The NFC North has been dominated by the Packers since its inception. How can Detroit break their run?
Green Bay Dominance
I hate to say it, but the NFC North runs through Lambeau Field. You know it, I know it – we all know it. And in a way, it always has been. Formerly the NFC Central, the division as we know it today has been dominated by the Packers. Ever since its rebirth as the NFC North in 2002, Green Bay has won the division nine times. Chicago and Minnesota have won it just a combined six times. Detroit has never won it. Since winning Super Bowl XLV, the Packers have won the division five of the last six years. Simply put, they have been dominant.
However, Aaron Rodgers had a statistically down year in 2015, and the Vikings managed to wrest control from the Packers that season. Rodgers’ woes continued into the 2016 season and I speculated that the quarterback might be on the decline. After a 3-2 Green Bay start, I wrote that the Vikings were “poised to take a grip of the division.” The rest is history, and I proved to be wrong yet again as the trophy made its way to Lambeau once more in 2016.
On Tuesday, former Packer TJ Lang predicted on Pardon My Take that the Lions would win the division in 2017. In the same episode, he said that Aaron Rodgers was the only reason he had a Super Bowl ring. So, make no mistake: if the Lions want to win their first NFC North title ever, they’re going to have to go through Aaron Rodgers to do it.
Breaking Down the Rivalry in 2016
Stopping an All-Pro quarterback is easier said than done, but all the Lions have to do is slow Rodgers down. Compared to their other games in 2016, Detroit’s contests with Green Bay were shootouts. In two games against the Packers, the average point total was 57.5 – two scores higher than the average of the Lions’ 14 other games (42.07). That mark spelled a one-score increase even for the high-flying Packers, who averaged a point total of 50.35 in their 14 other contests.
The recipe: two franchise quarterbacks and two defenses that fared poorly against the pass in 2016. The deciding factor in two one-score losses for Detroit? Green Bay’s defense (20th in pass DVOA) was just slightly better than Detroit’s (32nd). I’ll say it right now: the winner of the division this year will come down to whose defense is less porous.
Note the defensive arms race that took place between the two teams during the NFL draft. Both teams used four of their first five draft picks on defensive players. Both spent a second-round selection on a cornerback. In Green Bay’s case, they traded out of the first and eventually took former Washington corner Kevin King. Detroit stood pat and stopped the freefall of former Gator Teez Tabor.
Tabor projects as an outside corner in the NFL, but that’s not where the Lions need to improve most in the defensive secondary. Darius Slay has proven he’s a number one corner, and Nevin Lawson quietly had a good season. But, the Lions lacked a reliable slot corner all year long. Second-year man Quandre Diggs played unspectacularly in the slot corner role until he went down injured. The Lions eventually relied on an undrafted free agent, signed off the Ravens’ practice squad, to guard one of the best slot receivers in the game, Odell Beckham Jr.
The Lions Need a Slot Corner
To beat the Packers, the Lions must find a solution at the slot corner spot. The Packers ran three or more receivers 83% of the time in 2016, per Sharp Football Stats. It’d be easy to deem this a statistical aberration due to the rash of injuries that plagued their running back corps. But, according to Football Outsiders, they used three or more receivers on 87% of their plays in 2015.
In the past, Bob Quinn has noted that the team will be in its nickel defense approximately 70% of the time, but that number evidently will skyrocket in their games against Green Bay. More than anything, the Lions need to be able to cover the spread looks the Packers so often deploy. Slay and Lawson aren’t enough to cut it against the trio of Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and an emerging Davante Adams.
At the top of many fans’ offseason wish lists was a linebacker that could cover tight ends. The Lions hopefully addressed that issue with the selection of Jarrad Davis, but it wasn’t their biggest problem in the passing game – at least not according to Football Outsiders. The Lions ranked a dismal 29th in defending tight ends but were dead last when it came to slowing receivers that weren’t the number one or two option on their teams. (By comparison, they placed 26th against number one receivers and 22nd versus number two receivers.) The only team that gave up more yards per game to tertiary and auxiliary options was the New Orleans Saints.
That’s a problem.
Furthermore, according to Pro Football Focus, Jordy Nelson outperformed 54 eligible wide receivers who ran 130-plus routes from the slot, logging 2.75 yards per route run. While I was unable to find any related stats for him, it should also be noted that Randall Cobb is a prolific slot receiver, widely regarded as one of the best in the NFL. The Packers have some of the best weapons to deploy at the slot receiver position, and the Lions must address defending them accordingly.
Stafford proved his ability to throw on the Packers’ defense last season. Not counting the interception that Ebron had wrestled away from him by Quinton Rollins, Stafford threw for 54-81, 732 yards, 5 TDs, and 1 INTs against Green Bay in the 2016 season. If the defense can get out of his way, and get in Rodgers’ way instead, the Lions have a chance to take the division in 2017. To do that, they’ll have to find someone who can really shine in the slot corner role. Like almost everything else, that’s easier said than done.