- With the NFC North on the line Sunday night, the Lions will line up across from Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' offense and see ... exactly who they want to be.
A quarterback who has complete control of the offense pre-snap, has done some of his best work on short-range passes and whose over-the-top shots often come as a result of improvisation. A cadre of wide receivers who can make plays downfield but also burn a defense after the catch. A run game that, while a tad inconsistent, has been at its peak with a versatile option out of the backfield.
That’s what the Packers are on offense, how they attack. But it’s also what the Lions have tried to be in the post-Calvin Johnson era under offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter.
“Their passing game has definitely evolved,” Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy said this week ahead of his team’s NFC North-deciding showdown with Detroit. “They’ve gotten more people involved. They had a commitment to Calvin and rightly so. I find they’re tougher to prepare for when you play wide open and you throw the ball to the guy that gets open. I think it’s definitely helped their passing game and helped them schematically with how they challenge the defense.”
Matthew Stafford’s development has been one of the key catalysts in the Lions’ offensive evolution. As both the Packers and Lions have found out this season, though, progress can occur more out of necessity than anything.
Injuries in the backfield forced Green Bay to install second-year receiver Ty Montgomery as a semi-permanent running back. In lockstep, the Packers also began leaning on a shorter passing approach, those screens and tosses to the flat you’ll often hear announcers reference as “extensions of the run game.”
Now, they’re playing with a level of offensive explosiveness not seen in Green Bay at least since Rodgers’s 2014 MVP campaign ... and possibly not since he won the award in 2011, when seven different Packers caught at least 25 balls and four topped 600 yards receiving.
“I mean, they can do so many things with [Montgomery],” Lion coach Jim Caldwell said Thursday. “He lines up in the backfield and all of the sudden he can flex outside and be a guy that you really have to be concerned about, particularly depending on who you have on him. Those matchups create some problems.”
This is perhaps the most underrated aspect of having such a functional offense. On one snap, the Packers can line up with a rather traditional "21" look (two tight ends, one back) with Montgomery in the backfield; the next, they can go to an empty backfield, shifting Montgomery and the TEs to the slot. It makes for a completely different look, all without changing players.
For defenses, that can be a nightmare. Even though it’s the same personnel on the field, the ways in which they would scheme for a four-wide look vs. a single-back look often are far different. So is it better to play it out and hope any resulting mismatches don’t blow up in your face, or to go for a substitution while the Packers play with tempo, running the risk that Rodgers—arguably the best quarterback in NFL history at generating so-called “free plays” via penalty—catches you with too many men on the field?
The Lions actually began their own quest to become more diverse on offense before Johnson retired. They signed WR Golden Tate, who excels with the ball in his hands, prior to 2014. That same off-season, they spent a top-10 pick on matchup-busting tight end Eric Ebron. In the 2013 and ’15 drafts, respectively, they added RBs Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah.
Still, the offense was funneled first through Johnson. In his final year, he saw 149 targets and caught 88 balls. This season, in part due to Johnson’s absence and in part because it plays to Matthew Stafford’s skill set, Cooter has continued to steer the Lions into an unpredictable battle plan.
What has held Detroit back (aside from the fact that Stafford only approaches Rodgers’s level on his absolute best days) is that the O-line is young and the run game is nonexistent. Both Abdullah and the electrifying Riddick have missed extended time this season—Abdullah is on IR, and Riddick (wrist) is questionable for Sunday after three straight absences.
The Lions also do not have the natural ability to crank up the pace the way that Rodgers can. Detroit actually has the league’s highest average time of possession (3:07), per Pro Football Reference. The Packers are not far behind, at 2:49, but they’re more inclined to step on the gas.
“I would say that when we are not huddling, we do probably play with a little more tempo but ... it’s probably getting snapped under 10 seconds on the play clock,” said Cooter. “It’s not like we’re playing super, duper fast. We vet that, we make sure we’re doing what’s in the best interest of the team, but generally the tempo of the offense is not a whole lot different for the most part.”
Dallas took Detroit out of any rhythm it had last Monday night by locking into man coverage and dialing up pressures. That’s similar to how the Lions won in Green Bay last season—rolling the dice with one-on-one matchups, turning the D-line loose and asking the linebackers to clean up elsewhere.
Neither team has the defensive backs to shut down the other’s quarterback for a full 60 minutes. There will be points scored Sunday night, maybe even a lot of them.
Nothing, however, will look all that unusual to either sideline. The Packers’ offense, at least as of the past couple months, is dynamic and extremely difficult to defend. It’s also a glimpse at what the Lions would love their offense to be.