GREEN BAY, Wis. — This is the first of five upcoming divisional games the Packers will conclude their regular season with, and it’s one they need to win. With a 6-3 record, Green Bay can’t afford a setback coming off its bye week, especially with the race in the NFC North so close.
If the Packers are able to go into Detroit and win, they can essentially eliminate the 4-5 Lions from contention. But if Detroit wins, it will be just one game behind Green Bay and drop the Packers further behind the 7-2 division-leading Chicago Bears.
Here are five things to watch for in the Packers-Lions game:
1. Bend but don’t break against the Lions’ big-yardage, low-scoring offense
Detroit has had no problem moving the ball down the field this season, ranking first in passing yards and second in total yards. But the Lions’ success in those areas has not translated to points at nearly the same rate, as their 406.1 yards per game has only turned into the 13th-ranked scoring offense (24.4 points per game) in the NFL.
Bend-don’t-break was the Packers’ unofficial motto on defense last season, giving up the most yards in the NFL but forcing turnovers and keeping points off the board at a solid level. That might be the situation that Green Bay finds itself in Sunday. Stopping Detroit from gaining 400 yards inside the controlled environment of its dome stadium is going to be a difficult challenge for the Packers, but as long as they can force the Lions to continue their trend of those yards not resulting in many touchdowns, Green Bay’s defense will have done its job.
2. Putting up points
Opponents passing yards average (in which Detroit ranks seventh in the NFL) and opponents rushing yards average (Lions rank 19th) can be misleading statistics. Overall, Detroit’s rank as the league’s 10th-best team in total defense is not a great indicator of its performance this season. That’s because the Lions are 23rd in the NFL in points allowed (24.7 per game), with only three teams forcing fewer turnovers than Detroit’s total of 10.
This should give the Packers an opportunity to really do some damage against their NFC North rival. Green Bay is ranked 10th in scoring offense (26.6 points per game) and is tied for second in the league with just eight giveaways.
3. Offensive line performance without Bulaga
When Bryan Bulaga was injured in the second quarter of the Packers’ game on Nov. 4, T.J. Lang did a great job in moving from left guard to right tackle. Evan Dietrich-Smith also performed well in taking over Lang’s spot at left guard. But now that Bulaga has been placed on injured reserve with a hip injury, Green Bay’s offensive line now has to get by the rest of the season with this lineup.
It’s not that the Packers’ group up front has had that great of a season to this point anyway, so it’s possible that they’re just as good now without Bulaga as they were with him. Bulaga’s 20 quarterback hurries allowed is only four more than the rest of the offensive line had combined through nine games. That had been a major factor leading to Green Bay giving up the second-most sacks in the NFL (29).
After getting a full week of practice together, this will be the first test to see if this altered offensive line can do a better job of keeping quarterback Aaron Rodgers on his feet more often.
4. Running back by committee?
The plan going into the season was to have James Starks as the featured running back. When he got injured, the Packers signed Cedric Benson and immediately made him the starter. When Benson got hurt, coach Mike McCarthy turned to second-year running back Alex Green. When Green struggled in consecutive games and Starks was recovered from his turf toe injury, the two of them split carries in the win two weeks ago over Arizona.
But now what? Green Bay has to get through three or four more games without Benson, and neither Starks nor Green has done much to prove that they are deserving of 20-plus carries in any one game. Against Arizona, with the exception of the three series in which Starks was benched following his fumble, he had become the first- and second-down back, with Green in on third downs. However, fullback John Kuhn is probable to return after missing two games and could take over the third-down role. If that happens, where does it leave Green?
A lot of these questions will be answered in Sunday’s game, and the results of each player’s individual performances will likely go a long way in helping McCarthy determine his rotation throughout the rest of the season, or at least until Benson returns.
5. Rotation at outside linebacker without Matthews and Perry
Clay Matthews was officially ruled out from this game already on Monday. And after Sunday’s game, Matthews’ status is not known yet.
Playing without one of the NFL’s best defensive players and pass-rushers is a significant loss for the Packers’ defense. Matthews’ nine sacks this season is not something a team can just replace, but defensive coordinator Dom Capers will have to find some way to get by for at least one game.
Green Bay’s other starting outside linebacker, first-round pick Nick Perry, was placed on injured reserve during the bye week following a second medical opinion on his wrist. That leaves the group with Erik Walden, undrafted rookie Dezman Moses and Frank Zombo, who was just reinstated from the Physically Unable to Perform list. All three of them are capable players, and it could be argued that Walden has had a better season than Perry anyway, but replacing two starting outside linebackers — especially when one of them is Matthews — is not going to be easy.
If the Packers fail to get pressure on Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, Green Bay could find itself in danger of losing this game.