Looking at the numbers from last weekend’s season opener, you understandably might have a difficult time believing the Green Bay Packers’ offense went through the same truncated offseason as everyone else. Playing against the Minnesota Vikings, a team that perennially presents a stiff defensive challenge, the Packers racked up 522 yards and 43 points. Both totals topped the league.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who has had pundits attempting to prematurely push him toward retirement the past few years, looked every bit like an legitimate MVP candidate in the victory, throwing for 364 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions.
His top target, Davante Adams, confirmed his status as one of the league’s unheralded elite receivers, pacing the league with 14 receptions in Week 1, including two of Rodgers’ four scores. And for good measure, the team’s backfield led by Aaron Jones chewed up 158 yards on the ground.
That’s what lies ahead for the Detroit Lions as they look to rebound from a staggering Week 1 loss to the Chicago Bears, hoping to avoid a dreaded 0-2 start in a must-win year for coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn.
Through three quarters of their own opener, the Lions defense was playing well. Sure, the Bears were moving the ball decently, but the most important defensive stat is points and they had only allowed six the first eight possessions. But as the injury bug devoured Detroit’s secondary, the wheels fell off in the final frame with Chicago scoring 21 unanswered points to steal the victory.
That was against Mitchell Trubisky. Now the Lions are charged with the seemingly impossible task of slowing down Rodgers and company, faced with many of the shortcomings that led to last week’s fourth quarter collapse.
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First and foremost, the Lions still have injury issues in the secondary. Nickel cornerback Justin Coleman landed on injured reserve earlier this week and veteran stater Desmond Trufant didn’t practice Wednesday or Thursday with a lingering hamstring strain. The team is on track to get reinforcements, in the form of first-round draft pick Jeff Okudah, but paired with Amani Oruwariye, the Lions look set to trot out a woefully inexperienced tandem against the savvy veteran Rodgers and the always-lethal Adams.
“You try to be really conscious of that as you put the game plan together,” Patricia said. “I think we’ve seen plenty of situations where guys wind up in bad spots and just how dangerous those two can be together. For us, we have to do a good job of making sure we get them off to a good start and let the game progress from there and see how it goes.”
On top of the physical stress Rodgers and Adams can put on a young cornerback, there’s also the mental strain the Packers offense puts on a defensive backfield with its extensive utilization of multi-purpose pre-snap motions.
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“A lot of it is what we call ‘eye control’ and making sure that we’re really disciplined of what we’re looking at,” Patricia said. “Some of that has a purpose, some of it is trying to leverage the defense and get outside and take advantage of the space out there, some of it is a little bit of window dressing, as we like to call it, and try to distract you from maybe what you’re looking at and get you out of a gap or get a little bit more space inside as opposed to keeping everybody down in that area down by the box. It’s something that we’re used to, we’ve been seeing, but I think a lot of people tend to do their offseason projects and offseason study, and now we’ll see a lot more of it because it was successful last year — just like everything. It certainly is a problem, especially with young players because it is an eye discipline thing.”
The good news for Oruwariye is he got a taste last year, not only of NFL action, but specifically against the Packers. He also got a taste of how difficult it was to cover Adams, allowing receptions all three times he was targeted in coverage.
“He’s just very technical with everything he does,” Oruwariye said. “His releases are very polished, his routes are good. And I think the biggest thing is just that chemistry, that trust, with (Rodgers), just because they’ve been doing it together for a few years and they just got it down pat. So we got to be able to try to mess that up, challenge him, challenge (Rodgers), and just try to limit it as much as we can and just go out there and try to make plays.”
Part of challenging Rodgers could be the pass rush, but last year’s ineffectiveness in that department has carried over into the start of the 2020 season. And blitzing is a risky strategy that rarely pays off given his ability to make quick reads and get rid of the ball quickly.
“Obviously, Aaron Rodgers isn’t going to hold the ball and get hit that much,” Patricia said. “He’s going to get the ball out. He’s a tremendous athlete in the pocket. It’s really kind of ridiculous, at times, some of the stuff that he’s able to do. You just see his feet, you see his movement, he’s so calm, he’s so unphased by a lot of things. You’ve got a guy, maybe two guys, coming just completely free off the edge, and he just slides away, and he’ll throw one of those sidearm passes that goes about 40 yards downfield, and it’s accurate as anything you’ve ever seen.
“That is a very difficult problem with him, is that he handles the pressure so well,” Patricia said. “I think his stats against the blitz are just phenomenal. So, it’s tough. It’s tough duty. That’s why he’s a great player.”
For Okudah, he’ll also be battling the emotions that come with making your professional debut. But part of the reason the Lions drafted him was his even-keeled approach in big moments.
“For us, it’s just getting him to understand it’s the same game,” Patricia said. “We just have to execute and do everything to that highest level that we can. He’s going to have to go out and play at some point, and whether it’s in Lambeau (Field) or whether it’s here or wherever it is, we just have to go out and do our job to the best of our ability.”
For what it’s worth, Okudah is doing and saying all the right things leading up to this moment. Included in his preparation for Adams, he’s reached out to former and current cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Stephon Gilmore for insights, before diving headfirst into his personal film study.
As for nerves, he’s downplaying those as well.
“I wouldn’t say intimidating,” Okudah said. “I think it will be, for me, just pretty awesome actually to line up against Aaron Rodgers. (He’s) someone that, obviously, being a football fan, have just known about his game and how well he’s played for such a long time. Just to go out there and start to compete against these guys that you grew up watching, for me it’s just kind of really cool.”