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Special teams gaffes, turnovers doom Packers in ugly 31-23 loss to Lions

Two Aaron Rodgers fumbles. Five Mason Crosby missed kicks. A (questionable) turnover on a punt return. It was just too much to overcome.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Detroit Lions
Two Aaron Rodgers fumbles in the first half set the Lions up with short fields.
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

When the Packers looked up at the scoreboard with the seconds ticking down at the end of the first half, it showed Lions 24 Packers 0. Yet Mike McCarthy’s team out-gained the Lions 201-160, ran more plays, were more efficient, and had the ball longer. Three turnovers, including two sloppy fumbles from Aaron Rodgers turned into 17 Lions points and three Mason Crosby misses were the difference in a game that quickly turned into a Murphy’s Law game.

Even once the offense started to find its feet in the second half, the deficit overwhelmed them and the defense needed just one or two more stops than it ultimately managed. In the end, a 31-23 loss hung on the turnovers and special teams problems on a day that is a microcosm for the Packers season to this point: penalties and bad execution prevents a talented team from reaching its potential.

A penalty took a touchdown off the board on the Lions opening drive, only to see Detroit regain the ball on a dubious call that Kevin King touched the ball on a punt return, setting up the Lions for a one-yard touchdown.

But Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, down two of their top three receivers, responded. A DPI call and 17-yard dig route to Equanimeous St. Brown offered Green Bay some momentum, but the drive stalled, leading to a Crosby field goal attempt.

Miss. This was the theme of Crosby’s day.

Four plays later, the Lions found the end zone again after Josh Jackson misplayed a sideline throw to Kenny Golladay that become a 60-yard catch and run instead of what looked like a possible interception.

On the ensuing possession, Rodgers, who looked off most of the first half, lazily rolled right and had the ball stripped from behind. Luckily for Green Bay, the Lions managed just a field goal, but the deficit was already 17-0 and nothing that could go right for this team had gone right.

Mike Pettine got the defense going after that field goal, but the offense didn’t follow suit. Rodgers and the offense missed two more field goals, points that could have at least made the game interesting. And after the second straight punt for the Lions, the offense got the ball back with 1:30 left and plenty of time to go put points on the board. Another fumble from Rodgers led to a Lions touchdown and the game appeared over at that point.

But McCarthy handed the game over to Rodgers in the second half and the two-time MVP found his form.

On the first drive, Rodgers looked more decisive and more accurate on an 11-play 75-yard touchdown drive. This was the drive QB1 had been asking for. Multiple big plays to Adams and Graham including a key fourth down propelled the Packers first successful scoring drives and the two-point conversion cut the deficit to 24-8.

A borderline taunting call on rookie cornerback Tony Brown extended a Lions drive to set up a Matt Prater field goal, but there must have been a draft at Ford Field Sunday because Prater shanked the kick.

Rodgers got rolling again with quick passes and found rookie Marqueze Valdes-Scantling on a handful of throws to the middle of the field. On a day when quarterback and receiver were often not on the same page, QB1 seemed to build something with MVS, who had his second touchdown of the day overturned despite a great play. Rodgers found Lance Kendricks for the one-yard score immediately following the review, but the two-point conversion failed, making the game 24-14.

That third-quarter spirt helped the aesthetics of the game, but the Lions marched the ball right back down the Packers’ throats, extending the lead to 31-14 and although the game wasn’t totally out of reach, it sure felt that way.

Another successful drive from the Packers offense featured better balance, with solid running from Jamaal Williams and big plays from Adams and EQ, ending in a beautiful out route from Adams on Darius Slay for the touchdown. But Mason Crosby missed the PAT, to make him a -10 in a game the Packers trailed by 11 at the time.

Ultimately, the Packers offense couldn’t get those critical plays when they needed them on offense or defense. A crucial possession after a Lions punt with under five minutes left ended in a 56-yard Mason Crosby missed field goal, but was set up by poor execution and penalties. The kick would have made it an eight point game, but a 56-yard field goal try isn’t what any good offense should want.

In the end, the Packers outgained the Lions 521-265, out-possessed the ball, out-rushed them and out-threw them. Green Bay was the more efficient offense on a per-play basis, more first downs and more sacks. But 11 penalties for 107 yards and three turnovers, to go along with the special teams mistakes reveal a team playing too much undisciplined football.

Given the slow starts the Packers have endured over the last few years, it’s fair to believe this team can right the ship and move forward. They were, after all, without Randall Cobb and Geronimo Allison. Rodgers still clearly isn’t right physically and didn’t have any reps to get on the same page with these rookie receivers.

Once he found some rhythm with them in the second half, the offense got into gear. Rodgers finished with 442 yards and three touchdowns, the most yards ever in a regular season loss. Valdes-Scantling caught seven balls for 68 yards and a score, while fellow rookie St. Brown posted three catches for 89 yards. And despite facing All-Pro Darius Slay, Adams put up a monster nine-catch 140-yard day with a score of his own. This was the offense Rodgers was looking for, but again they settled for field goals (they missed) too often.

If this was a Murphy’s Law game, the blame for these slows starts has to fall in the lap of head coach Mike McCarthy and there’s a Murphy whose word is now law in Green Bay. The Packers fell behind 10-0 to the Bears, 14-0 to Washington and 24-0 to the Lions thanks to an offense that looks outdated in the face of tremendous innovation around the league. They’re running a 2011 offense in a 2018 league, and in NFL years, that’s about 20 years behind.

Slow starts, both in seasons and in games, have plagued this team going back to 2015 and if not for the Run The Table stretch in 2016, the questions about McCarthy’s job status may have been much louder much sooner. This type of effort, preparation and creativity (or lack thereof) simply isn’t acceptable for a team expecting to compete for a championship every year.

If they don’t fix it in a hurry, the questions about McCarthy’s relationship with Rodgers will gave way to potential replacements, talk of Lincoln Riley and John DeFelippo. We’ve seen this team start slowly and wind up making a deep playoff run. This Packers team can still do that. After an offseason of building the deepest, most talented team in several years, there are no longer any excuses not to for McCarthy. As the weather turns colder, his seat will only grow warmer if this team doesn’t start looking championship caliber in a hurry.