GREEN BAY – The game within the game when two division rivals meet is played both inside and outside the white lines.
What the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions did Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field was try to avoid predictability and sprinkle in some originality, all the while knowing neither side was really going to fool the other.
In the Packers’ 34-27 victory, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford remembered everything he'd ever seen from defensive coordinator Dom Capers and exposed every weakness he could in rallying his team from a 31-3 deficit.
In the end, Capers and his defense had one more stop in it than Stafford and his offense had touchdown drives, allowing the Packers to escape with a 2-1 record and send the Lions home at 1-2.
“I’m proud of the guys for fighting back,” Stafford said. “I had a really good rhythm going there in the second half, but again I had to settle for a field goal on one of those drives. We just didn’t get it done.”
DOUGHERTY: Packers' offense finds old form
The Packers entered the game missing five starters on defense – cornerback Sam Shields (concussion), linebacker Clay Matthews (hamstring/ankle), linebacker Datone Jones (knee), safety Morgan Burnett (hamstring) and nose tackle Letroy Guion (knee) -- and every one of them was missed.
Matthews, Jones and Guion, along with end Mike Daniels and linebacker Nick Perry, have been able to both shut down opposing runners and keep constant pressure on quarterbacks. The five of them came into the game with 4 1/2 sacks, eight tackles for loss and two quarterback knockdowns.
“It’s very tough,” nose tackle Christian Ringo said of playing without them. “That’s a different ballgame right there with those guys you just named (Matthews, Jones, Guion) right there. That’s a big factor of the pass rush.”
Not having them put Capers in the position of having to guess whether he could generate enough pass rush to disrupt Stafford’s rhythm or sit back in zone and bet that Stafford would not be able to march the team down the field without making a mistake.
It may be heresy to suggest it, but Stafford has looked better without star receiver Calvin Johnson, spreading the ball to his receivers and tight end based on coverage, not forcing the ball as often as he had. Stafford came into the game with a 101.2 passer rating and having completed at least nine passes to four different players.
The Packers are mostly a man-to-man coverage team and Capers threw a combination of man and zone at Stafford, hoping to give him different looks. Stafford threw for 195 yards in the first half, but an interception that wasn’t his fault, a missed opportunity in the red zone and a missed field goal conspired to give the Packers a 31-10 lead at halftime.
INSIDER: Thumbs up to Perry, down to Randall
On the Lions’ final series of the half, however, Stafford found Marvin Jones matched up with rookie Josh Hawkins, playing for the first time in a regular-season game, on the outside and went for it. Hawkins wasn’t ready at the snap, tripped on Jones’ heel and then looked like he thought Jones went out of bounds.
“I have to keep running, keep playing,” Hawkins said. “I was in good position, I just didn’t see the ball. I didn’t know where the ball is. I have to get my head turned around.”
Giving up that long ball might have scared Capers because he went more to zone coverage in the second half. It turned out it didn’t matter what he called; Stafford was getting time to throw and beating his best corner, Damarious Randall, several times over.
On the first series, Stafford got Randall to suck up on a crossing route and let Jones run in between the zone between corner and safety for 23 yards. He hit that route twice more during a field goal drive that cut the lead to 34-20 in the fourth quarter.
“He’s an experienced quarterback,” said safety Micah Hyde, who was starting in place of Burnett. “We were in Cover-2 and he was just painting that sideline. As a DB, I’d come off the field and try to get some information from the coaches on how I could play it a little bit better. Sometimes, you just have to move on to the next play.”
Not being too fearful of the Packers’ pass rush, Stafford came to the line confidently and continually adjusted the play to take advantage of what the Packers were running. This was his 12th game against a Capers-led defense and there wasn’t much he hadn’t seen before.
“He checked a lot,” Perry said. “They obviously had a good game plan that he felt he was comfortable with. He was comfortable with the offense and we just have to do a better job of making our checks and adjustments as well.”
Not having Shields for the second straight game hurt the Packers. Randall has fashioned himself as a shutdown corner, but there were a couple times he was no match for Jones, who beat him for a 38-yard gain down the sideline and a 35-yard touchdown in which he fell down. He didn’t use it as an excuse, but Randall had to leave the game and go to the locker room for a while due to illness.
BOX SCORE: Packers 34, Lions 27
On the touchdown, Randall said, “I was in great, great coverage and I just lost my footing a little bit.”
Randall did bite back, ripping a ball out of the arms of tight end Eric Ebron in the second quarter and returning the ball 44 yards to help set up the Packers at the Detroit 25. Randall was in zone coverage when he snuck up on Stafford’s pass – a definite win for Capers.
Stafford, who finished 28 of 41 for 385 yards and three touchdowns with an interception, frustrated the Packers early in the second half with a couple of long completions and then a 2-yard touchdown to veteran receiver Anquan Boldin, whose shake move got Quinten Rollins to give up his outside leverage and allow an easy completion.
After Randall got beat on the 35-yarder, the Lions were within 34-27 with 3 minutes 34 seconds left. But a stop on the previous possession, thanks to the pass rush finally getting to Stafford, had eaten up almost 3 minutes and the Lions ultimately ran out of time.
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