Improved defense not enough to save the day
DETROIT -- They kept their eyes in the backfield all afternoon.
On the perimeter, the Green Bay Packers' defense knew Calvin Johnson was dangerous. Cornerback Davon House called him the best wide receiver in the game.
But Sunday, Detroit Lions running back Reggie Bush was the key.
"He's a dynamic player," linebacker Clay Matthews said. "Any time they can get the ball to him in open field, he's truly a playmaker. So we tried to limit that as much as possible."
For almost 50 minutes, the Packers' defense got the job done. Bush's running lanes were closed. His highlight reel was lacking. Early in the fourth quarter, Bush was stuck with less than 70 yards of offense.
All it took was one play.
On third-and-2 in the fourth quarter, Bush took a handoff as Green Bay's defense tried to keep its deficit within a touchdown. Instead, the right side of the defensive line caved. When safety Micah Hyde took a poor angle, Bush finally had open space.
He ran inside the 10-yard line, made safety Morgan Burnett whiff at the 5, and beat a couple other Packers defenders to the end zone for a 26-yard touchdown run. With the Packers' offense uncharacteristically dormant, it was enough to push the Lions to a 19-7 win.
"The dagger," inside linebacker A.J. Hawk called Bush's touchdown. "A little misdirection play. Reggie Bush is very explosive when he gets the ball in his hands. I think he broke a few tackles and kept running and got in the end zone. It was just a good play by them."
The Lions had their share of good plays Sunday, but it was a far cry from the 30-point beat down they gave the Packers last season in Detroit.
Of the 19 points Detroit scored, seven came when safety Don Carey returned running back Eddie Lacy's fumble 40 yards for a touchdown. Two more came on a safety when Lacy was tackled in the end zone.
Last season, the Packers coughed up 40 points to the Lions at Ford Field. In their return, they gave up 10, one more than Green Bay's offense allowed.
"Our defense was great. They were great," Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "They gave us the ball back, kept us in the game, but we just didn't execute on offense."
Blame was easy to spot Sunday.
Time after time, the Packers' defense gave its offense a chance. There was rookie safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix's first career interception, thwarting a potential field goal. There was cornerback Davon House's interception, preventing a big play on a deep pass from Matthew Stafford to Johnson. There was defensive end Julius Peppers' strip-sack at the 7-yard line, essentially taking 3 more points off the board early in the second half.
The Packers forced three turnovers. They held the Lions without a touchdown on two red-zone trips. Johnson, the All-Pro receiver, finished with six catches for 82 yards and no touchdowns. It was only the fourth time in 13 career games Johnson hasn't scored a touchdown against Green Bay.
In the end, nobody offered pats on the back.
"No," Peppers said. "We would've been satisfied with a win."
It was the type of game that offers a foundation to build on. Even in a loss, it was potentially an important day for a defense that was gashed in Seattle earlier this month. For the first time this season, the Packers held an opponent to less than three touchdowns.
"I think statistics show that any time you're able to come up with three turnovers," Matthews said, "usually the games tilt in your favor."
Still, the Packers' best defensive performance of the season wasn't enough.
By the end, the Packers were gassed. It's hard to stop an offense as balanced and explosive as the Lions' on tired legs, so they didn't. Hands on hips, sucking wind, they were unable to get off the field as the Lions wasted the final 6:54 with a 12-play drive.
There was no finger-pointing in the locker room. No complaints that the offense didn't do its part. Defensive players admitted they were surprised. Week after week, they've come to expect a certain standard of excellence from Rodgers and Co.
This loss was shared by the team, Hawk said.
"Our offense is going to be fine. They always are," Hawk said. "They're always the ones bailing us out. Today was kind of a chance for us to get it back, and we weren't able to do that."
After three weeks of the NFL season, Green Bay left Detroit still searching for answers.
"I think it's more frustrating because our defense played extremely well," Nelson said. "For whatever reason, we cannot get on the same page. Either we play well and they don't, they play well and we don't. We just can't play a good game all over the place. So we have to get to that point and improve.
"Our defense did a heck of a job, and I feel bad for them because they battled. We gave up more points than what we scored as an offense, which is not good."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood.