8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Lions -2, Over/Under: 43
Division Rivals look to turn their respective seasons around tonight at Lambeau Field, as the Green Bay Packers host the Detroit Lions on Monday Night Football. After getting off to a solid 3-1 start, the campaign is falling away from the Lions (3-4, 3rd in NFC North), who have now dropped three consecutive games in a variety of fashions, from finding themselves on the wrong end of shootouts to coming up short in defensive struggles. Even the Bye Week couldn’t turn things around for Jim Caldwell’s charges, who when we last saw them were in the midst of a disjointed performance in a 20-15 loss at home to the Pittsburgh Steelers. This was a contest featuring a pair of teams that had little trouble moving the ball between the 20-Yard Lines, only to see drive after drive end prematurely, with a grand total of seven Field Goals between them. With that said, this was a very winnable game for the hosts, who held a slim 12-9 lead heading into Halftime, only to be outscored 10-3 the rest of the way. The Box Score would suggest that the scoreboard was inversed, with Detroit earning more First Downs (21 to 17), more Total Yards (482 to 392), and more Time of Possession (31:37), while even earning a positive Turnover Differential (Plus-1), but in the end there were two major things that swung the decision in favor of the visiting side; despite the wealth of yardage, Matthew Stafford and Co. were absolutely abysmal on Third and Fourth Down, converting on just 2-for-12 of the former and on 0-for-2 of the latter, while JuJu Smith-Schuster’s miraculous 97-Yard Touchdown Reception late in the third stanza ultimately proved to be the game-winning score for the visitors. It was truly a game marred by missed opportunities for the Lions, whose final five Drives ended in the following manners: Punt, Turnovers on Downs, Field Goal, Fumble, and another Turnover on Downs. Last weekend’s defeat marked the third time that this team had lost by seven points or less this season, which has become something of a habit for a side that frequently finds themselves in close contests; since Caldwell was hired back in 2014, no team has featured in more games decided by one possession than the Lions (Thirty-Four), earning a 19-15 record in such outings, with a league-best sixteen Fourth Quarter Comebacks to their credit, by far and away the most in the NFL during that span. Seriously, folks, that equates to 59.6% of all games they’ve played including the Playoffs, which given the good ol’ game of inches analogy is still rather remarkable. However, there has got to be a reason as to why these guys keep finding themselves in so many narrow contests, and quite frankly, it’s because this continues to be a team that lacks substance. Yes, Stafford (60.4%, 264.4 Y/G, 5.75 NY/A, 12 TD, 4 INT) remains one of the more prolific Quarterbacks in the game, and few have proven to be more reliable in the clutch, but he’s been piloting a very one-dimensional vehicle for years now. In Caldwell’s 3.5-Year Tenure in the Motor City, he has yet to manufacture any semblance of a consistent Rushing Attack, averaging a scant 85.0 Yards per Game on 23.0 Rushing Attempts, which are both the fewest in the league over that span. Granted, part of their problems running the ball in the past were due to a struggling Offensive Line, but that wasn’t supposed to be the case in 2017, particularly after Management made it a point to augment the Position Group with the signings of veteran Linemen TJ Lang and Ricky Wagner, who currently comprise the Right Side of the Line. However, injuries struck early, with Left Tackle Taylor Decker landing on Injured Reserve in the Preseason with a Torn Labrum, robbing his teammates of not only a solid Run-Blocker, but their best Pass-Protector as well, which Stafford is really feeling at the moment; the 29-Year Old has been sacked twenty-five times already, or in other words on 8.5% of his Drop-Backs, which would be by far and away the highest percentage of his career. Unsurprisingly, the instability has led to the running game being an afterthought once more, with Detroit averaging 23.6 Carries (24th Overall) for 82.1 Yards (28th Overall) on 3.5 Yards per Carry (28th Overall), with Ameer Abdullah (101 CAR, 369 YDS, 1 TD) being the only rusher to accumulate over twenty-two Carries and 100+ Yards. We’re nearly halfway through the season, folks! This Offense has needed balance for years now, with Caldwell instead choosing to supplement the lack of rushing production with a short passing attack. However, with Stafford’s considerably strong arm, it’s almost a counterproductive way for one of the more decorated and respected Offensive Strategists in the league to approach things. Play-action is nearly impossible at this point, with opposing Defenses rarely fooled by the Play-Fake, which makes it that much more difficult to dink and dunk your way down the field. It may not seem like it, but this is a team that could be on the verge of making major changes at the end of the year, particularly if they’re unable to take advantage of the instability in their division.
Meanwhile, when compared to the issues plaguing their opponent tonight, the Packers (4-3, 2nd in NFC North) must soldier on without arguably the top Quarterback in the league, which unless something miraculous happens soon, has likely damned their season altogether. That’s been the collective feeling in Green Bay ever since two-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers (66.3%, 230.8 y/G, 5.86 NY/A, 13 TD, 3 INT) broke his Right Collarbone midway through a 23-10 loss at the Minnesota Vikings on October 15th. Undergoing Surgery shortly thereafter, Rodgers was placed on Injured Reserve, with the potential to return on December 17, though the likelihood of that actually happening depends on a number of things, including the team’s place in the standings along with their chances of making the Playoffs, and obviously the swiftness of his rehab. Needless to say, this is a HUGE loss for Mike McCarthy and his charges; since he ascended to the starting role back in 2008, the Packers have gone just 3-6 in all games in which Rodgers has not started, with the most recent example being a 26-17 loss at home to the resurgent New Orleans Saints two weeks ago. Sophomore Signal-Caller Brett Hundley (52.5%, 81.3 Y/G, 3.38 NY/A, 1 TD 4 INT) got the nod from McCarthy and his Staff, with the Backup being given an opportunity to prove himself after tossing three Interceptions in relief of Rodgers in the loss at Minnesota. It was very much a mixed bag for the former UCLA star, who despite struggling mightily from the Pocket on a dreadful 12-of-25 passing for just eighty-seven Yards and an Interception, exhibited serious potential outside of it rushing for forty-four Yards and a Touchdown on three Carries. While it was certainly odd seeing one of the more machine-esque passing attacks become so grounded, we would expect to see better timing and rhythm from the 24-Year Old in his second start, particularly coming off the Bye Week, with which McCarthy and Co. undoubtedly took advantage of. The focus will likely continue on simplifying the Offense for Hundley, whom they’ll work to get out of the Pocket more on Bootlegs and perhaps even some Zone Reads, while the Rushing Attack continues to set the tone and make things easier for him as he progresses. Though they were unable to do so, it was very evident that the Packers’ Gameplan was to control possession via the Run, rushing for a season-high 181 Yards and two of Touchdowns on twenty-four Carries, with unheralded Fifth Round Pick Aaron Jones (62 CAR, 346 YDS, 3 TD) exploding for 131 Yards and a score on seventeen Carries. Look for this kid to start getting more work after posting his second 100-Yard performance in his last three outings in an attempt to alleviate the pressure on Hundley. With all that said, we can’t overstate just how daunting of a task it is for this guy to step in and keep this team afloat in Rodgers’ absence. Green Bay’s Passing Offense is one of the more complex in the league, which is really saying something these days, with Rodgers’ absolute mastery of it’s nuances making it so difficult to defend against. While there’s certainly a precedent for Backups in this system to succeed (dating all the way back to the early 90’s), there is plenty of reason to believe that this isn’t necessarily a repeat of the brief Matt Flynn Era at Lambeau Field. Flynn spent four full years as Rodgers’ understudy in which he went 1-1 as a starter, before signing with Seattle as a Free Agent, only to return to Green Bay a year later where he made four starts (2-2) as No. 12 rehabbed a Broken Collarbone. McCarthy quickly eschewed the likes of Scott Tolzien and Seneca Wallace in favor of Flynn, largely due to his familiarity with the system, which was validated with his performance, and furthermore when Rodgers returned to guide the Packers to the Playoffs. Hell, it’s not outrageous to state that apart from the six-time Pro Bowler, there isn’t a Quarterback out there that is more versed in McCarthy’s playbook than Flynn. The bottom line here, folks, is that this isn’t a case of a ready-made veteran stepping in to keep the wheels spinning. This is quite different from that. This is a case of a young Quarterback with very little experience under his belt, learning as he goes, with everything from playcalling to coverages to game speed to clock management effecting his learning curve.