November moves along and now the contenders separate from the rest of the pack in the NFL. It’s also no coincidence that now the division games start coming along to clear up the NFC North division race as well. The Packers start their remaining five divisional games this week with a trip to Ford Field to face the Detroit Lions. Winning this week will put the Packers in the driver’s to win the division and assure their playoff hopes. The problem facing the Packers is that many of the stars of the team are not going to be there this week and so they are going to find a way to win with second and third string players. It’s not impossible, but this game would be much easier for the Pack if Clay Matthews and Bryan Bulaga were playing.
Here are five keys to overcoming these losses and finding victory for the Packers:
1. Play "small ball" on offense. This may borrow a bit too much from baseball terminology, but this week it fits. The Lions are weak in their back seven, with one aging middle linebacker (Stephen Tulloch), as the only player of note. After that the Lions are as beat up, and frankly under manned, as the Packers are at OLB. Mix this with the fact that the Packers have some serious questions along the offensive line with the loss of Bulaga and a different game plan might be in order then the average week for the Packers.
This game plan is one to emphasize running the football and short passes. The Packers haven’t been great at running the football, but the emergence of James Starks should help. Even if Starks can’t get the running game going, short passes, slants, and screens to the talented Packer receivers should help find the right tempo on offense and allow the Packers to move the ball consistently on the Lions.
The biggest part of this key is to stay patient and avoid the temptation to always hit the homerun. This Lions secondary is prone to give that up, especially with the injuries they have sustained in the secondary, but their defensive line can take advantage of this tendency. The Seahawk game showed what happens when too much of the play calling is decided to deep passes. Aaron Rodgers gets hit too often and the offense struggles to find its way. Keep with the small stuff and chipping away at their defense….eventually the big play will come and then it will break the back of the defense.
2. Manufacture a blitz. Let’s face it, the outside linebackers are second rate at best this week. Frank Zombo and Erik Walden are good enough when playing opposite of Clay Matthews, but without him it may get a bit dicey on Sunday. They are going to need help. It may also be a big much to ask that this help come from the inside alone. The Lions have a pretty good combination along the inside of their offensive line. Thus, it’s going to take some creative blitzing in order to bring the pass rush needed to gum up a potentially dynamic Lions offense. Lots of change up on which four are coming, corner blitzes, and even bringing five are going to be needed. This is also where Dezman Moses needs to shine. He’s the only one of this group that has shown and ability to bring consistent pressure.
3. Keep the play in front of you. The Lions are a team with discipline problems. They commit stupid penalties, drop passes, and make poor decisions with the football. As a result it’s better to play a little soft and wait for them to make a mistake. A game plan for undisciplined teams may result in being gashed for yards, but it should be enough to win the game. This does mean that the offense needs to do its part in scoring points and the defense needs to stay focused and patient…meaning no stupid penalties and most important…tackle. Big plays will kill the Packers this week, so stay deep, don’t let the Lion skill players pass you by, and make sure as soon as their hands get on the ball they find their way to the ground. If the Packers can keep tackling and keep forcing the Lions to string play after play, an opportunity will arise in time.
4. Stay true in the red zone. The Packers are a pretty good red zone team. On offense they tend to score touchdowns. On defense they tend to limit other teams to field goals, if not stop them completely. It will drive fans crazy nine times out of ten, but it will also win football games…so long as each side of the ball keeps up with the other. As stated above, the Lions have been an undisciplined team this year, so this style of play can work for victory…especially when the defense is so depleted at the moment.
5. Win on the outside. The Packer receivers are healthier than they have been in nearly a month; right now only missing Greg Jennings. There is more than enough talent here to get open and make plays against the Lions secondary. Aaron Rodgers is not always going to have much time so getting separation is going to be critical. Jordy Nelson, James Jones, and Randall Cobb are going to need to have a big day and help carry this team.
With the Bears losing last week and having an extremely tough game this coming week, there is no better time to make some noise in the division. That means winning Sunday’s game and continue getting healthy as the Packer make their playoff push. If the Packers can stick to these five keys then they should be able to make that happen and all but extinguish the Lions’ chances of the postseason this year.