The Green Bay Packers are not a team that ‘has nothing to play for’. I’d say quite the opposite. Aaron Rodgers has become inaccurate and has timing issues with inexperienced receivers, defensive injuries have given an opportunity to roster fringe players, and stringing together some wins at the end of the season can spark some momentum and positivity going into the next season. Whereas losing out instead can have a negative impact on player and fan morale. As a free agent player, would you want to play for the Panthers, losers of their last 7 (holy cow) and looking increasingly dysfunctional, or Green Bay, potential winners of their last 2 and finally starting to gel?
With that outlook in mind, let’s use some game film to go over how Green Bay can have success against the Detroit Lions in their final game of the 2018 season.
In their last matchup, Green Bay had the opportunity to move the ball at will against Detroit. Rodgers still wasn’t his typical elite self; he missed easy completions and had a number of throwaways — including an intentional grounding on third down. But despite four missed field goals, the Green Bay offense put up 23 points on the day. What allowed Rodgers to toss the pigskin for 442 yards was the offense’s ability to keep him upright. Only four weeks removed from injuring his knee, the Detroit defense only managed seven QB hits on 52 attempts. The Detroit defense hasn’t gotten any better since then, either; in fact, they’re 31st in defensive DVOA, coming in dead last in pass defense DVOA.
I know what you’re thinking - “Yeah, but, prevent defense! They sat back all game, and even then, Rodgers fumbled twice!”. Forget the fumbles. Their occurrences, as well as their recoveries, are pretty much random and Detroit’s defense is only 24th in fumbles/drive this year. As for their pressure, even early in the game when the score was relatively close, Green Bay’s offensive line held up just fine.
The Lions only brought pressure a few times before the game got out of hand, but were successful only once as a blitzing linebacker blew by Byron Bell on a play action rollout, a play I have seen far too frequently. Mainly, though, Rodgers was afforded plenty of time to survey the field.
When the Lions built their lead, they stopped blitzing altogether. This allowed Rodgers to take his time and make the proper reads against whatever coverage was called. Cover 3? Deep cross behind the linebacker and in front of the safety.
How about cover 1, not a conservative coverage? Wait for your receiver to make his break on the dig route, chunk gain.
Rodgers still missed throws, but giving him the opportunity to stay in a stable pocket and make the reads will lead to large plays against an over matched secondary. In week 5 Green Bay was already without Randall Cobb and Geronimo Allison and they managed to put together points, while Green Bay’s receiving corps will look only slightly different in week 17. With Aaron Jones out and plenty of young receivers to develop, I’d like to see the offense with four receivers and either Robert Tonyan or Jamaal Williams, both effective as pass blocking/catching options, on the field as much as possible.
Defensively, Green Bay should be thanking the schedule makers for the Jets being followed up by the Lions. Both the Jets and Lions have been bottom-8 offenses by almost any metric this season. Giving up 38 to the Jets isn’t a good look, and the Packers have allowed their last 6 opponents - which includes the bottom ranked offense in the Cardinals - to score 20 or more in each game, but they have a chance to right the ship against the Lions.
Matt Patricia’s team didn’t start the season with a plethora of offensive talent, and when they traded away YAC superstar Golden Tate, it left Kenny Golladay and rookie Kerryon Johnson to carry the load behind a subpar offensive line. Johnson has since been shelved with a knee injury, and the rest of the Lions’ healthy receiving corps is a game of “who’s that guy”.
As a result, Stafford is struggling to throw the ball as his receivers aren’t getting much separation.
From @NextGenStats, the NFL average separation a WR gets from his nearest defender at time of catch/incompletion is 2.8 yards.— Dave Birkett (@davebirkett) November 12, 2018
For the Lions yesterday:
-TJ Jones 2.48 yards
-Kenny Golladay 2.33
-Michael Roberts 1.78
-Marvin Jones 1.25
Anthony Miller, meanwhile, was 4.72 yards
Watching the film supports this as the Lions receivers are continually blanketed. This just sucks for a quarterback:
The Lions also showed trouble making plays against a fake double A-gap blitz, something Pettine uses quite a bit of:
Even on the occasion where receivers did get open, Stafford was unable to find them.
Not finding open receivers is something that all quarterbacks do, and APC writers have pointed out repeatedly that this is one of Aaron Rodgers’ problems this year. I only mention it here because Stafford is succumbing to the same pitfalls as most other quarterbacks and leaving yards on the field.
Knowing that his downfield receivers are usually covered, Stafford has targeted Theo Riddick 74 times so far this year. Unfortunately for the Lions, even the dumpoff to Riddick isn’t working all that well; Riddick is averaging the lowest YPC of his career.
The strategy that opposing defenses are now using against the Lions echoes what defenses used against Green Bay in 2015, when Jordy Nelson was out for the year and Davante Adams was in his second year and had a case of the drops. Defenses would play press man coverage with a single high safety, and dare the Green Bay receivers to win their 1 on 1 matchups. They knew the Packers’ playbook didn’t call for a lot of crossers or rub routes, and the Packers’ offense struggled accordingly.
The Lions are now facing the same battle. With only one decent receiving threat and no run game to speak of, defenses are playing press man coverage and daring the Lions to win their matchups and they’re not succeeding. Their routes seem oddly predictable; here, Stafford has an open player, but the Vikings know it’s third and long and play a deep cover-2 to defend the sticks; heck, the Vikings don’t even look like they’re trying real hard here:
Stafford could have thrown to the underneath receiver, but he knows he won’t make it to the first down marker. The Vikings cover everything behind it well, and Stafford takes a sack.
Unfortunately Green Bay doesn’t have the requisite talent in the secondary right now to play the aggressive cover-1; I love Tony Brown more than I ever thought I would (saw the game live against the Jets and boy does that guy love to tackle), but he’s not a starting cornerback on many teams right now. Josh Jackson isn’t a man player, Kevin King is hurt again, and there’s only one Jaire Alexander (who is also hurt). Side note: perhaps Mark Murphy should invest in a cloning company because we could use 3 or 4 more Alexanders.
It will be interesting to see how Pettine defends the Lions; I wouldn’t expect much blitzing but instead make the inexperienced receivers work to get open. Offensively, Green Bay should open up the field and try some no-huddle drives, focusing on getting easier completions. Detroit won’t offer much in the way of a pass rush, so there won’t be a big need to throw quickly, but instead be patient to let the routes develop. The game film says if you can do that, you’ll find success against the Lions.