One Day to Kickoff: One Big Lions at Packers Preview
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Rod Stewart’s “Forever Young” debuted in 1988.
Only three members of the forever-young Green Bay Packers were alive as that song climbed the Billboard charts.
Under former general manager Ted Thompson, the Packers always had one of the youngest rosters in the NFL. Nothing has changed under Brian Gutekunst.
The average member of the Packers is 25.51 years old, according to an analysis of Week 1 rosters released by the NFL this week. That’s the sixth-youngest roster in the league, which isn’t unusual. Since Thompson took over in 2005, the Packers have fielded a roster younger than the league average every season. In fact, other than 2017, Green Bay has fielded one of the 10 youngest rosters every season. In that lone exception, it was 11th.
While tight end Marcedes Lewis, quarterback Aaron Rodgers and kicker Mason Crosby are 36, Green Bay has 12 rookies/first-year players on the roster and only five players age 30 or older. (Offensive linemen Lane Taylor and Rick Wagner are 30.) Only Miami (one), the Rams (three) and Jacksonville (four) have fewer “old” players. The league average is 8.34.
The Packers’ opponent on Sunday, the Detroit Lions, are toward the other end of the spectrum. Their average player is 26.51 years old, which gives them the sixth-oldest roster. They have 10 rookies/first-year players and 11 players age 30-plus. The latter figure is tied for fourth-most in the NFL.
Based on the latest Las Vegas odds, the NFC’s heavyweights are New Orleans, San Francisco, Dallas, Seattle and Tampa Bay, so it’s interesting to compare those teams from an age perspective. The average NFL player is 26.03 years old. The Saints have a league-high 14 players who are 30 or older and have the oldest roster in the league at 27.00 years old. San Francisco’s average age is 26.59, Tampa Bay’s average is 26.51, Seattle’s is 26.33, and Dallas’ is 26.07. So, all five of Green Bay’s primary challengers in the conference are older than the Packers, and four are significantly older than the NFL average.
Generally, young players litter special-teams units. At Minnesota, four players who had never taken a snap (Josiah Deguara, Malik Taylor, Vernon Scott and John Lovett) were on the No. 1 kickoff return, and three players (Lovett, Taylor and Krys Barnes) were on No. 1 kickoff. Usually, preseason reps would get those players at least a little battle-tested. That wasn’t the case this year, though.
“You try to think of all the situations you can put guys through in the walk-throughs and show them film and try to prepare them but, I’ve said this several times and I’ll keep saying it, the best experience is those game reps – both good and bad,” special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga said. “If you’re having success, it’s good to help build confidence. If you have some negative things happen to us, that really wakes guys up and you can teach off that film.”
Perhaps not surprisingly considering the team’s history of avoiding short receivers and defensive backs, Green Bay has the league’s tallest roster. Its average player measures 6.22 feet tall.
The rebuilding Jaguars are the youngest (25.05), least-experienced (3.11 years) and have the most rookies/first-year players (18). Plus, they’re the second-lightest (241.38 pounds). San Francisco has the lightest roster (239.85) and Seattle the heaviest (249.67). At 244.73 pounds, Green Bay is just 0.01 pounds lighter than the league average.
Here are the average ages, by season, since 2005 (with how they ranked among the NFL’s youngest teams):
2005 — 26.19 (9th-tied)
2006 — 25.57 (1st)
2007 — 25.72 (1st)
2008 — 25.57 (1st-tied)
2009 — 25.70 (1st)
2010 — 25.92 (5th)
2011 — 25.74 (3rd-tied)
2012 — 25.70 (6th)
2013 — 25.64 (9th)
2014 — 25.75 (8th)
2015 — 25.23 (2nd)
2016 — 25.55 (5th)
2017 — 25.81 (11th)
2018 — 25.74 (10th-tied)
2019 – 25.58 (6th-tied)
2020 – 25.51 (6th)
‘33’ Wearing Bull’s-Eye
According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Packers running back Aaron Jones ran into a loaded box (eight-plus men at or near the line of scrimmage) on a league-high 43.75 percent of his carries last week.
As if Jones needed the confirmation after ranking 33rd in NFL Network’s annual “Top 100 Players” series, but Minnesota’s defensive approach was a sign of respect toward the prolific running back.
“My coach kind of alerted me to that towards the end of last year that they’re going to start seeing me as a weapon all over the field,” Jones said on Friday. “So, there’s going to be times, certainly plays where they’re just keying on me, and that’s just going to help our offense out. So, if they want to key on me, that’s fine. We have all the key parts we need to make things work and that just opens it up for ‘12’.”
The Other Running Back
Last week, a couple days after he was released by the Washington Football Team, the Lions signed 35-year-old running back Adrian Peterson. Seven days later, he rushed for a team-high 93 yards against Chicago. He had five carries of 10-plus yards, tops in the league.
“Obviously, it was just a credit to Adrian Peterson, and what a great professional he is,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “Came right in, stepped right in just like he had been here all the way through camp. You know, he was in camp, he was in shape, he was ready to go for the season. He obviously put his work in through the course of the spring and through training camp with the Redskins, but he was in a good place. He was ready to kind of come in and make something happen. So, from that standpoint, just thoroughly impressed with him as a player, as a person, as a professional. I think he's great for all those young guys to take an example of just how to be a great running back for as long as he's been. Really, it was truly awesome to watch.”
Peterson rushed for 1,042 yards with Washington in 2018 and 898 yards last season. In 2018, he was teammates with Packers outside linebacker Preston Smith.
“He was a great dude,” Smith said. “Being a teammate with him in Washington, he was a great dude, he’s an even harder worker. He’s one of the GOATs of his time. He has a physical, intimidating presence out there on the field because you know he’s a hard runner and he can easily break a tackle, he can easily shake somebody and he can easily break a long run if he’s allowed that opportunity.”
Peterson has rushed for 1,975 yards and 16 touchdowns in 19 career games against Green Bay. Only Hall of Famers Walter Payton (2,484 yards in 24 games) and Barry Sanders (2,059 yards in 19 games) rushed for more yardage.
Sure, this is probably a small sample size, but that yardage total was the most in NFL history by a player 35-plus years old making his debut for a new team.
“It’s an honor to go against Adrian Peterson,” Jones said. “Look, he’s still doing it and all backs who are young backs like me right now hope to be playing that long, and get close to rushing for 2K in a season or rushing for 2K in a season.”
Last week at Minnesota, Packers receiver Davante Adams tied a franchise record with 14 receptions. It was one of the most prolific openers in NFL history.
What might he do with a Detroit secondary down two of its top corners, Desmond Trufant and Justin Coleman, due to hamstring injuries? Well, with a repeat, he’d make NFL history. The NFL record for most catches in the first two games of the season belongs to Saints receiver Michael Thomas, who opened the 2018 season with a total of 28 catches. Thomas, Andre Rison (26 catches for Atlanta in 1994) and Rod Smith (23 catches for Denver in 2001) are the only players with more than 22 catches to start a season.
Back-to-back games of 14 catches seems highly unlikely, but who knows given the chemistry between Adams and quarterback Aaron Rodgers. When Adams suffered through a miserable 2015 season due to a nagging ankle injury, Rodgers’ belief never wavered. Nor did Adams’.
“Confidence. A real confidence,” Rodgers said on Wednesday in recalling Adams before he became a star “I think some guys step on the field and believe they’re the best player on the field, and a lot of it is bravado and false confidence, their own kind of rebuttal to the insecurity they feel maybe about their own abilities or abilities to perform at this level. There’s been a few guys over the years who have had real confidence.
“I think a lot of people were talking about what we were going to do in ’16, is he going to be back? Is he not going to be back? But he never lost that confidence. And it was real confidence. I think we all knew once he got his opportunity, he was going to be special, to be that No. 1 guy. ’17 was kind of the beginning of that process and he’s been a top guy really since then, but the beauty in his game is that he’s always growing. I think I said after the game, he wants that type of relationship that I had with Jordy and Randall, and we work at it. We communicate. We talk. We text, call, FaceTime. We’re always staying connected about plays, adjustments, route stems, body language, a number of things that made Jordy and I and Randall and I’s relationship so tight.”
Patricia is in only his third season with Detroit but was with New England in 2014. When the Patriots put their attention on Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, the rookie second-round pick caught six passes for 121 yards.
“He’s got a tremendous skill-set along with just an absolute, 100 percent being on the same page with the quarterback,” Patricia said. “I'm pretty sure 2014 was a breakout game against us when I played him in Green Bay. I think that's one of the games that he really kind of stepped to the front light, and you could just see all the skill-set on display. His releases are phenomenal. He's got a great first step off the line of scrimmage. He can go speed, he can get vertical. He's got a great top-of-the-route movement where he can come back and be able to just get separation from the defensive backs at that point. He's got a lot of speed to go vertical, he can run by guys in a heartbeat, and he's got tremendous hands. His ability to track the ball in the air, really, it's phenomenal. He just never loses sight of it, and he's able to make some pretty incredible catches as he goes through. So, he is one of the most dynamic players in the league, certainly one of their go-to guys on their team.”
Man in Motion
Green Bay’s use of motion was evident last week against Minnesota, especially with the success of jet sweep-style plays. It was more than misdirection plays, though. The Packers ranked 12th in motion at the snap last week. The top 12 teams in that category won.
“It’s hard for me sometimes to remember all the motions. That’s why I’ve got that trusty wristband,” Rodgers said. “I can tell you, the motions aren’t going anywhere. Those are going to stay. For a long time, I didn’t want any motions and Mike (McCarthy) didn’t like a lot of motion, either. We just kind of lined up and went, and then as defenses kind of changed tactics, you saw more condensed formations taking off, you saw this offense in other places doing stuff with condensed formations and bunches and fly sweeps and fly motions. I think we’ve seen more teams across the league do it. For us, it is a part of our offense. Every play is the possibility, I think, of having motion in it. There isn’t any motion that’s just a motion. Everything has a purpose.”
Power to the Kickers
Last week wasn’t kind to kickers, who perhaps missed the live action of the preseason. As noted by The Associated Press, the 19 missed field goals in Week 1 were the most on the opening week since kickers missed 20 in 1982. Even Detroit’s reliable Matt Prater missed one.
Packers kicker Mason Crosby was an exception. He made both field-goal attempts and all five extra points.
“It all stars with the snap and then the operation, having a smooth snap-hold, and the blocking up front,” Mennenga said. “You’re always nervous – we had some new guys with some injuries on the O-line and were shuffling guys in and out and putting guys in different spots. They did a good job executing. I think it’s just from the repletion and practicing the different situations and doing some different thing with your cadence and wet ball drills. We try to simulate those things in practice. Matt talks about it a lot with our guys, but practice preparation equals game reality.”
It might be a challenging day at Lambeau, with winds from the south at 10 to 20 mph.
Since entering the NFL in 2009, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is tied for the NFL lead with 34 game-winning drives, according to Pro Football Reference.
“He’s poised, he’s confident, he’s seen it all and he’s had an entire game at that point to get a sense for what you’re in,” Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said in explaining Stafford’s clutch history. “So, very similar to Aaron that those guys over the course, you might be able to fool them early and have some stuff that’s unscouted early on, but by the time you get to a 2-minute late in the game, you’ve usually emptied the gun. So, those elite quarterbacks are ones where you have to find a way that you can at least (create) some shred of doubt in their minds. If they know what you’re in, then you’re going to get diced up. This guy has been doing it for a long time and I think he’s one of the more vastly underrated quarterbacks in the league. He doesn’t get the credit on the national stage, but he’s always put up a ton of yards, a ton of points and he’s obviously one of the best quarterbacks we’ll go against and, unfortunately, we have to do it twice.”
In his past 10 games against Green Bay, he’s thrown 22 touchdowns vs. three interceptions. He has two-plus touchdown passes in nine of those games and 100-plus ratings in six games. As a veteran who will be facing Pettine for a fourth time, there’s little that Stafford hasn’t seen in his career. That will make disguising the defensive intentions a necessity, albeit perhaps meaningless.
“It’s a challenge,” Pettine said of disguising coverage. “That’s something that we’re emphasizing to our guys all week. We can’t just line up and let them know what we’re in. Over the course of a game, you do have to change, whether it’s subtly or however you end up doing it, and of course it’s going to be in reaction to what they’re doing as well, how are they attacking us and how do we need to respond. That’s the difficulty of going against a quarterback that’s taken as many snaps as he’s had and has had the success he’s had. You might get some plays on him early on but you’d better be in it for the long haul because they’re going to get you figured out.”
Stats That Aren’t For Losers
— From the team’s Dope Sheet Preview: For the first time in franchise history, the Packers scored 40-plus points (43), totaled 500-plus yards (522), registered 30-plus first downs (31) and had no turnovers in a game. The point total was the most in Week 1 in the team’s history in the NFL; it scored 53 against Menominee, Mich., in 1919.
— The Packers went 7-1 at home last season, a record matched only by Baltimore. “I don’t think it’s going to affect play. It definitely affects energy,” Rodgers said of playing in an empty Lambeau Field. “It was just a different atmosphere, didn’t have the same type of energy for celebrations and different things, but it’s still football. I thought Bill Belichick eloquently talked about what it felt like and it had a practice feel, like when they bring those teams in like we did last year when Houston came in and have the practices with another team. It had kind of that feeling, except we’re tackling and scoring touchdowns and we’re moving the sticks, but it definitely had that feeling. I feel like the quality of play was pretty high.”
— The Lions emerged from Week 1 with the second-most 10-yards runs (six) and most 20-yard completions (five). They had those big-play passes without receiver Kenny Golladay, who will be inactive again with a hamstring injury. In four games against the Packers, he has 14 receptions for 371 yards (26.5 average) and two touchdowns.
— It wasn’t just Peterson who produced for the old guys club for Detroit vs. Chicago. The Lions’ 34-year-old receiver, Danny Amendola, tallied a game-high 81 receiving yards. Together, they became the first set of teammates 34-or-older to post at least 80 rushing yards and 80 receiving yards in the same game since Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon (34) rushed for 85 yards and receiver Tim Brown (34) had 172 receiving yards vs. San Francisco on Oct. 8, 2000.
— In two-plus seasons under Patricia, the Lions have lost 11 games they led in the fourth quarter. Two of those games came last year against Green Bay, when the Packers swept the series despite leading for 0 seconds. “They gave us everything we could handle last year,” LaFleur said. “The fact that they were winning for literally 120 minutes out of 120 minutes, I mean it was pretty much a miracle that we were able to take both those games.”
The Last Word Goes To …
Packers defensive backs coach Jerry Gray, whose unit must contend with Stafford on Sunday, New Orleans’ Drew Brees in Week 3, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan in Week 4 and Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady after the bye in Week 6.
“You just mentioned four quarterbacks in four to five weeks that possibly have a chance to be if not in the Hall of Fame, be talked about being in the Hall of Fame, and those guys are going to show up. So, as defensive backs, you’ve got to be prepared to show up every week. Everybody’s trying to make a name, but the guys you mentioned already have a name. It shouldn’t be hard to get ready for those guys because they’re already good, but the thing is, we can’t have any lapses like we did at the end of last week.”