The teams: The Green Bay Packers (1-2) vs. the Detroit Lions (3-1).
The time: Noon CDT Sunday.
The place: Lambeau Field, Green Bay.
The TV coverage: FOX – WITI (Ch. 6 in Milwaukee), WMSN (Ch. 47in Madison) and WLUK (Ch. 11 in Green Bay).
The announcers: Kenny Albert and Daryl Johnston in the booth and Tony Siragusa on the sideline.
The coaches: Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 81-44 (including 6-4 in the postseason) in his eighth season as the Packers' coach and as an NFL head coach. The Lions’ Jim Schwartz is 25-44 (including 0-1 in the postseason) as coach of the Lions and as an NFL head coach.
The series: The Packers lead the all-time regular-season series, 93-26-7, including 30-10-3 at Lambeau Field. The Packers have won an astonishing 22 straight games (including one playoff game) over the Lions in the state of Wisconsin.
The rankings: The Packers’ third-ranked offense is No. 9 in rushing and No. 3 in passing. Their 28th-ranked defense is No. 8 against the run and No. 28 against the pass. The Lions’ sixth-ranked offense is No. 21 in rushing and No. 5 in passing. Their 18th-ranked defense is No. 20 against the run and No. 21 against the pass.
The line: The Packers are favored by 7 points.
The injury report:
Packers – Out: CB Casey Hayward (hamstring); RB James Starks (knee); C/G Greg Van Roten (foot). Probable: OLB Clay Matthews (hamstring); S Morgan Burnett (hamstring); CB Jarrett Bush (hamstring); TE Jermichael Finley (concussion); RB Johnathan Franklin (foot); FB John Kuhn (hamstring); RB Eddie Lacy (concussion).
Lions – Out: WR Nate Burleson (forearm). Questionable: CB Chris Houston (hamstring); WR Calvin Johnson (knee); S Glover Quin (ankle). Probable: S Louis Delmas (knee); G Rob Sims (shoulder); DE Ezekiel Ansah (abdomen); DE Israel Idonije (hamstring); LB Ashlee Palmer (ankle); WR Patrick Edwards (ankle); T Jason Fox (groin); CB Rashean Mathis (head).
THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
Return to uncertainty: In what should come as a surprise to no one familiar with the Packers’ special-teams mentality, leading receiver Randall Cobb and rookies Johnathan Franklin and Micah Hyde will all see action in the return game.
McCarthy said Friday after practice that the threesome would be used in a “situational” approach. Expect Franklin to handle kickoffs and Hyde to handle punts whenever Cobb isn’t called upon to do them. The Packers took the week to examine their options after releasing returner Jeremy Ross on Sept. 23, one day after he fumbled a kickoff that led to a touchdown in the Packers’ pre-bye loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
“It’s a game plan decision based on when and where,” McCarthy said.
The Packers’ average starting position after kickoffs is an anemic 19.1-yard line, the second-worst in the 32-team league ahead of only the Lions (18.7). Franklin figures to get the call there, but if they’re in dire need of a spark, the Packers won’t hesitate to use Cobb. Historically, McCarthy and special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum have eschewed the theory that any key offensive or defensive player is too valuable to use on returns.
“I can understand that view, but I would think you’d understand my view on it, and philosophically you have to make a decision what direction you want to go,” Slocum said. “Going back to when we first got here as a staff, Charles Woodson was our punt returner. The punt return play, I think, has a little less risk for the big hit for a returner than the kickoff return play. It’s something that we weigh in terms of how our whole game plan going into a ball game is and how we’re going to apply it, and we make those decisions based on that detail.”
That’s why Cobb is more likely to see time on punt returns, although Hyde, a rookie cornerback from Iowa who served as the Hawkeyes’ punt returner for two seasons, will see action too.
“Anywhere they put me. I have no idea what’s going on upstairs,” Hyde said. “If I get thrown back there, I’ll do my best. I don’t know what they’re thinking.”
Recognizable Reggie: Packers linebacker Clay Matthews hasn’t seen this Reggie Bush since he was on the USC scout-team defense trying to stop the Trojans’ star. Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt just wishes the Lions running back hadn’t decided to have his renaissance coincide with his arrival in the NFC North.
“Let me tell you, this is the Reggie Bush that everybody has been talking about when he got drafted,” Whitt said of Bush, who was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, when the Packers took linebacker A.J. Hawk fifth. “This guy here is running the ball unbelievable. His screen game, catching the ball out of the backfield has always been good. In-between the tackles, he’s hitting it, he’s running and making people miss and 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, but credit to him he’s really a difference-maker right now.”
Bush enters the game having carried 48 times for 254 yards (5.3-yard average) while also catching 11 passes for 179 yards, including a 77-yard touchdown. While he missed the Lions’ victory over Washington two weeks ago with a knee injury, he’s back to being the electrifying player he was in college.
“That was when we were winning championships there, and I was the low man on the totem pole and had to play scout team,” Matthews recalled. “He's a great player and obviously he gave me a fair share of ‘Welcome to college’ (moments). Maybe now it would be the other way around. … He's been playing fantastic, especially coming off last week, just looking really good, so he's definitely someone we'll have to keep our eyes on.”
And that’s the challenge that Bush creates: Whereas the Lions’ running game previously didn’t strike fear in the hearts of defenses – where have you heard that before? – and allowed teams to focus on wide receiver Calvin Johnson, Bush’s emergence brings another challenge.
“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,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “You just look at the game last week, 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.”
Double trouble: There may not be a better tandem of defensive tackles in the league today than Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley. Then again, their talent – Suh was the No. 2 overall pick in 2010; Fairley was the 13th overall pick in 2011 – hasn’t really been the question. It’s been their knuckleheadedness at times that has made some wonder if they’d realize their vast potential. While Suh has racked up penalties and fines at an alarming rate – the most recent being last month for his illegal low block on Minnesota center John Sullivan, resulting in a $100,000 fine that Suh appealed – both are playing smarter and not committing the type of violent, stupid penalties that undercut their production.
“He’s made a concerted effort, as has everybody on our team, to try and play as clean a football as we possibly can, as penalty-free as we can, and that’s proven to be a good thing for us,” Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford said of Suh.
Added Packers right guard T.J. Lang, who’ll spend most of his day blocking Suh: “You just have to make sure you're not doing anything stupid. (I) haven't really seen a lot of that out of them so far this year. They play hard, they play to the whistle. They're an aggressive team, so if it gets to a chippy moment in the game, you've just got to make sure you keep your composure and don't cost the team 15 yards.”
Suh, of course, famously stomped on Packers now-starting center Evan Dietrich-Smith two years ago, but he and Fairley, who had three sacks in two games against the Packers last year, are reason for concern beyond any extracurriculars. Lang’s focus has been on figuring out what techniques will work best for him – he was the team’s starting left guard last year and didn’t match up with Suh as much – rather than worrying about any cheap shots.
“I like to watch a lot of film and watch what other guards are doing that is successful against a guy like that and try to practice small things like that,” Lang said. “You can’t really get out of your fundamentals (against Suh). You have to stay within your technique, within your fundamentals and just trust what you’re doing out there. Watching a guy like that, he doesn’t take a lot of plays off. He comes play after play. You’re going to have to make sure you’re playing with low pad level, using your hands the proper way. It’s just small tendencies you try to pick up from watching other teams play.”
Third-and-long: The numbers are incredible. Entering Sunday, the Lions defense leads the league in third-down defense, holding opponents to just 10 conversions in 47 opportunities, a success rate of just 21.3 percent. Considering that the league average is 37.7 percent, that’s remarkable.
“They’re a good defense. They have a good front four, they get a good pass rush. They get teams in longer-yardage situations,” Packers offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. “Longer-yardage situations against a team that rushes the passer well, it makes it a little more difficult because you can’t hold onto it because they can get to you. They’re a good defense. I’m not sure what else to say. They play (to) defend in the secondary and they let the front four loose.”
It helped the Lions’ numbers that the Chicago Bears were 1 for 13 on third downs last week, and actually converted more fourth downs (two) than third downs. Still, it’s significant.
“We looked at the stats today and (it) is an extremely low number,” Lang said, almost in awe. “They do a good job of getting teams in second-and-long, third-and-long, and it’s hard to convert those types of down and distances. Part of our game plan and targets every week is making sure we’re not getting into those third-and-longs. We want to stay in those favorable down and distances. That means no negative-yardage plays, try to avoid sacks. Third down, we haven’t done a good job this year of maintaining our drives, so third down is going to be a big component this week.”
Indeed, the Packers rank 18th in the NFL in third-down conversion rate offensively at 36.4 percent, which for them is poor. Denver leads the league at a 55.3 percent clip, but the Packers have been in the top 10 every year in that department since Aaron Rodgers took over as the starting quarterback: In 2012 (42.3, ninth), 2011 (48.1, third), 2010 (41.5, eighth), 2009 (47.0, third) and 2008 (44.2, fifth).
“It is a small sample size, but they’ve played four games, so you’ve got to give them credit for that. I think they’ve got a good combination, they’ve got a real good pass rush, they’ve got a good scheme on defense and they’re making plays in the secondary,” Rodgers said. “That’s what you want to do as a defense, get them off the field and keep them out of the end zone.”
Outside looking in: It would have been interesting to see what the Packers would have done had Matthews not been cleared from his hamstring injury. Because he will play, the Packers won’t have to decide how to fill the void, but the guess here is that had Matthews missed the game, the coaches would have had a decision to make on how many snaps to give undrafted rookie Andy Mulumba, because 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry continues to be largely a non-factor, although McCarthy defended him this week.
With Matthews a go, the Packers will still have a decision: How much do they play Perry, and how much do they play Mike Neal, who is starting to take to his new hybrid position? With the Lions having only allowed three sacks and the Packers defense tied for 27 th in the 32-team league in sacks (seven), the need is there for more impact from the position.
“Really Nick Perry, Mike Neal, we’re not going to play with 11. Those days are over. It’s about situational defense, defensive packages, that changes every week,” McCarthy said. “It’s not about this guy competing with that guy, they compete to be part of a defensive personnel grouping. Opportunities in certain schemes, that’s really where the competition comes down to.
“Nick Perry has played three games. He’s had a solid game. He had a couple plays in Cincinnati he’ll learn from. He’s moving in and out of personnel groups. How we utilize that group, Mike Neal and how that factors in, Andy Mulumba’s done some good things. Mike’s been solid, Nick’s been solid.”
Nevertheless, outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene made it clear that the opportunity is there for someone to seize the spot opposite Matthews, something Perry has failed to do despite his draft status.
“I think we’re a little spoiled from what we get from Clay. Clay is obviously playing at a high level and playing the game really the way you want every outside linebacker in this system to play. So we’re spoiled there,” Greene said. “And then, it takes a little time at this position to settle in, especially coming from a 4-3 end position and transitioning to a 3-4 guy and all the (expletive) we do. It’s not like we rush the passer every pass. It’s just, (expletive) happens.
“We’re really looking for that from both of them. Clearly, whoever steps up and starts making those plays opposite Claymaker, he’s going to get more reps in there. Because we really want to win. We want the best players in position to help us win. So whoever is going to start making those plays similar to Clay is probably going to get more of those reps.”
If ever there has been a golden opportunity for the Lions to put an end to their infernal losing streak on Wisconsin soil, it’s this game. The Lions also could help themselves big-time in the NFC North race, since a victory would make them 3-0 in divisional play and 4-1 overall. But Schwartz, of all people, was quick to point out that even a victory Sunday wouldn’t guarantee much of anything for his team, given the division’s recent history. “I think it’s a little too early in the season to standing watching, who’s in first place, who’s in last place,” the Lions coach said. “It was right around this time last year (when) Green Bay was 2-3 and I know that Chicago started 7-1 last year. One team made the playoffs, one didn’t. Your first few games, you’ve just got to go play. It’s a race to see who can correct their mistakes the fastest, who can plug the next guy in the fastest, who can find their personality the fastest. The teams that are able to do that are the teams that go.” Rodgers confessed during the week that his team was still figuring out its identity, and a victory would help that process. The feeling here is that these two teams are closer than in recent years, but at home, the Packers get the nod. Maybe not in six weeks on Thanksgiving Day, but they’re the pick today. Packers 34, Lions 28. (Season record: 3-0)
– Jason Wilde