GREEN BAY, Wis. — Other than being division opponents, it’s been difficult to describe the Packers and Detroit Lions as rivals since Mike McCarthy took over as Green Bay’s head coach in 2006.
With McCarthy’s 13-1 record over the Lions, it’s been an incredibly one-sided affair. But as McCarthy has studied this year’s Detroit team, it’s become apparent that the Lions have narrowed the gap that’s existed between the two teams throughout his tenure.
“I think this is probably their best team, as far as how they’re playing coming into the game, as I recall,” McCarthy said Friday. “I can’t sit here and tell you off the top of my head how I felt about them each and every game. But I will say this is clearly a very talented football team. They’re very systematic in their approach. Their coaching staff has been together for quite some time. And the way they play on offense and defense is pretty much the same philosophically.
“I think this is probably the best that I’ve seen them play coming into a contest.”
It’s still very early in the season, but the Packers (1-2) are currently looking up at Detroit (3-1) in the NFC North standings. The biggest difference for the Lions so far has been the addition of running back Reggie Bush, who has given Detroit’s offense a dimension in the backfield that it’s been lacking.
“They’re running the ball the best they’ve run the ball,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said.
Bush didn’t play in Week 3 due to a knee injury that he suffered a week earlier, but in the two full games that he’s been healthy for, the former USC star rushed for 239 yards (6.1 average). Both of those standout games for Bush were divisional wins for the Lions, first against the Minnesota Vikings and then in Week 4 against the Chicago Bears.
“This is the Reggie Bush that everybody was talking about when he got drafted,” Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “This guy here is running the ball. His screen game and catching the ball out of the backfield has always been good, but in between the tackles, he’s making people miss, he’s breaking tackles, he’s running with an edge and balance.
“I’ve never seen him play like this. I hate that he’s in our division playing like this now. He’s really, really a difference maker right now.”
Bush never lived up to the billing as the No. 2 overall pick by the New Orleans Saints in 2006. He didn’t become the next Barry Sanders, as some had thought was possible. But after Bush’s first 1,000-plus yard season of his career in 2011 with the Miami Dolphins, he nearly reached that mark again last year and is on pace to do it in his first year with Detroit.
As Capers has game-planned for the Lions this week — a plan which has always revolved greatly around star wide receiver Calvin Johnson, the Bush factor has changed his approach.
“Well, I think that was their goal when they went out and got Reggie Bush — if teams are going to pay too much attention to Calvin Johnson, now they’ve got another guy that they can hand that ball off to and throw it to,” Capers said. “You look at the game last week (vs. Chicago), the impact that Reggie Bush had on that game. I mean, he ran, he had big plays running the ball, he’s a real threat with the screen game — he’s a matchup guy.
“They’re going to try to see how you’re going to match up on him, and if they like their matchup, then they’re going to try to go to him a lot.”
Green Bay’s defense has had enough problems just trying to stop Johnson even before Bush arrived. In Johnson’s past three games at Lambeau Field, he has 27 catches for 448 yards and three touchdowns. And, Johnson is apparently still getting even better.
“He’s rare,” Whitt said. “He’s developed into a route-runner, which he wasn’t early on in his career. Early on in his career, he was a slant and fade guy and a five-and-in guy. Now he can run the route tree. He can drop his weight, he’s great after the catch, which he’s always been. But him moving inside and doing the things that they’re doing with him in the offense is just making him so much more difficult. And that’s why he had the type of season he had last season and he’s going to have those type of seasons.
“He’s just a rare guy, and he’s developing his skills.”
In order for the Packers to avoid losing two straight games for the first time since 2010, the defense knows that stopping Johnson and Bush will be key.