Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:
But first, a look at the most important player in the game of the week ...
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Not that we should be surprised by Rodgers' sizzling performance after he declared the Packers' could "run the table" following a Week 11 loss to Washington. The guy has a history of accurately calling his shots. Still, I didn't expect a struggling offense to completely flip the script heading down the stretch. I know Rodgers is a quarterbacking superhero, but I didn't know he had the ability to summon up these kinds of super powers on a whim.
Evidently, Rodgers can throw on his cape whenever necessary -- and he elected to show that to the football world starting in Week 12. Since that point, Rodgers has posted a 71.4 percent completion rate, a 11:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 119.8 passer rating. Those figures represent a significant increase in production from the first 10 games of the season (63.2 percent, 25:7 TD-to-INT ratio, 96.0 passer rating).
With Rodgers settling into a groove, the Packers' offense has regained its potency, as evidenced by Green Bay averaging 30.8 points an outing during the five-game winning streak. In addition, the Packers' receiving corps has started to find the paint consistently -- particularly Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams, who've combined for 24 TDs this season. Also factoring in Ty Montgomery's emergence as a credible RB1, the Packers' offense suddenly looks unstoppable heading into this Week 17 NFC North title tilt against the Detroit Lions.
Despite the NFL shifting to a pass-happy league in recent years, defensive coordinators continue to make stopping the run a priority when crafting game plans. Against the Packers, the thought of loading up the box on early downs is a bad idea. Although Montgomery is averaging a robust 6.0 yards per carry, the hybrid threat (who has spent most of his NFL career as a wide receiver) is not a classic RB1 with the "grind it out" skills to punish a defense with a heavy workload. Sure, he racked up 162 rushing yards against Chicago in Week 15, but teams will concede yards to Montgomery if they can keep Rodgers in check.
Good defensive coaches focus on stopping the opponent's most dangerous players at all costs, so I would expect the Lions to make stopping Rodgers the top priority. Look for Detroit to stay in a Cover 2 shell (two deep safeties) and avoid dropping a safety into the box prior to the snap.
In spite of those numbers, the Lions should take their chances and see if Mike McCarthy is disciplined enough to stick with the running game if Montgomery can't get loose early.
2) Take away the bombs and quicks.
You have to take away the big plays to have any chance of slowing down the Packers. Although Rodgers is one of the few quarterbacks patient enough to pick apart a defense with a "dink and dunk" strategy, he is arguably the best deep-ball passer in the league. He loves to push the ball down the field on traditional dropback plays or play-action concepts that challenge the discipline of defensive backs in coverage.
Rodgers has been on fire in the downfield passing game going back to the Week 11 defeat at Washington (when he threw for 351 yards and three touchdowns -- against zero interceptions -- in a losing effort). Looking at his numbers from the past six games, the 33-year-old QB is completing 44.8 percent of his passes traveling 20-plus air yards, gaining 16.2 yards per attempt with a 3:0 TD-to-INT ratio and a 126.0 passer rating. Those numbers are significantly higher than his figures in this area from the Packers' first nine games: 24.4 percent completion rate, 7.7 yards per attempt, 3:2 TD-to-INT ratio, 63.4 passer rating.
That's why I would expect the Lions to borrow parts of the game plans a few teams -- the 2016 Cowboys, 2015 Broncos and 2011 Giants (in the playoffs) -- have employed to slow down Green Bay's offense in the past. Those teams used a couple of man concepts (Cover 1-Man Free and Cover 2-Man) to eliminate the big plays and layups that Rodgers leans on in big games. The Cowboys successfully used these tactics in a surprising 30-16 win in Lambeau that exposed the vulnerabilities of Green Bay's offense. Their game plan wasn't much different than the man-heavy script Denver used in 2015 to suffocate the Packers' high-flying offense in a marquee showdown. Considering how the Giants also used Cover 2-Man to knock off the 15-1 Pack in the 2011 postseason, the blueprint is there for the Lions (and others) to follow.
Here's the problem ...
The Lions lack the personnel to live in man coverage -- especially if Darius Slay is unable to play (or significantly compromised) in Week 17. He is the only defender capable of matching up with Nelson all over the field -- particularly in the slot, where No. 87 has started to do damage over the past six games. If Slay is available, the Lions can throw caution to the wind and lean on these man tactics to enhance their chances of winning the NFC North.
3) Contain and plaster.
Whenever teams face Rodgers and the Packers, they must have a plan to deal with the veteran's organized chaos. The perennial Pro Bowler is a masterful improviser, yet he is always in lockstep with his pass catchers on scrambles.
Looking at the All-22 Coaches Film, Green Bay routinely generate its biggest gains when Rodgers plays sandlot football. Randall Cobb, Nelson and Adams have a knack for finding voids in coverage as Rodgers runs around behind the line of scrimmage. The Packers' scramble drill is arguably the best play in the playbook, and teams must have a plan to deal with chaos when it arises.
"You have to stay on your guys when Rodgers is running around," an AFC secondary coach told me. "They make the majority of the big plays on second-reaction throws, so your secondary has to be disciplined with their eyes in coverage."
From a tactical standpoint, the onus really falls on the defensive line to keep Rodgers confined to the pocket. Edge rushers have to avoid rushing beyond the depth of his drop to prevent him from escaping. In addition, the front line must continue to pursue from snap to whistle to prevent Rodgers from getting comfortable outside of the pocket. This relentless pursuit eventually will wear out the Lions' 300-pound rushers, but they will need to expend maximum effort to have any chance of disrupting Rodgers' rhythm as an "off the cuff" playmaker.
In the secondary, the defensive backs must "plaster" their guys when No. 12 leaves the pocket. Defenders must latch onto their assigned receivers when they break off their routes to flow to the sideline from the middle of the field or take off up the field when Rodgers flees the pocket. We've seen countless examples of defenders losing their receivers during the Packers' winning streak, but the Lions can't afford to give up a cheap touchdown due to a blown assignment during a scramble drill.
At the end of the day, the Lions might not have enough weaponry to execute the game plan others have used successfully. They've been unable to consistently generate a pass rush for most of the season, as evidenced by their paltry sack total (25, tied for 29th in the NFL). Consequently, the Lions are allowing a 72.9 percent completion rate (easily the worst mark in the NFL) and are unable to affect the quarterback in the pocket. While anything is possible in a winner-take-all bout, the Lions are facing an uphill battle against a red-hot quarterback.