The Opposite Sideline: Lions seek sweep

Stu Courtney
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Each week, Press-Gazette Media will get the lowdown on the Green Bay Packers’ next opponent from a beat writer who covers that team.

Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) works from a tight pocket against the Green Bay Packers rush at Lambeau Field.

When the Packers hosted the Lions on Nov. 15, victory seemed assured: Green Bay was a double-digit favorite and had gone 24 years without losing at home to Detroit. But the lowly Lions sprung an 18-16 upset and have been soaring ever since.

Detroit (4-7) is riding a three-game winning into its rematch against the Packers (7-4) on Thursday night at Ford Field. The Lions are taking better care of the ball, although their turnover differential of minus-9 remains second-worst in the NFL, ahead of only the Cowboys (minus-12). After struggling for most of the season, quarterback Matthew Stafford tied a career high with five touchdown passes in a 45-14 Thanksgiving thrashing of Philadelphia, and Calvin Johnson also tied a career high with three touchdown catches among his nine receptions.

The Lions beat the visiting Packers 19-7 in Week 3 of the 2014 season, after which Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers urged everyone to R-E-L-A-X. There will be no relaxing this week for a Packers team that has lost four of its last five, including two home losses to NFC North opponents, and now trails Minnesota by a full game for the division lead.

We asked beat writer Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press to answer a few questions about what the Packers can expect in Thursday’s rematch with the Lions at Ford Field:

What has been the biggest factor in the Lions’ turnaround?

DB: “Coach Jim Caldwell says fewer turnovers have been the biggest thing and there’s some merit to that. They’ve only had one turnover in the last three games and they had 20 in the first eight. They’re protecting Stafford better, Stafford is taking better care of the ball and the offense last week had its best game of the season. I don’t think it has solved all of its problems but if you put those two things together, that’s why they’re playing better on that side of the ball. And they’re doing a great job on defense of stopping the run.”

How has Stafford rebounded after such a rough start? Does new offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter deserve the credit?

DB: “Stafford does seem to have a little bit better relationship with him than he did (former offensive coordinator Joe) Lombardi. So maybe they’re on the same football wavelength and that’s helping. But a lot of it is just the protection. He was getting so beat up the first half of the season and one thing Jim Bob Cooter has done is really emphasize protecting him and running the football. They’ve run the ball more than 20 times in each of the last three weeks.”

Who has been looking good in the ground game?

DB: “It’s not really that they’re doing a great job of running the ball, it’s just that they’re emphasizing it more. So defenses have to respect it a little more. Ameer Abdullah has taken over as sort of the No. 1 running back but he hasn’t put up huge numbers. They’re using Joique Bell in packages -- short-yardage and goal-line situations -- and then they’re using Theo Riddick as much as a receiver as anything. But they’ve really started to emphasize Abdullah and Riddick a little bit more.”

The Lions were effective shutting down the Packers’ passing game in their first meeting. Can we expect the same strategy from the defense?

DB: “That’s been the blueprint, going back to last year and the game they won against the Packers, that’s how they had success: single-covering those receivers, playing press man, challenging them to beat them. Now that Jordy Nelson’s out, my sense is the Lions don’t think those receivers can beat their cornerbacks one-on-one. They may have an edge there. And the big key for them has been stopping the run and they’ve been doing a really good job of that the last few weeks.”

What kind of confidence booster was it for the Lions to finally win in Green Bay and snap the 24-year losing streak in Wisconsin?

DB: “That’s what got things rolling. Against the Raiders (an 18-13 win Nov. 22), I don’t think they played great but they got a good effort out of their defense and enough out of their offense. Then last week against the Eagles they just steamrolled. There’s no doubt it’s a different feeling, a different vibe around here.”

The Lions’ schedule isn’t too demanding the rest of the way (at Rams, at Saints, vs. 49ers, at Bears). Do they think they still have a shot at the playoffs if they beat the Packers again?

DB: “They know the odds are against them just based on the number of teams in front of them. That loss to the Seahawks (a controversial 13-10 loss on Oct. 5, in which Calvin Johnson fumbled late at the goal line) could still haunt them.  But if they could beat Green Bay that would be a key because they would have the tie-breaker against the Packers. But they know they probably need to win out to have any shot at getting in. They don’t play any more teams with a winning record after this week, so that possibility’s certainly out there.”

-scourtney@pressgazettemedia.comand follow him on Twitter@Stucourt

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