounced around a bit before settling in Detroit as a stop-gap QB, but he's still a capable passer.  He still has a big arm, decent accuracy, and can run a huddle effectively.  As weird as it seems, one of Daunte Culpepper's biggest weaknesses is the size of his hands.  For a few years, Culpepper was averaging over a fumble per game.  He has compensated for his tiny mitts by employing an unconventional throwing motion, but when he tries to run or gets hit in the pocket, he is prone to losing control of the ball. 

And Culpepper has been hit a lot lately.  Seven sacks against the Steelers is downright Rodgers-esque.  Even before that, though, the Lions gave up 10 sacks in 4 games, giving them 17 total for the season.  The Lions simply cannot protect their quarterback, something we know all about.  Backus is a decent blind-side protector, and Raiola has been around long enough to make good adjustments on the line, but Cherilus is still too raw, the interior linemen are too weak, and the backs do not block well. 

Green Bay's 3-4 defense was supposed to be the kind that got after the quarterback and forced turnovers.  While the +7 ratio fulfills the second part, the sacks simply haven't been there.  Through four games, the Packers have five sacks.  Two came against Jay Cutler, and two against Marc BulgerBrett Favre and his porous offensive line wasn't even touched on Monday night. 

The decision to change Aaron Kampman into a pass-rushing OLB was a head-scratcher during the offseason, and it's become downright dumbfounding in October.  On the play where Favre had over 7 seconds to find a receiver, Kampman wasn't shut down by a Vikings lineman.  He was in zone coverage, someplace he has been found all too often.  Dom Capers' blitz-happy defense took a turn for the conservative when Atari Bigby went down in Week 1, so his return is much anticipated.  The lack of pass rush has severely hampered the production of the defensive backfield.  Charles Woodson, Nick Collins, Al Harris, and Tramon Williams are still ball-hawks.  As long as they get opportunities from the front seven, they will break up more than a few passes. 

Advantage: Push.  While Green Bay has the clear advantage on paper, I want to see more results before I declare them to have any sort of edge.

GB rushing vs. DET defense: Detroit's run defense was one of the many weak points in 2008.  Thus far in 2009, it hasn't been fixed.  The Lions give up 4.9 yards per attempt on the ground.  That includes performances of 142 yards by Mike Bell, 92 yards by Adrian Peterson, 121 yards by Matt Forte, and 77 yards by Rashard Mendenhall.  Jim Schwartz has tried to fix the problem by shuffling personnel, but results are mixed.  LB Ernie Sims was benched last week for rookie DeAndre Levy, DT Chuck Darby was waived to make room on the field for rookie Sammie Lee Hill, and Grady Jackson has seen more and more snaps. 

It doesn't help that the Lions are starting Packer castoff Jason Hunter at LDE with the 240 lb. Julian Peterson playing both at LOLB and at the other DE spot.  Aside from Larry Foote, the Lions don't have anyone that can really shoot gaps and take on lead blockers.  Ernie Sims was supposed to be that guy, but he's currently in the dog house.  Rookie safety Louis Delmas is a big hitter, but he's no Troy Polamalu just yet.  The only run-stopper they have is Grady Jackson, who is getting up there in years.

Luckily for Detroit, Green Bay doesn't seem that interested in running the ball.  I did a little post last week exploring where the Green Bay rushing attack has gone.  As it turns out, it really hasn't gone anywhere, it's just been ignored.  The team averages a shade under 100 yards per game, which is somewhat respectable, but they haven't been able to sustain long drives by picking up yards on the ground.  2007 Ryan Grant is still MIA, and DeShawn Wynn has been downright awful.  Brandon Jackson is coming back from injury, which might help, but he's best suited to a 3rd down back role anyway.

Up front, Green Bay's injury problems and lack of depth have exposed the team in pass protection, but also showed below-average run blocking.  With Chad Clifton returning from injury, Daryn Colledge can resume his normal role at LG, putting Jason Spitz back at C and Scott Wells on the bench.  From here, the Packers have a better shot of opening running lanes, especially on the right side (where Allen Barbre performs well).

Advantage: Push.  This matchup is like the stoppable force against the movable object.  If Green Bay calls an even offensive game, they might have an advantage, but I don't see any at this point.

GB passing vs. DET defense: Quarterbacks like playing Detroit.  Against the Motor City Kitties, NFL passers have put up 15 scores against only 3 INTs while amassing a 73.3% completion rating.  While the Lions have had middling success getting to the quarterback (10 sacks in 2009), their highest individual total is 2.0 (Jason Hunter).  There is no designated pass rusher, unless you count Julian Peterson, who has been a failure as a DE on passing downs.  Whether the sacks have been from good downfield coverage, poor blocking by opponents, or a schematic advantage, one thing is for sure: they aren't blitzing very much (bottom third in NFL).

The defensive backfield has been a sore point in Detroit.  Anthony Henry has performed well as the #1 corner, but Will James and Philip Buchanon have been switching in and out of the starting lineup.  Rookie Louis Delmas is best used in run support, but he is capable in pass coverage.  The Lions split time at the other safety between Ko Simpson and former fan favorite Marquand Manuel.

Passing offense has been, for Green Bay, one of the lone bright spots in a disappointing start.  Aaron Rodgers has put up big numbers behind an awful offensive line, showing accuracy and poise despite getting sacked 20 times in 4 games and having to run out of the pocket on numerous occasions.  The receivers have been somewhat underwhelming, amassing 10 of the team's 14 drops.  Greg Jennings has been unusually quiet in the first quarter of 2009, and has gone on record to say that he thinks that the team needs to get back to the short-passing game that allowed he and the other WRs to create yards after the catch.  Hear, hear, Greg. 

Advantage: Green Bay.  If Rodgers can get hit 8 times and still throw for over 300 yards, he will get good looks against Detroit.

Preliminary verdict: Coming off a bye, Green Bay seems to have changed a bit as a team.  Mark Tauscher has been re-signed.  Brandon Jackson, Jeremy Thompson, Chad Clifton, and possibly Atari Bigby should be returning from injury.  The offensive line should get back to the group that started the season, and the defense should get back to the blitzing that gave us all high expectations for 2009.  Perhaps this is the week where we see the 2009 preseason team in action instead of the poor impersonation we've watched for the last month.

I can't think of how the timing could be better than hosting Detroit.  Unless it was Oakland, or Kansas City, or the Browns, or even the struggling Cowboys.  See, Lions fans?  Your team has improved a lot!

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