Green Bay — In November, a panel of NFL personnel people predicted the Green Bay Packers would bash the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field by scores of 34-10, 35-10, 45-17 and 34-13.
Had the outcome turned out that way, it would have been the Packers’ 25th straight victory over the Lions in Wisconsin.
Instead, the Lions, a 10½-point underdog, won the game played on Nov. 15, 18-16. Based on point spreads, it was the Packers’ second-worst upset defeat during the administration of coach Mike McCarthy.
Now here come the Lions again for their annual visit to Green Bay. This time it’s the Packers’ home opener and the Lions are a 7½-point underdog, and three executives in personnel all called it for Green Bay by scores of 31-24, 28-14 and 27-24.
“(Aaron) Rodgers will be determined to rebound from the worst game of his career,” an NFC personnel man said. “Could be a shootout with (Matthew) Stafford, who is playing well.
“Green Bay’s O-line is more stable and more capable of protecting the quarterback against the wounded Lions’ defense. Green Bay’s secondary got torched (in Minnesota), but I don’t think Detroit has a playmaker the caliber of (Stefon) Diggs. It should be saved by pressure this week.”
An AFC personnel director doubted that defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has the personnel to match up with the Packers’ attack.
“It’s a credit to the Lions that their defense is holding up and playing their butts off,” another scout said. “But I don’t believe in their defense. This is not a talented (unit). They have more pieces than answers.
“They rise and fall with Matt Stafford. As he goes, they go. They are going to have to outscore people to win a lot of games.
“But Clay Matthews vs. (Taylor) Decker? Mismatch. Their other guys vs. (Riley) Reiff? Mismatch. Stafford’s not going to have much time but he’s kind of used to that.”
The 174th game in the 87-year-old series will mark the debut of Lions general manager Bob Quinn. His immediate predecessors, Martin Mayhew (4-9) and Matt Millen (2-13), compiled a 6-22 record against Green Bay.
Quinn, a disciple of New England’s Bill Belichick, adopted his mentor’s team-building principles. His current 54-man roster includes six new unrestricted free agents, four new “street” free agents with NFL regular-season experience and two new veterans claimed off waivers.
“Instead of saying I’ve got two years to accumulate guys, he’s trying to make that early impact and be competitive in that division,” the AFC executive said. “Eventually, if it all works out, he’ll fit specific free agents. He’s wanted to get his guys in there right off the bat.”
Jim Bob Cooter, 32, coached QBs under coach Jim Caldwell for 1½ seasons before being promoted to play-calling coordinator from Game 8 on last year. His attacks feature about 50% no-huddle and have been terrific in the red zone. The Lions rank tied for fourth in giveaways (one), sixth in yards (411.5) and tied for 12th in points (54).
Minus retired Calvin Johnson, the Lions asked more of Golden Tate (5-10½, 197) before signing Marvin Jones (6-2, 198) from the Bengals and Anquan Boldin (6-1, 220) from the 49ers. Tate, a five-year starter, has a RB’s body, a RB’s ability after the catch, tremendous ball skills and good speed. He’s also wound tight, runs average routes and possesses a small catching radius. Jones, a fifth-round pick in 2012, is much better against off than press coverage. He has 4.47 speed, is capable of acrobatic catches, has quickness and is a solid route runner. He’s a No. 2 WR, not a No. 1. Given $750,000 guaranteed July 28 to be the slot, the 35-year-old Boldin has been OK. He can be almost too physical at times and is a remarkable competitor, but he’s also prone to drops and ran just 4.65 in 2003. TE Eric Ebron (6-4½, 253) is playing virtually every snap for the first time. A perennial tease, he’s capable of winning anywhere on the field but remains inconsistent in everything that he does. Ex-Bear Khari Lee (6-4, 258) is an adequate blocker.
The starters, none of whom is older than 27, include three first-round picks and two third-rounders. Yet, the struggles continue. RG Larry Warford (6-3, 335) is a wide body that stays on his feet and can get movement. He’s a consistent four-year regular. Riley Reiff (6-5½, 313) made 56 starts at LT from 2012-’15 but struggled in protection partially due to short arms (33¼ inches). Moved to RT, he was adequate in Game 1, awful in Game 2. Defenders get to his chest and he doesn’t have the ballast to anchor. He’s better in the run game. Rookie LT Taylor Decker (6-7, 311), the 16th pick, doesn’t have long arms (33¾), either, and also looks better suited for the right side. He’s smart (Wonderlic of 36) and tough, but feet and arms for pass blocking have been an issue. LG Laken Tomlinson (6-3½, 316) and C Travis Swanson (6-5, 308), a pair of two-year starters, are liabilities. Despite his size, Tomlinson isn’t a mauler. He’s thick but also heavy-footed, slow to recover and penalty-prone. Swanson is smart (Wonderlic of 28) and a solid leader. However, he doesn’t play with strength, is knocked to the ground too often and routinely gets exposed in one-on-one matchups. It’s only a matter of time before rookie Graham Glasgow (6-6, 308) takes over.
Matthew Stafford (6-2½, 226) has become a better player under Cooter’s tutelage. He loves having the freedom associated with the no-huddle and is making fewer of the impulsive, bone-headed throws that have held him back. At 28, he has lost none of his special arm talent. He has a quick release to go with enough arm strength to crease tight windows. Counting playoffs, his record is 43-54 and his passer rating is 86.1. Through two games, he ranks ninth at 101.2. Stafford is in top condition, is sidestepping well in the pocket and had a career-long 24-yard run Sunday. His Wonderlic score was 35. He has few peers on his hot days. Backup Dan Orlovsky (6-5, 215) has a so-so arm, 2-10 record and rating of 75.3. He’s 33.
Quick-cutting Ameer Abdullah, who was splitting time with Theo Riddick (5-10, 201), is out (foot). Riddick, a sixth-round pick in ’13, had 80 receptions in ’15 but his career rushing average is merely 3.2. He’s shifty and a matchup nightmare in space but can’t get the tough yard inside. Rookie Dwayne Washington (6-1, 228), a seventh-round pick, has good straight-line speed (4.47) and flashes tackle-breaking ability. However, in three seasons for the Washington Huskies, he rushed for just 1,311 yards. FB Michael Burton (5-11, 247), a fifth-round pick in ’15, catches well but is more of a positional blocker.
Third-year coordinator Teryl Austin prefers man-to-man coverage with a single-high safety. It’s a one-gap 4-3 with the linemen often in four-point stances. Austin, an NFL secondary coach for a decade, doesn’t blitz much. The Lions rank tied for 22nd in points (51), tied for 24th in takeaways (one) and 26th in yards (406.5).
DE Ziggy Ansah (6-5, 275), an elite pass rusher and possibly the team’s finest player, appears doubtful (ankle). He has 35 1/8 arms to go with great speed and bend. He was replaced Sunday by Kerry Hyder (6-2½, 277), a third-year undrafted player with a bad body and cement-mixer style. He ran just 5.02 but gives all-out effort and has produced. DE Devin Taylor (6-7, 275), a fourth-round pick in ’13, is a finesse type with enormous arms (36). He tries hard but loses most leverage battles. Well-traveled DE Wallace Gilberry (6-2, 270) has 31½ sacks in nine years because he has a pass-rushing knack and is full of energy. Former Raven NT Haloti Ngata (6-4, 345) is past his prime at 32 but remains a solid starter. He’s tough to budge, in shape, still pursuing and stays on his feet. Former Saint Tyrunn Walker (6-3½, 310), the 3-technique, hasn’t fully regained his explosiveness from a leg injury last year. His backup, rookie A’Shawn Robinson (6-3½, 320), hasn’t flashed like one might expect from the 46th player drafted. He isn’t stout in the run game and, as a straight-ahead rusher, isn’t much of a factor. Ngata’s backup, Khyri Thornton (6-2½, 315), was a bust as the Packers’ third-round pick in ’14. He lost 30 pounds in the off-season, then made two good plays against the run Sunday in a 26-play stint before petering out.
WLB DeAndre Levy (6-2, 234) really struggled in space in the opener before sitting out Sunday (thigh). The Milwaukee Vincent product was a terrific player in 2013-’14 before missing all but 17 snaps in ’15 (hip). His status is unclear. Meanwhile, SLB Kyle Van Noy (6-3, 243) and backup WLB Antwione Williams (6-2½, 240) left with calf and thigh injuries and also are questionable. All that’s clear is that MLB Tahir Whitehead (6-1½, 241) will play every snap. A 26-game starter, he’s fast (4.63) and tough but makes glaring mistakes in coverage. Van Noy, a second-round pick in ’14, looks the part but is a nonentity on the field. Williams, a fifth-round pick this year, runs all right but is too raw to be counted upon. With Levy, Van Noy and Williams out, the Lions finished Sunday with SLB Brandon Copeland (6-3, 263) and WLB Thurston Armbrister (6-1½, 235) in the lineup. Copeland, a converted DE, is just a rusher with 4.75 speed. Armbrister, a former Jaguar, has 4.68 speed but is slow to react.
LC Darius Slay (6-0, 190), a second-round pick in ’13, and FS Glover Quin (5-11, 207), a former Texan with 115 starts, would start for almost every team. Slay is super fast (4.34), quick, aggressive and physically gifted. His eye discipline could be better, and he’s not a ball hawk. Quin is a highly intelligent player (Wonderlic of 26) who has good range, hands, man cover skill and tackling ability. The Lions’ game of musical chairs at SS stopped this year on newcomers Tavon Wilson (5-11½, 212) and Rafael Bush (5-10, 203). Wilson, a former Patriot, is a fine athlete and hits hard. Bush, a former Saint, is short but still runs pretty well in his seventh year. RC Nevin Lawson (5-9½, 192), a fourth-round pick in ’14, is feisty and runs 4.47 but gets turned in coverage. Nickel back Quandre Diggs (5-9, 200), a sixth-round pick in ’15, also is small and scrappy.
Second-year coordinator Joe Marciano, a 30-year NFL veteran, has been using WR Andre Roberts as the dual returner. WR Golden Tate is always a threat on punts, too. Top core players are CB Johnson Bademosi and S Don Carey. K Matt Prater, 32, hit from 60 in an exhibition game. Counting playoffs, he has made 82.9% of field-goal attempts in a 10-year career with Atlanta, Denver and Detroit. P Sam Martin, who also kicks off, leads the NFL in net average (47.8).
Two days after the retirement of WR Calvin Johnson in March, the Lions signed WR Marvin Jones from Cincinnati for $40 million over five years ($20 million guaranteed). Jones is off to a solid start with 12 receptions for more than twice as many yards (203) as anyone on the team. In his only appearance (2013) against the Packers, Jones’ big plays were a 22-yard completion when CB Davon House was out of position and an 11-yard TD on a corner route against Tramon Williams. He missed all of 2014 with foot and ankle injuries.
One of the reasons GM Martin Mayhew was fired after eight games last season was his inability to put an effective offensive line in front of Matthew Stafford. Four of the five starters were high draft choices by Mayhew but only RG Larry Warford played winning football Sunday against Tennessee, according to an NFL personnel man. RT Riley Reiff (first round, 2012), C Travis Swanson (third round, ’14) and LG Laken Tomlinson (first round, ’15) all have been deficient in the first two games. Warford was a third-round pick in ’13.
The Lions went for broke in 2014 with the selection of a tight end, Eric Ebron, with the 10th pick in a loaded draft.
Ebron became the highest drafted tight end since Vernon Davis went sixth in 2006. A third-year junior with tremendous speed and athleticism, Ebron was viewed by GM Martin Mayhew as the third piece of a receiving arsenal that already included Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate.
So far, Ebron has been no better than average with seven touchdown catches, a slew of dropped passes and a string of lousy blocks.
In the Lions’ 16-15 loss Sunday against Tennessee, Ebron flashed with four catches for 53 yards. He also made costly mistakes, including a holding penalty that wiped out a 14-yard TD run and a pass-interference penalty that wiped out his own 1-yard TD catch.
An NFL personnel man on Tuesday recalled studying and interviewing Ebron before that draft. He recalled that the player came across as a loose cannon with maturity issues.
“He was a gray-area guy,” the executive said. “You make excuses, you could say it was competitive swagger, or you could say he was an idiot. Honestly, you didn’t know which side he was going to go. It would depend on the coaching.”
It’s not the fault of Ebron that six of the seven players drafted immediately after him turned out to be excellent choices. In order, the list includes tackle Taylor Lewan, wide receiver Odell Beckham, 3-technique Aaron Donald, inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, guard Zack Martin and inside linebacker C.J. Mosley.
Certainly, what might have been has been pointed out often by reporters in Detroit. The fact Mayhew was canned in November and coach Jim Caldwell could be on the hot seat this year is a reflection of Ebron’s unfulfilled promise.
“I can’t speak for him as a kid but his play speaks of being a coach-killer,” said the scout. “You see the talent. You think he can so you accentuate that, and then he kills you.
“He can’t (block). He has the ability to do it but not the footwork, positioning, working at it. He’s not disciplined.
“I think he can be (dynamic) but at this point of his career, when? Time’s running out. He’ll still play in the league for a while just bouncing around, but he’s not reliable. There’s something missing in that dude.”