World’s Best Preview: Monday’s Two-Minute Drill

Bill Huber

There are no shortage of key matchups for Monday night’s game between the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions.

Can the Packers move the ball without Davante Adams if the Lions can successfully limit Aaron Jones? Can a dominant pass rush affect Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford? Another key will be on special teams, with Green Bay’s suspect kickoff coverage facing elite Lions returner Jamal Agnew.

In Week 3, Agnew returned the opening kickoff against Philadelphia for a 100-yard touchdown. Since he entered the league in 2017, he has a league-leading three touchdowns on returns (one kickoff, two punts).

“He’s a rare breed,” Packers special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga said. “He’s dangerous as a punt returner and kick returner. He has great vision, great balance. He sets up his blocks well. He always seems to find the crease. He has home-run speed to take it the distance. He’s one of the more dynamic returners in the league. … He’s built lower to the ground, but he has great balance and he’s able to run through tackles. He’s also able to run by people. He can make a lot of people miss. That’s why he’s so dynamic.”

The Packers are 31st in kickoff coverage, having allowed an average return of 35.0 yards. They allowed big runbacks vs. Denver in Week 3 and Philadelphia in Week 4, and only a penalty spared them another big return against Dallas last week. On a chilly night, Mason Crosby will be challenged to pound the ball out of the end zone, so the coverage unit figures to be put to the test.

“We fit it better and were there. We just had a guy fly by it,” Mennenga said of last week. “Had a young player, he got put in a situation that was new to him and took it on the wrong shoulder. I think if he would’ve taken it on a little bit differently, it would’ve turned it back and he would’ve made the tackle. We had one of the other guys just miss a tackle and the guy got up the sidelines. We don’t want those at all. Those aren’t acceptable. We’re working hard to fix those. After that, I think we rallied. They were trying to bring it out and made it a point to bring it out. After we tackled them inside the 25 and there were a couple inside the 20, they quit bringing it out. I think we rectified it and I was proud of the guys the way they were flying around and playing physical.”

Now that’s balance: On first-and-10, the Packers are in perfect equilibrium. Green Bay has run 63 running plays and a combined 63 passes (61) and scrambles (two), according to the league’s statistical database. Last year, it was a league-low 154 runs vs. a combined 268 passes (258) and scrambles (10).

That doesn’t necessarily mean the Packers are going to have a perfect run/pass split against the Lions, but the balance is something coach Matt LaFleur has talked about since the moment he was hired.

“I think it’s just so game dependent,” he said. “Obviously, you’d like to keep the defense guessing a little bit of whether it’s going to be run or pass, but ultimately you’ve got to do whatever is going to help produce yards, produce points. Because this game is about points. So not necessarily going into it thinking, ‘Hey, we have to be 50-50.’ But we better be pretty close to be as unpredictable as possible.”

The payoff shows up in the passing game. Green Bay is averaging 8.31 yards per first-down throw this season compared to just 6.12 last season.

Third-down woes: It’s the same old story for the Packers on offense, with their inconsistency and inefficiency rooted in their putrid performance on third down. Green Bay entered Week 6 ranked 27th in the NFL with a 30.5 percent conversion rate. According to STATS, the Packers are the first team since the 2010 Bears to start a season with a record of 4-1 (or better) despite converting 30.5 percent of their third downs or worse.

“If I knew [the solution] right now, we wouldn’t be in those situations,” LaFleur said. “There’s things that we can do from a coaching perspective, from a play-calling perspective that need to be better. But also, we’ve got to make sure we’re not getting penalties. And then there were a couple negative runs that really set us back. It’s just being mindful of what we’re asking our guys to do on first down so we don’t get into those get-back-on-track situations.”

Maybe Monday night will be the night for Green Bay. The Lions’ defense ranks 27th with a 45.6 percent conversion rate.

The coaches: Lions coach Matt Patricia is in his second season. After finishing last year with a 6-10 record, his club enters this game on the upswing with a 2-1-1 mark. LaFleur, the Packers’ rookie coach, is 4-1. The other seven first-year coaches are a combined 9-31-1.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of challenges that come up to a first-time head coach. There’s a lot of challenges that come up for a head coach every single day,” Patricia said. “Obviously, he’s doing a great job. He’s got a strong nucleus around him. He’s got great coaches. I know he hired great coaches that were not there, like Nathaniel Hackett, and he kept great coaches like Mike Pettine, that was there, which is always important. I think they’re just doing a great job of just every single week showing up and competing and going out and winning.”

Turnovers: Both teams have excelled at taking the ball away. With Sunday’s games in the books, Green Bay is fifth with 2.2 takeaways per game while Detroit is tied for sixth with 2.0 takeaways per game. What has LaFleur on edge is the Lions’ ability to force fumbles. They’re tied for second in the league with 2.0 forced fumbles per game, including four in Week 4’s near-upset of the Chiefs.

“That’s been a huge point of emphasis,” LaFleur said. “They’re as good as any team I’ve seen on tape. It shows up all over their film – not only in that Kansas City game but in the Philly game there was a bunch of times where they were able to get the ball out, as well. They do a really good job. You can tell they emphasis that. They’re well-coached, and they’ve got talented guys that kind of bring it to life.”

A history lesson?: Patricia served as Bill Belichick’s defensive coordinator in New England for six seasons before taking over the Lions in 2018. In last year’s Super Bowl, Belichick crafted a defensive game plan that demolished the Rams’ high-flying offense.

LaFleur spent the 2017 season as the Rams’ offensive coordinator, so there are some similarities in terms of scheme and philosophy. Would Patricia look at the Super Bowl film? He didn’t say one way or the other.

“Coach LaFleur and his background and the different teams he’s worked for when he was with Sean in 2017, there’s some influence you see with those guys working together but also if you go back to Kyle Shanahan and some of that,” Patricia said. “You can certainly look at all of it and you can study all of it, but you really have to look at the tape for what they’re doing this year. You can see some resemblance. You can see some carryover certainly from that situation. But, for the most part, it looks like they’re just trying to do everything they can to develop the Packers’ offense.”

Snack time: If Green Bay’s going to have success running the football, it’s going to have to handle veteran Lions defensive tackle Damon Harrison. Since the start of the 2012 season, the 6-foot-3, 353-pound “Snacks” Harrison leads all interior defensive linemen with 446 tackles. Harrison and Ndamukong Suh are the only defensive tackles with 400-plus tackles, 30 tackles for losses, 10 sacks and three forced fumbles over that span. He led all interior defensive linemen with 81 tackles last season, when by a wide margin he led ProFootballFocus.com’s run-stop percentage – a metric that essentially measures impact tackles.

“Obviously, he’s a big dude but there are a lot of big dudes that don’t have the effect that he does,” Packers center Corey Linsley said. “He’s obviously athletic, especially for a big guy. He’s good at what he does. He’s a two-gapper. He uses his hands well and moves laterally well. Those are all things that make him one of the top guys.”

First-rate starts: Entering this week’s games, the Packers were third in the league with 42 first-quarter points and first with a plus-39 point differential in the opening quarter. Now, the Packers have to carry that momentum through the full four quarters.

“I just think we’ve been a little more consistent,” Rodgers said of the offense. “We had a couple games there where we started out fast and kind of puttered to the finish. At least the last couple we’ve been a little more efficient throughout the game. I think a lot of that is Matt and his staff doing a good job adjusting throughout the game and continuing to give us stuff that we can execute. We come in at halftime and I really like, especially the last couple games, what we’ve talked about and then taking the adjustments at halftime back on the field and being effective. It’s been a part of our success.”

Big game: As mentioned in the podcast, this is a huge game for the Packers. Including Monday’s game, eight of their final 11 contests are against teams with winning records.

The last word: Goes to defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, when asked about Ray Lewis’ comments about the Packers’ lack of a defensive “dictator” and Za’Darius Smith’s response. That video is associated with this story.

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