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Week one can lie, so the Packers can’t take the Lions lightly

The Lions lost a heartbreaker last week, but before they did, they showed why they’re dangerous.

Chicago Bears v Detroit Lions Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

If you don’t look under the surface, it seems like the Green Bay Packers are coming off of a dynamite game where they ripped through a perennial NFC North defensive powerhouse with ease, while the Detroit Lions gave up an embarrassing comeback to one of the most offensively inept franchises in the NFL. It stands to reason that the Packers should destroy the Lions on Sunday right?

Probably yes, but...

Detroit’s loss to the Bears was just about the most Detroit thing ever, and while they may Detroit all over themselves again this week, most of the time they play like a normal human football team. If they can hold it together, they have the tools to effectively attack Packer weaknesses, especially with Kenny Clark likely out. It’s worth remembering that before losing Matthew Stafford last season, Detroit was a solid 3-4-1 against a tough schedule, and with Stafford back, they are a hot pick among the analytics crowd to at least be average.

Detroit’s offense is run by the utterly competent former Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Darrell Bevell, who seems to always be around the North in some capacity. Bevell isn’t an offensive savant, but his offenses are perfectly sound and he tends to get the most out of his personnel. When healthy, the Lions have some pretty nifty personnel with Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones on the outside and the shifty, if injury prone, Danny Amendola underneath. Golladay finished 13th in DVOA a year ago with Jones only slightly behind him at 20th, which is all the more impressive given their quarterback situation. A year ago the Lions used the 8th overall pick on tight end TJ Hockenson out of Iowa, one of the most athletic tight ends in the league.

It almost always takes tight ends at least a year to develop before they contribute significantly, and Hockenson looks ready to breakout, coming off an outstanding game against Chicago. Rounding out the offense we have Adrian Peterson, who we all wish would just go away, incumbent Kerryon Johnson, and rookie D’Andre Swift, who dropped the potential game-winning touchdown last week.

There’s a good chance that Detroit’s offense, when healthy, is better than Minnesota’s, which should be worrisome enough for the Packers. The good news for Green Bay is the Lions will likely be without Golladay (hamstring) for the second straight week, and the offense is significantly worse without him. Rookie receiver and Wisconsin alum Quintez Cephus took most of Golladay’s targets on Sunday, but he was extremely inefficient, catching just 3 of 10 targets.

Even if Golladay can’t go though, the Lions are still a scary offense. The Packer defense is likely worse than Chicago’s, especially without Kenny Clark (Groin), and it is especially vulnerable to attacks over the middle where Hockenson and Amendola will likely find success. Green Bay doesn’t stop the run well even with Kenny Clark, and it’s also likely that Peterson eclipses 100 yards with ease. Stafford can be prone to turnovers and threw an absolute killer in Sunday’s collapse, but if he can play a clean game, Detroit can make this hard for the Packers.

Matt Patricia’s Failure

Fortunately for Green Bay, it’s very unlikely that Detroit can win a shootout. Matt Patricia is just another in a long line of failed ex-Patriot coaches who saw their former units get better upon their departure while simultaneously making their new team worse in their purported area of expertise. Patricia took over for Jim Caldwell in 2018, and in his first two full seasons Detroit has finished 21st and 23rd in defensive DVOA, down from 15th in 2017.

Patricia has been putting together a team of “his guys,” a definition that evidently doesn’t include Darius Slay (Eagles) or Quandre Diggs (Seahawks). Patricia has turned over a huge portion of the defense, adding Desmond Trufant from Atlanta and spending the 3rd overall pick on highly regarded Ohio State corner Jeff Okudah, in addition to picking up any former Patriot he can get his hands on.

Unfortunately for Detroit, their personnel is almost certainly worse on defense than it was last season. Just as an example, before the Quandre Diggs trade the Lions had a slightly below average +6.8% DVOA in pass defense. After the trade they plummeted to a league worst +39% (remember that positive numbers are bad for defenses). Only some of that decline is lack of Diggs’ talent, as blowing up your defense in the middle of a season is going to cause chemistry issues no matter what, but it’s hard to see how the Lions are improved from a talent perspective over early 2019. The only thing standing between Aaron Rodgers and a bottom five pass defense is Matt Patricia and “his players.”

Last week the Bears, who smartly and correctly don’t trust their terrible starting quarterback, came out run-heavy, and Detroit managed to build up a lead by capitalizing on this conservative strategy. But when the Bears got desperate and started flinging the ball around, Detroit had no answer. There are very good reasons for this.

Patricia plays the same scheme he did in New England, with limited blitzing and fairly strict man defense. No team except the Patriots played more man last season, and no team except the Patriots kept their corners on specific sides of the field less than Detroit last season. However, unlike New England, which is loaded with defensive talent, the Lions don’t have the horses to generate pass rush without blitzing and don’t have the athletes to man up on most teams, especially against 3rd and 4th receivers. Allen Robinson was a miracle worker last week in bringing in errant Trubisky throws, but the bigger story is that the lesser Detroit corners were unable to stop Jimmy Graham or Anthony Miller. Maybe it’s a different story with Okudah suiting up, especially if Desmond Trufant is also able to play (currently unlikely), but there is a good chance this team is still very bad against the pass.

Compounding all of this is the fact that Detroit is likely to be worse against the run than they were a year ago. They were unable to contain the Chicago running game last week (David Montgomery is currently 5th in DVOA among RBs), and Patricia’s preference for lighter defenses using at least five defensive backs should make things easy for Aaron Jones and company. Shacks Harrison is still a free agent at the moment, and while he did not have a good 2019, any run defense will suffer having lost him.

What you have here is a recipe for another Packer offensive magic show. It is very likely that Aaron Rodgers will have all the time in the world. It is very likely that Matt LaFleur is able to create tons of easy mismatches as the Lions stick to a strict man cover scheme. It’s very possible that Detroit gets stuck with dime personnel against Green Bay’s 12/21 package and gets absolutely gouged by Aaron Jones. The over/under sits at 47.5 and that seems comically low. I suspect the Packers still win going away, but this should be a shootout, and closer than you might expect.