Bears 27 - Lions 23
Packers 43 - Vikings 34
What does this mean for the Lions?
After an incredibly disappointing yet totally Lion-esque 4th quarter collapse against the Chicago Bears, conceding 21 unanswered points, the Detroit Lions crashed to a damaging 27-23 divisional defeat, the worst possible start to a season that promised much. Whilst that game will get debated elsewhere my attention immediately turned to Minneapolis in the West where next week's opponents the Green Bay Packers were battling it out in another divisional matchup against my pick for the NFC North title, the Minnesota Vikings.
The Packers didn't have a great draft and didn't seem to really either strengthen or fix areas of concern in that team. So surely watching them against a tough divisional rival would give me and other Lions fans a glimmer of hope that we can go to Lambeau Field sans fans next week and score a statement victory to banish the memories of the season opener and get our season rolling.
Well, the answer was a resounding no. Not so resounding that it's not possible, but given the way Green Bay easily dismantled Minnesota, the Lions are going to need to put in the performance of a season to come away with their first victory. It is possible and I will detail why later on but for now we'll break down some analysis of the Vikings-Packers game. The Packers ran out 43-34 victors. Don't let the 9 point difference fool you, Green Bay was in charge of this game from start to finish and despite the score only been 8-7 late in the second quarter, at next to no stages in this contest did the Vikings look like they were going to come away with the win. Here are 5 of the biggest takeaways I took from the Packers performance;
If the opposition doesn't have the ball they can't score points against you. That may be a simple statement, but it's true. The Packers had the ball for 40 minutes all told, that's two-thirds of the game. The first half stats were particularly startling, Green Bay had possession for 23 minutes to the Vikings 7 minutes. Now the main advantage to keeping the ball is it keeps your opponent's defence on the field, and the longer you do that, the more it starts to tire and the more mistakes that begin to creep into
Minnesota's defense has changed a lot, 6 starters who each played more than 400 snaps last season were gone and now there is a lot of new personnel and rookies in that team adjusting to the system. There's talent in these players, shown by the fact that the Packers first 3 red zone drives generated no touchdowns. But Minnesota's offense, first drive for a TD aside, did not help them at all, no sooner had they repelled a long relentless Packers drive they were back out there again. And you simply can't repel Aaron Rodgers all day long, especially when your a new unit trying to learn how to play together. With 2 minutes left in the 2nd quarter, even at 8-7, the defense was visibly flagging. Aaron Rodgers produced a moment of magic to break that defence with a laser precision pass to Adams, and then when the defence thought their half was over Cousins immediately threw a pick and back on they had to come. Once again A-Rod tore through them and hit another TD and it was all too easy. Valdez-Scantling isn't a great receiver yet but he's a speed demon and he just blitzed past poor Cameron Dantzler who was visibly a few yards off the pace from being out on the field all half. The Vikings were never in it after those two blows and it was all from the Packers wearing them down. Long balls to Adams, Jones crashing through the centre, Irvin stretching the D on swing plays that averaged 13 yards a carry, Lazard and Valdez Scantling gaining big yards to accompany Adams, the Vikings got pummeled into submission. And in the second half the defence was on again within 3 minutes which set the tone for the half which was the defence never got a chance to regroup. They ended up conceding over 530 yards of combined offense.
As a side note, this is where a very interesting distinction in-game management can be made between the Packers and the Lions. Both teams had big leads in the 4th quarter and went to prevention defense to see the games out. Because of the tactics shown by the Packers in keeping the Vikings defense in the field, whilst they did begin to leak touchdowns to bring the margin of victory down, they were able to cut through a tired unit and carry on scoring touchdowns to ensure their lead was never under threat and they saw the game out comfortably. Compare with the Lions who went visibly conservative. Going conservative meant that the offense did not stay on the field, and our tired, injury-ravaged defense was subject to drive after drive of pressure so whilst Chicago kept scoring to bring the lead down, we were not able to put up points to keep them at arm's length and that negative approach cost us the game. The Packers hierarchy had control of 90% of this game and quite rightly should be applauded for their performance.
A lot of questions were asked about Rodgers over the summer. The signing of Jordon Love seemingly the start of the end for him in Green Bay, people commenting on his falling stats, the Packers hierarchy giving him no new receivers in a receiver heavy draft to help him build on getting the Packers to the NFC Championship game last season. What sort of Rodgers would appear first game? An angry one who doesn't care and who wants out for seemingly been forgotten about over the summer, or one more determined than ever to make Love sit the entire first 4 years of his career by playing so well they can't drop him.
Well, he emphatically answered that question as the latter. He threw for 364 yards and 4 touchdowns with a very tidy passer rating of 127.5. Rodgers played the defence like a violin, so beautifully that it was basically akin to watching a footballing equivalent of one of Beethoven's symphonies. His footballing intelligence is admirable, he was well aware that this defence was a work in progress, full of new signings and rookies eager to impress. So early on he psychologically got into their heads by deliberately calling multiple plays but not snapping which led to no less than 4 occasions when he extracted neutral zone infraction penalties out of a defence lacking the discipline of a well-drilled unit that wouldn't fall for the mind games, from this he got out a few tricky third-down situations and used the free throws to make gains downfield. The Packers identified the rookie Minnesota corners as a potential weak spot early on and Rodgers hammered them with throws, not letting them settle at all and Davante Adams especially had an absolute field day, that's not disrespecting the corners, they had a hard enough job having to deal with one of the NFL's elite receivers without even playing a practice snap without factoring in how long they had to spend on the field and how many plays they had to make, it's testament to how Rodgers sees a weakness and exploits it fully. Rodgers passing was noticeably better as well, he connected with a lot of deep balls and the few that did not were mostly down to bad receiver errors, however, special praise is reserved for his first TD throw to Adams, rolling out the pocket and launching a laser dart right into the edge of the endzone, he couldn't have placed it any better if he tried. He looks like a man with a point to prove this year and could potentially be more dangerous than ever
The Offensive Line
Aaron Rodgers was sat down once. Not sacked, no late hits, not really pressured, just sat down once after a little push when his pass was already made and nearly already at its target. He genuinely could have sat down and written his biography with the spare time he had to make his throws throughout the game and I'm not kidding. It was late in the first quarter when a Vikings defender even got a sniff of Rodgers, coming round the outside and with a clear shot at him, Josiah Deguira came flying out of nowhere to clean him out and Rodgers didn't even flinch and used the extra few seconds to pick his pass. And why is that scary? Several reasons. One because Minnesota is meant to have a very decent pass rush, even minus Hunter, and if they can barely get so much as a pressure on him let alone a sack then what hope do the Lions have with one of the worst pass rushing attacks in the league? Also, the very obvious reason that Aaron Rodgers is elite, and if you give an elite level quarterback all the time in the world to throw the football then he will dissect your defence piece by piece which is exactly what he did to the Vikings, and not only that but that the running game gained so much freedom because the Vikings couldn't breach the line often, it just allowed a dynamic offense to run without hindrance and 43 points on the board support that theory. That doesn't mean there's no hope though as there were little hints that the line can be breached as I'll discuss later.
It may seem odd to highlight the defense as a positive in a team which has conceded 34 points but when the bulk of those points are scored in garbage time and playing prevent defense they are excused this week. Excepting the first Minnesota drive, the Packers defense starved Kirk Cousins and his offense of oxygen in the first half, limiting them to just 7 minutes on the field. They provided 2 of the big moments in the first half for the Packers, first using a corner blitz to sack Cousins in his own endzone for a safety, and then providing the critical interception in the last minute of the half which got the weary Vikings defense back on the pitch leading to a second quick touchdown and effectively putting the game to bed. They also put no end of pressure on Cousins, not allowing him to settle to try and mount a fightback. Until they went to prevention and started giving away points they were well on top of the Vikings offense and allowed the Packers to build an unassailable lead.
The Fringe Fire
One of the lingering doubts about this Packers team is it's depth at receiver after Davante Adams, there's no proven WR2 and the ones they have are all potential and little substance, at least they were. Davante Adams was a monster in this game, seeing 14 receptions (a career high) for 156 yards and 2 touchdowns. Particularly concerning for Lions fans was how he latched on to and destroyed the Vikings rookie corners, they were terrified of getting beaten 1 on 1 or turned inside out so they were letting him make uncontested catches and running before putting in tackles, meaning he got a lot of throws from Rodgers and was able to dictate the game. This is a particularly daunting warning for the Lions with Desmond Trufant and Justin Coleman both going off with hamstring injuries leaving us with either rookies or at best limited snap backups vying for the starting spots. If Rodgers gets the freedom of the city like he did in Minneapolis then expect to see Adams causing even more carnage and putting the depleted secondary under a lot of pressure. However in this one he wasn't alone. Valdez-Scantling and Lazard put up a combined 150 yards and a TD each as well-meaning that the defence wasn't able to focus on shackling Adams as teams were able to do so a bit more last season. It remains to be seen whether the fringe receivers can carry on making vital contributions but if they do then the job for the Lions next Sunday just got exponentially harder.
So what does this mean for the Lions?
That they should be very concerned. The Packers won this game because they were able to deploy the alien shield technology used in 'Independence Day' around Aaron Rodgers. Seriously it was impressive how well they protected him. It's not blasphemy to say with confidence that the Vikings ability to pass rush is superior to our own here in Detroit and they couldn't get near him. He took apart the inexperienced members of the secondary whilst the rest of the offense wore down the remaining Vikings defense. With 3 of the best Lions corners dealing with hamstring issues, there's going to be some starters back there who A-Rod is going to be lining up in his sights. And even if some of the starters are back, I fear for them dealing with the pace of Adams and MVS with hamstring issues. But the biggest issue is how to get at Rodgers and disrupt the Packers offense cause it cannot be allowed to dictate the game the way they did against the Vikings.
But that doesn't mean there is no hope. The Lions aren't the only team to come away with injuries this weekend. And before I start this we obviously hope that no player gets injured but it does happen and can affect the outcome of games they miss. The Offensive Line that protected Rodgers so well suffered two injuries to Lucas Patrick and Layne Taylor meaning average ex-lion Ricky Wagner and rookie John Runyon took over so that may provide an opportunity to get through to A-Rod. And on the D-Line, Kenny Clark who is considered to be one of the best nose tackles in the business exited with a groin injury and may be missing for the Lions visit. The Lions O-Line was really impressive for large parts of the Bears game and even with the influential Clark I'd fancy them to do another good job protecting Stafford and he is all the more dangerous when he has the time to throw. Kenny Golladay should also be seeing the field for his first action of the season and seeing Adam Thielen get two deep receiving touchdowns against the Packers is an encouraging sign when you wield one a weapon like Golladay who can hurt you when he gets going down the field. Our offense is going to be key to having any chance of leaving Lambeau Field with the win
What must the Lions do to have any chance of beating the Packers?
They've got to keep Rodgers on the sidelines. I do not like speaking ill of the Lions but we are not going to suddenly develop a pass rush that is going to be chasing Rodgers all over the field. The Packers dictated their matchup with the Vikings because they controlled the ball and therefore controlled the match. We simply cannot allow for that to happen. I'm reminded of the Chiefs game last year that we undoubtedly could have won if not for certain questionable referee calls. How did we hang against such a potent offense and elite quarterback with our awful pass rush? We had possession for a full 8 minutes more than the Chiefs which might not sound like much but it allows your defense to stay sharp and when we were on the field we did make life just uncomfortable enough for Mahomes that our inadequacies were of little consequence. If we can avoid the mistake the Vikings made in giving up possession far too quickly then we have a chance.
Our offense is a potent weapon that is capable of putting up big points and there were encouraging signs against the Bears. TJ caught everything thrown his way on Sunday which was a huge boost. Petersen got nearly a 100 rushing yards on debut and contributed a little to the passing game as well, Cephus showed flashes of his talent and Amendola made some big plays.
Our offense can hurt the packers. Their run defence is still not fixed and wasn't fully tested by the Vikings due to lack of time on the field and them been several scores behind resorting to them throwing more, and despite those woes, Cook still managed 2 rushing TD's and they got 130 yards of rushing offense. Our running back committee looked impressive, with Petersen leading the charge, Swift already having a TD under his belt and Kerryon back to full health we absolutely have the capability to put a serious strain on the weak run game and if it cracks then we have a great opportunity to put pressure on the Packers defence. And whilst I praised the Packers defense they had the luxury of spending little time on the field and been fully fit when they were, so whilst they held well they have not been fully tested early on for prolonged periods. And they are not facing up to Kirk Cousins, they will be up against a higher calibre signal-caller in Matthew Stafford who has the ability to make far more difficult and technical throws which are going to test just how resolute this defense is, and they are against a very good corps in Golladay, Jones, Amendola, Cephus, and Hockenson who each present difficult and unique challenges to deal with. And as mentioned our O-Line has shown that it can deal with the big pass rush threats like Khalil Mack, which means that our Number 9 has time to make the big plays and the running backs have the time to make an impact which is crucial to the way we play and is vital if you're to stand a chance against the Packers who also provide a difficult pass-rushing challenge.
But most important to this victory is Matt Patricia. His game management skills are absolute pony, and I say that with feelings because of the downright shameful dismissal of his 4th quarter management issues after the game Sunday, he's not at the Patriots anymore, he is a Detroit Lion and his record is shameful and he needs to get your head out the clouds and admit that he has a problem. He's not aggressive enough in defending leads, and if we want to have any chance of walking away from Lambeau with a win then we need to be aggressive, we need to force the issue and keep the offense on the field and Rodgers off it. No more stupid 3 and outs allowing the opposition to gather momentum and put points on the board, if we do that against the Packers then they will annihilate us and his coaching seat is going to be hotter than a bath of Carolina reaper juice. But IF we give our offense time in the field, IF we keep Rodgers off it and disrupt his system, IF we can get the lead and aggressively defend it with Stafford allowed to dictate the play, THEN maybe, just maybe, we can salvage our season from the wreckage of the Bears game and look forward to a brighter future, for the sake and well being of Detroit Lions fans everywhere.