Following a come-from-behind win over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, the Packers have a quick turnaround, having to face the Detroit Lions on Thursday Night. Like the Packers, the Lions are also 2-1, making the winner of this matchup the early leader in the NFC North standings.
Along with Payne providing his insights into this 2023 Lions team via his responses, I also provided the Packers’ perspective on things with some takeaways.
Three games in, what are the strengths of this Lions team?
Payne: The offensive line is by far the best position group on paper, at least amongst the starters. When that group is playing at the level they are capable of playing at, Detroit can do pretty much whatever they want to offensively. The line did have a down game against the Falcons in Week 3, due to a combination of injuries piling up and the duo of Grady Jarrett and Calais Campbell having phenomenal games. On Thursday, Detroit should be getting Taylor Decker back, meaning they will hopefully have four of their five starters healthy.
Bretl: Any sort of success that the Packers defense may have starts in the trenches. The Lions want to run the ball, they currently rank seventh in rush attempts per game, and utilize play-action off of it. A failure to contain Jahmyr Gibbs and David Montgomery will help open up the passing game for Detroit and allow Detroit to control the time of possession. In the passing game, when Jared Goff has time, he is incredibly efficient. The Green Bay pass rush has to disrupt his timing and move him off his spot. The Lions offensive line ranks 13th in ESPN’s pass-block win rate metric through three games.
On the flip side, what is their weakness right now?
Payne: There’s one glaring weakness on each side of the ball. Offensively, it’s the lack of a consistent threat at wide receiver outside of Amon-Ra St. Brown. Josh Reynolds and Kalif Raymond have each had their moments through three games, but neither has stepped up and grabbed a hold of the second wide receiver job.
Defensively, outside corner remains a major question mark. Cam Sutton has been solid on one side of the field, but he’s hardly a shutdown corner. On the other side Jerry Jacobs plays with the tenacity that the coaching staff wants, but he can be a little grabby at times and gets flagged for it.
Bretl: St. Brown has spent most of his snaps lined up in the slot but the Lions will move him around. He is often targeted within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage with the Detroit offense trying to get him the ball in space where he can pick up yards after the catch. When inside, it is likely going to be Keisean Nixon matched up with him. Both Reynolds and Raymond have provide the Lions with big play potential in the passing game. Due to injuries, cornerback is a big unknown for the Packers right now. Jaire Alexander missed Sunday’s game with a back injury while Carrington Valentine left early with a biceps injury. Both were limited in Tuesday’s practice.
Running the ball is going to be a major challenge for the Packers. Not only is this an area they’ve struggled in, but they are going up against a defensive front that is allowing only 3.2 yards per rush this season. Inconsistency on the ground will make moving the ball through the air all the more challenging, but the Packers may have to really rely on Jordan Love and his receivers in this one to attack the weak part of this Lions’ defense. With that said, doing so requires the offensive line providing Love time in the pocket, something they’ve done well at this season, but tackle is another position that is dealing with uncertainty as the availability of both David Bakhtiari and Zach Tom is unknown at this time.
If the Lions are going to beat the Packers, what does their path to victory look like? How will the game unfold?
Payne: Offensively, Detroit wants to grind down opponents with the run game to set up the play-action. They run almost 70 percent of the time on first downs. Unfortunately, through three weeks they’ve had difficulty on first down, so that’s resulted in a lot of second down passes. This week, they might try to mix up their tendencies slightly to throw the Packers off but expect a heavy dose of David Montgomery with a side of Jahmyr Gibbs.
Defensively, the Lions want to force opponents to beat them on third down. That means stopping the run, and forcing teams to pass the ball on third and long. There is a talking point in Detroit that the defensive front needs to “earn” the right to rush the passer. They can’t pin their ears back unless they get into obvious passing downs. Against Seattle, the secondary crumbled, and the pass rush didn’t transition from run defense to pass rush quick enough. Against the Falcons? Detroit completely flipped the script and delivered more sacks (7) than points allowed (6). It’s been a bit of Jekyll and Hyde. There’s a very clear distinction between the style the Lions like to play compared to what happens when opposing passers find their groove. Detroit will want to make Jordan Love uncomfortable and force him to beat them with his arm.
Bretl: For the Packers, it all starts and ends with how they perform in the run game on both sides of the ball. As I already alluded to, an inconsistent run game is really going to stress the passing game by putting Love and Co. into predictable passing situations, allowing Aidan Hutchinson to really tee off and the defense as a whole to do the dictating by getting into favorable matchups. On the other side of the ball, success for the Lions on the ground will set up play-action for Goff, where he has been very effective, and allow Detroit to likely control the clock, and potentially the game. The strength of the Green Bay defense is their pass rush, but they have to first stop the run to give themselves the opportunity to get after Goff.
How has Jared Goff performed in three games?
Payne: Through 12 quarters, Goff has carried the same level of play he ended last season with for about 10 of them. The third quarter against Atlanta got away from him. He missed a few wide-open throws and sailed a pass over the middle that got picked off. Against the Seahawks, there were about three drives that contributed to the Lions falling behind by 10. Aside from that, he’s been near automatic.
Goff is in complete control of this offense, he’s comfortable with the concepts the Lions like to run, and he has chemistry with all his receivers right now. The only way to get him out of his rhythm is either to disguise coverages really well or to put him under pressure.
Bretl: This season, Goff has completed nearly 70 percent of his 103 pass attempts, averaging 7.9 yards per attempt with five touchdowns and two interceptions, oftentimes getting the ball out of his hands quickly. Off play-action, Goff has completed 74 percent of his passes and that’s when the Lions really try to push the ball downfield. Goff currently ranks seventh among quarterbacks in downfield passing yards. As I’ve already mentioned, if the Packers are going to slow Goff, they must apply pressure and make him uncomfortable. If not, he is someone who can pick apart a secondary.
What’s one difference between this year’s Lions team compared to last?
Payne: The schemes are very similar. The coaching staff mostly carried over; the biggest difference is just the overall quality of the roster. Detroit had six draft picks in the first three rounds. They invested some money in free agency. It’s almost like a convection cooling system. The Lions continue to take the bottom layer of the roster out every offseason and make the team better bit by bit. For instance, they replaced Jeff Okudah with Cam Sutton, drafted Brian Branch, which means Will Harris slid into a reserve role and signed David Montgomery to replace Jamaal Williams. There are several more examples, but that’s the biggest difference from last year’s team.
Bretl: Conversely, this is a very different Packers team, especially on offense. The team showcased its resiliency last week, mounting a fourth quarter comeback against New Orleans after a difficult the loss the week prior and three poor quarters of football from the offense prior to their late charge. However, this week has a new challenge as they’ll need to showcase their ability to turn the page quickly coming off an emotional win in order to prepare for a tough matchup with the Lions. Whichever team can find more success in the trenches will probably win the game. In the Packers case, that means giving Love time in the pocket, while on the other side of the ball, being able to slow the Detroit run game and get after Goff.