So the Packers play tomorrow morning at 11:30 am Central in the newly reconstructed Ford Field, soon to be known as Hyundai Stadium in their annual Thanksgiving contest. Watching the Packers play on Turkey Day is a bit funny. It's always a great excuse to watch television and not get yelled at by female family members for not socializing with your extended relatives. And it's always great if they win. But if they lose, man, the day totally heads South. In fact, I think it's safe to say that the Packers loss to the Cowboys about 12 years ago totally ruined that Thanksgiving. (This is what happens when your family patriarch has owned Packer stock since the 50s.) That was the game when Troy Aikman was injured and Jason Garrett, the Cowboys current offensive coordinator subbed in, and threw multiple touchdowns to Alvin Harper. Ugh. Everyone was distraught, because we all thought the Packers had a chance with Aikman out. Hopefully, this year will be different. Certainly the Lions are not the Cowboys of the mid-90s.
Detroit is a funny team. They have a former journeyman at QB, two enormous, top-ten pick receivers alongside two diminutive speedy guys, a pretty good defensive line, a relatively talented running back in Kevin Jones, about half of a decent offensive line, one excellent linebacker in Ernie Sims, a good kicker, and a bunch of mishmash everywhere else, including at tight end, the right side of the offensive line, and in the defensive secondary. The Lions also have an offensive coordinator who once took a team to the Super Bowl, and one of the league's best defensive line coaches as their head coach. Marinelli, the Detroit head coach, was part of a Super Bowl winning staff at Tampa Bay, where his team played historically great defense and had a conservative offense. Now they have a boom or bust offense under Mike Martz (who guided the Rams to their Super Bowl loss against the Pats) that leads the league in sacks given up, and runs less than a third of the time. So a weird mishmash in the coaching ranks as well.
The end result is Detroit has a winning record, but has been outscored and outgained by opponents on the season. Also, that 6-4 record was compiled against teams that are currently a combined 47-53. Detroit's remaining opponents, including the Packers twice, the Cowboys and the Chargers, are 40-20. Football Outsiders' stats have Detroit rated as the 22nd best performing team this year. They rate the Lions' defense as 15th, and their allegedly potent offense at only 22nd. The special teams are poor, rated 31st.
The former journeyman QB, Jack Kitna, thought this team would win ten games this year. If they do make that goal, and win four out of their remaining six, that'll be pretty impressive. What may make that more difficult is the Lions seem to be in a bit of a swoon after their encouraging start. They've lost two in row, at Arizona and at home to the Giants. Oddly, this mini-losing streak came immediately after their most convincing win of the year-- a 37 point shellacking of Denver.
They way Detroit's been winning is by creating turnovers. They lead the league in forced fumbles and fumbles recovered. They've snatched 15 interceptions, the second highest total in the league behind San Diego (who was helped out by Manning's 6 pick performance a few weeks ago). They've scored three defensive touchdowns, which is tied for third in the league. The Lions have blocked three kicks, largely because of Shaun Rogers, their mammoth defensive tackle, who is easily the most important player on their defense. They're tied with the Packers for the fifth best sack total in the NFL.
This may bode poorly for Favre. Throughout his career, he's seemed to struggle against turnover-happy defenses, and had problems with dome teams. (Who can forget Favre's own 6 interception debacle against the Rams in the playoffs in the then-named TWA dome?) However, according to Football Outsiders, Detroit's defense is worse against the pass than the run. This does seem to correlate with the bunch of nobodies in their defensive secondary. And in recent years, Favre doesn't seem too bothered by domes, and this season he's exhibited a bit more careful decision making. Plus, the Packers are pass blocking quite well this season, especially since the opening day struggles against the Eagles. That may be the key for the offense, decent protection and patience in the passing game, with some runs to the outside mixed in to keep the Lions honest. I request that they run around Shaun Rogers and away from Ernie Sims, a la the game plan for the Williams brothers and EJ Henderson in the Minnesota game. If the backs and receivers take care of the ball, and if Grant is able to play, I think the Packers can be successful on offense tomorrow.
Defense will be interesting. The Lions have some serious talent at wide receiver, in Roy Williams and Calvin Johnson and slot guys Mike Furrey and Shaun McDonald, and another first round draft pick, in Kevin Jones, at running back, although he's coming off a serious foot injury. And Kitna's a decent quarterback. Plus, the Packers are having some depth issues on defense right now, with Nick Collins still out, and Johnny Jolly suffering a shoulder injury against the Panthers. Also, Al Harris looked a bit off last Sunday. With Jolly out, I think I'd look to play four wide receivers, and run the ball to Jones a bit, if I were the Lions. Then look for whatever receiver is matched up against the Packers' fourth corner. But that still requires some holes to run through and some pass protection. Plus, the Lions pass blocking has been bad over the course of the season, and the Packers have a good pass rush, which Jolly is generally not part of. That is, he's usually not on the field on obvious passing downs. Still, I think there'll be some breakdowns. Martz must be excited to go against a rookie nickel back in Jarrett Bush, a rookie safety in Aaron Rouse, and guy in his first year of starting in Atari Bigby. Bush has been doing better, and Rouse has played well so far, but they're both still developing, and Bigby's gotten exposed a bit of late, especially against deep passes. If the d-line can't get home that often, there should be some big plays. Hell, some guy named Drew Carter toasted the Packers' secondary last week.
So here's what I think. The Packers should be able to move the ball decently, particularly through the air. Detroit's secondary is turnover happy, but fundamentally suspect. Plus, the Packers top four wideouts of Driver, Jones, Jennings and Robinson are quite good, perhaps even better than Detroit's group. If Favre can avoid turnovers, the Packers could put up a fair amount of points. But unlike against some teams, time of possession doesn't really matter that much against Detroit. Their offense can move too quickly. So the Packers' offense can't save the defense by hogging the ball. Instead, the defense will have to make some stops and/or force a key turnover. Detroit's offense will do some things, particularly through the air. But a key sack and forced fumble could turn the game. If there's consistent pressure on Kitna, and good bump and run coverage in the secondary that throws off timing routes and gives the line more time to get home, and this could be a solid win for the Packers.
Then there's all the intangibles. Green Bay certainly seems to be the more complete team, both on paper and in the stats. But can they get it done on national television, when Detroit, floundering a bit, is desperate for a win? And when Detroit has a distinct advantage schedule-wise, since Detroit played at home on Sunday and again today, while the Packers are traveling there? I doubt the Packers are overlooking the game, despite the looming Dallas match-up. Also, Detroit's home loss to the Giants was a tough one, while the Packers mostly cruised over the Panthers. Then there's the short week-- I simply don't know how the short turnaround will affect both team's. More turnovers and sloppy play? More injuries? Older players not performing well? Offenses running wild due to defenses lack of prep? You never know what might happen, but I'm sure hoping that the Packers hold onto the ball and help make it a good Thanksgiving.