Green Bay Packers: Why they’ll win, lose vs. Detroit Lions

A confident and invigorated Green Bay Packers squad is one win away from claiming the NFC North and the only thing standing in its way is a 9-6 Lions’ squad that, despite losing their last two games, features a multi-faceted passing attack that can pump up the drama quotient on Sunday night.

The Lions’ best shot at throwing water on the opposition’s goal of running the table will come with a superlative performance by quarterback Matthew Stafford that hasn’t been as sharp as he was earlier in the season.

A major concern with the 28-year-old signal caller has been a joint dislocation in the middle finger of his throwing hand (suffered in a Week-14 win over the Bears) that many feared would severely limit him.

And while Stafford has been able to throw the football with his trademark spin and velocity at times over the past two weeks, he has also missed some key throws, tossed a few wobbly ducks and made very questionable decisions along the way.

He underthrew Golden Tate on a pair on throws that should have been touchdowns against the Giants in Week 15 and followed that up by tossing an egregious interception versus the Cowboys in which he ran left, threw right and set up his opponent with favorable field position.

Detroit cannot afford those types of misplays facing a Green Bay offense led by a red-hot Aaron Rodgers who is averaging a 119.2 quarterback rating over the past six games and hasn’t thrown an interception in about a month and a half.

In the process of trying to suppress Rodgers, Teryl Austin’s Silver and Blue defensive unit must take away the quarterback’s top receiver, Jordy Nelson, and prevent him from hitting pay dirt—something that only four out of 15 teams have been able to do this season.

Of course, there are other factors that will influence the outcome of this prime-time battle for the NFC North. Let’s take a closer look.

How the Packers will win

1. Can You Smell What Jared is Cookin’: After missing two months earlier in the year due to a high ankle sprain, Jared Cook is steadily working his way into becoming the type of weapon that defenses have to at least be aware of if not account for.

He has seen 13 targets in the last two weeks and can very easily add a third consecutive strong outing to his ledger against a Lions’ back seven that has been one of the more generous groups in terms of giving up numbers to the tight-end position.

To date, Detroit has allowed the 7th-most receptions to opposing tight ends (84) and only two teams have surrendered more touchdowns (9) to the position.

The Lions may look to lock up Cooks with the linebacker duo of Tahir Whitehead and Josh Bynes, but neither is well suited to defend the fleet-footed pass catcher.

Whitehead has developed into a heady every-down defender, but lacks the ability to drop back against big and fast receiving weapons. Bynes, on the other hand, is the weakside linebacker whose stiff hips prevent him from changing directions in pass coverage.

Free safety Glover Quin will most likely need to play deep in an effort to mitigate the team’s depth issues at cornerback. Strong safety Tavon Wilson has been coming on of late, but is more effective when he’s close to the line of scrimmage given his vulnerability to bite on double moves deep downfield.

Cook’s size, speed and ability to break out of his routes (something that he did quite well versus Chicago) combined with Rodgers’ deadly accuracy could pose huge issues for the home team.

2. Unleash the Hounds: The Lions have invested a considerable amount of their draft resources in shoring up the offensive line, including three first-round picks, two third-round picks and a fifth-round pick in recent years.

As a result, the group has improved considerably after a rocky start to the season.

One major reason why the unit has made strides in their pass protection since their Week-3 meeting with the Packers is due in large part to the benching of left guard Laken Tomlinson, whose balance and footwork issues were enough to push any coaching staff to the brink of insanity.

The return of their starting center, Travis Swanson, who missed three consecutive games due to a concussion, will allow the Lions to keep Tomlinson at the spot where he can make his most meaningful contribution—on the bench.

Is Swanson’s return enough to keep Stafford upright after he absorbed no less than 9 quarterback hits against the Cowboys?

Not if Clay Matthews provides an encore showing of his monster game last Sunday in which he constantly harassed Sam Bradford with a sack, a forced fumble, 2 pass deflections and 3 quarterback hits.

Matthews, though, won’t be locking horns with the dreadful T.J. Clemmings this time around, he’ll be seeing lots of rookie left tackle Taylor Decker, who has earned the 5th-best Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade among rookies selected in the first round.

But that doesn’t mean Decker is impenetrable. The former Big-Ten standout was beaten multiple times by Dallas defensive end Benson Mayowa last Monday.

If Matthews is studying his game film—and why wouldn’t he be?—he’ll see how Mayowa got past the Lions’ bookend with a well-executed inside move.

As for Green Bay’s other edge rushers, Nick Perry made his return from injury last week sporting a big ole club on his left hand.

The cast limited his ability to grab, but it didn’t stop him from bull rushing his opponents and picking up 2 sacks.

The presence of Perry and a revitalized Matthews can’t help but open things up for Mike Daniels and Julius Peppers, who can always be counted on to make his handful of plays in a limited role.

Yes, when the Packers’ front seven is at full strength, it can be a force to be reckoned with.

3. Spreading the Holiday Cheer: Will Randall Cobb make it back after his one-game absence and will it even matter?

It will from the standpoint of the Packers giving Detroit another passing weapon to defend with their battered secondary.

Darius Slay is the one backfield component that can stabilize the entire defensive unit given his ability to shutdown receivers in tight man coverage.

The soon-to-be 26-year-old (his birthday falls on January 1) has reportedly practiced this week which significantly increases his chances of playing.

But will his hamstring hold up? The Packers will undoubtedly be testing him deep to assess its durability.

Either way, Austin’s crew is undermanned and overmatched at cornerback with the likes of Nevin Lawson, Johnson Bademosi, Asa Jackson and the recently-signed Crezdon Butler up against a Packers’ passing that has been hitting its stride over the past six weeks.

How the Packers will lose

1. No “Ansah” for Zeke?:  On the heels of a dominant 2015 campaign in which he registered an NFC-best 14.5 sacks, the Ghana-born Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah hasn’t quite been himself for most of the season, as his full recovery from a high ankle sprain has taken longer than anticipated.

Regardless, Ansah has played himself into shape and has sacked the quarterback in each of his last two games after having a grand total of zero prior to Week 15.

His last sack against arguably the best left tackle in pro football, Tyron Smith, was a clear signal that the BYU product is finally ready to do battle with the best out there.

In David Bakhtiari, Ansah will be matched up with one of the NFL’s premiere blindside protectors that had a relatively easy time of neutralizing Minnesota’s Everson Griffin on Christmas Eve.

If Ansah’s length, burst and exceptional hand skills weren’t enough to worry about for Bakhtiari, the crowd noise may also be a factor to consider within Ford Field’s enclosed facility.

On the other end, breakout defensive end Kerry Hyder is another lineman that will give right tackle Bryan Bulaga all he can handle.

The converted interior defender features a relentless motor and active hands that have allowed him to produce a team-leading 8 sacks.

2. The Power of Zen: Those witnessing the Lions go blow-for-blow with the NFC powerhouse Cowboys by playing them to a 21-21 stalemate in the first half had to be thinking that they finally found themselves a running game in Motown.

The ground attack was spearheaded by Zach Zenner, who rumbled for 64 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the first two quarters. He was particularly forceful in the first quarter by gaining first downs on five of his seven carries.

The second-year veteran has 4.5 speed, but he earns his keep by running hard through contact.

Dallas had no answers for No. 34, but the coaching staff inexplicably decided to give Zenner only two more rushing attempts in the second half.

Jim Caldwell, Jim Bob Cooter and the rest of the coaching staff are well aware of Green Bay’s recent difficulties in defending the run and will look to make their no-frills back a major part of the game plan.

Eight of the Packers’ last nine opponents have averaged 4.5 yards per carry or more which means that hitting the green-and-gold-clad defense in the mouth seems like a winning option and one that will keep the home squad competitive at the very least.

3. To Catch a Tar Heel: Green Bay’s issues on the backend have been well documented all season by every writer here at Lombardi Avenue and it’s becoming a bit repetitive to constantly single out the mismatches our boys have to deal with against the other team’s superior wideouts.

But another major concern this week may be containing Lions’ tight end Eric Ebron, who got open with relative ease in the Week 3 meeting between the two sides by posting 5 receptions for 69 yards.

Though the versatile Micah Hyde has been picking up his level of play late in the year, he has neither the size nor the athletic ability to stay with Ebron, as was seen back in September.

The 6-foot-4, 253-pound tight end has had some concentration lapses throughout his three years in the pros, but he also can make spectacular catches not many of his peers are capable of by going outside his frame.

I didn’t think Ebron would end up being the player he has developed into, but he has proven me (and others) wrong under the guidance of (Jim Bob) Cooter.

Dom Capers will need to make sure to put someone that is willing to be physical (I guess that excludes Damarious Randall) with the former North Carolina Tar Heel by making contact with him early off the snap in hopes of throwing Ebron’s timing off.

Morgan Burnett did a fabulous job in canceling out Jimmy Graham three weeks ago. Don’t be surprised to see the long-time starting safety entrusted with task of defending him.

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