Analysis: Lions Pound Pack (on Defense)

The Detroit Lions surprised many fans –certainly myself- with a hard fought 19-7 victory against their NFC North rival Green Bay Packers yesterday. Although the Lions played far from perfect, by most accounts they should’ve eliminated any skepticism that this year’s team is just the same old letdown Detroit roster following last week’s embarrassment to Carolina.

Yes, that is a bold statement and yes against the Panthers just a week ago the Lions showed traits of previous years; poor execution and absent mindedness rife throughout the game. But what I believe makes this year’s team different from others is evident in yesterday’s win; new evidence that the Lions can bounce back from tough losses and still beat a playoff contending opponent.

The Lions were far from perfect yesterday and obviously it’s easy to still feel hesitant, but the context of this win is particularly important to distinguish the 2014 Lions from any previous edition. Thus far Detroit has manhandled a poor Giants team, lost (perhaps expectantly) in ugly fashion to the Panthers, but followed it up with a hard victory against Green Bay. That sort of bounce back is something we haven’t seen empirically from Detroit; losing to a playoff team but then beating one the very next week. But even more important is that not only did Detroit defeat Green Bay, they virtually shut down Aaron Rodgers and muted the Packers’ offense for 60 minutes. This may not be the 1957 champions Lions team, but it is undoubtedly a different team from what we’ve been used to.

The credit starts on defense, where the Lions looked sharp in every facet despite a wild litany of injuries coming into the game. While the Lions simply had luck on their side at time (via CB Don Carey’s heaven sent scoop-and-score in the first quarter) they fundamentally outplayed Green Bay’s offensive line. Coordinator Teryl Austin contained Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers for literally the whole game and kept him under duress early and often. While Rodgers was sacked just twice, he never found time to evade the pocket or to really survey the field. For Rodgers the result was a day where he generated the lowest scoring output of his career in any game he started and finished. What’s more, the Lions also limited Rodgers to the second least yards of any game in his career that he started and finished.

Detroit’s secondary has been highly criticized all season for lacking playmaking ability, but yesterday’s performance should silent critics at least for the moment. Rodgers finished the game 16 of 27 for just 162 yards which is pedestrian for any NFL quarterback, but for the quarterback with the highest career QB rating, those numbers are pitiful. The Lions deflected five passes, put Rodgers on his back three times during passes and systematically shut down both Green Bay WRs Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. Nelson entered the game coming off a 200 yard carving of the Jets a week ago and was caged for only five receptions and less than 60 yards while Cobb was hardly a factor registering only 29 yards off three catches. For a secondary that is far from sexy, CBs Rashean Mathis and Darius Slay certainly earned some respect and played phenomenally against receivers no one gave them a chance to even cover.

Of course, as encouraging as the secondary did play, the soul of the defensive shutdown was in the front seven. The Lions completely shut down Green Bay’s rushing game early on and eventually were able to just predict the Packers’ air-attack. Entering the game as the second best rush defense helps, but Detroit made Green Bay RB Eddie Lacy look lost all day. At some point the Packers had to bring in backup RB James Starks to compensate for Lacy’s lack of productivity; the two garnered 54 yards collectively. The lockdown was mostly by virtue of a really strong defensive line showing. DT Ndamukong Suh was in grand form with a sack and another tackle for loss while both DTs Nick Fairley and George Johnson penetrated the line to help create a safety and hurried Rodgers multiple times. In every way the Lions embarrassed the Packers’ offensive line and gave neither Rodgers nor Lacy any breathing room. For the Lions, the front seven has been the key to their defense this whole season, but on a day where Green Bay ran just 51 plays, picked up only 14 first downs, and ultimately failed to even break 230 offensive yards, a lot of recognition is owed to the defensive line.

Nevertheless, while Suh and company did conspicuous damage to Green Bay, LB DeAndre Levy was truly the star of yesterday’s show. Levy has long been a subsidiary to LB Stephen Tulloch, but when Tulloch left the game with an injury Levy showed amazing poise in the middle linebacker spot and as the defensive quarterback. In absolute Pro Bowl form, Levy finished with 10 tackles, a sack, the aforementioned safety, as well as two broken up passes. With a shot run game, Levy took command of the center of the field and limited Aaron Rodgers’ options substantially. By cutting down Rodgers’ areas to throw, the Packers not only went just four for ten on third down, they also lost the time of possession battle by an amazing 16 minutes, 13 seconds.

A celebration is certainly owed to Detroit’s defense, but as the Lions move onto the Jets next week there needs to be a serious discussion about the offense. The Lions looked hardly any better against Green Bay’s defense as they did against Carolina, and even on paper their statistics dropped off. RB Reggie Bush actually turned a slow start into a bright spot, averaging 5.1 yards a rush and adding a touchdown. Yet outside of those two good indicators, little else about the Lions’ offense was inspiring. Bush still only finished with 61 yards off 12 carries, and fellow RB Joique Bell looked awful with the other half of the carries; 15 carries for 33 yards against the second worst ranked run defense is inexcusable.

The modest-at-best running game is probably too easy to criticize at this point, but for a second straight week QB Matthew Stafford lacked almost everything he needed to out dual Rodgers. Stafford is lucky that Rodgers played awful and that his defense destroyed the Packers, but yesterday’s outing was rough. Stafford finished going 22 of 34 which isn’t the worst, but just 246 yards, no touchdowns, two picks, and a QB rating under 62 doesn’t make the offense look very confident. Granted WR Calvin Johnson exited early with an injury but against a weak Green Bay secondary two interceptions and small productivity is shameful. WR Golden Tate had another solid afternoon with five catches for 51 yards, but that only means anything if Johnson is active and a threat for the whole game. Leaning on Tate to be the number one receiving threat is not a viable strategy for Detroit, and one reception off of just four targets for TEs Joseph Fauria, Brandon Pettigrew, and Eric Ebron is disconcerting. The Lions were okay at best on third down, going for 11-18 and enjoyed 23 more plays and over 100 more yards than Green Bay, but still average just 4.8 yards a play on nine drives. The conclusion walking away from this game is that while Green Bay’s offense was terrible, Detroit’s was only bad, and that should be a significant improvement point for Detroit down the stretch if they want to contend for the playoffs.

The Lions exit Week 3 with a good win, though not a great one. Even with Tulloch injured the Lions’ defense looks intact and is clearly playing with a chip on its shoulder; it shows at least some ability to compete with good offenses. The test for Detroit this week will be getting a highly touted offense back on track, and more importantly learning how to get it to show up against good opponents.

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  1. In this article, the credit for the safety is given to Fairley and George Johnson, but if you watch the replay it is clear that the safety may not have ever happened if it weren’t for Jason Jones’ bull rush on the Packers’ RT. He was in the backfield IMMEDIATELY and that forced Lacy to cut back inside where Levy was blitzing. Kudos to Jones on that play.

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