Lions defense looks to eliminate costly errors, slow down Aaron Jones in Packers rematch

Detroit News

Justin Rogers
| The Detroit News

The Detroit Lions keeping their flimsy playoff hopes alive beyond this week hinge on accomplishing something they failed miserably at doing earlier this season; slowing the Green Bay Packers’ potent offense. 

Unlocking a way to do that falls at the feet of defensive coordinator Cory Undlin, who is looking to fix some of critical errors the team made during the Week 2 matchup with the Packers, and marrying that with some of the corrections and positive plays the team made last Sunday, holding the Chicago Bears to seven points in the second half.

“I would expect nothing less than a bunch of juice coming out of this room,” Undlin said. “The way we ended up finishing up the game and playing at the end is going to help that. And we’re going to keep going forward here. Got our hands full. I don’t need to go and take you through that, you guys know.”

In the first matchup with the Packers, things were close through the first half, with the Lions holding a lead deep into the second quarter. But things started falling apart when the Packers took possession with a minute remaining before the break. 

Aided by back-to-back 15-yard penalties committed by safety Will Harris, the Packers raced down the field, needing just four plays to drive 62 yards and take the lead. But the earlier-than-expected dagger came on the first play of the second half, when running back Aaron Jones burst up the gut for a 75-yard touchdown run. 

“We’ve gotta eliminate those things,” Undlin said. 

Take those 14 points off the board and it isn’t a blowout. Maybe the Lions even have a shot to win it in the end. Instead, they lost by 21

If they want a shot to pull off the upset this week, beyond avoiding catastrophic errors, Undlin needs the Lions defense to be successful on first down. That means slowing down Jones, who finished with a career-high 236 yards from scrimmage in the first matchup. 

“When you’re playing these guys, when you’re playing Aaron (Rodgers) and this offense, you’ve gotta stop the run on first down. If you don’t, you’re going to be behind the sticks. …if they’re sitting there at third-and-3, third-and-4 and third-and-2 all game long, it’s going to be a long day.”

Not the right time

At the end of the first half against the Bears, the Lions had an opportunity to attempt a 65-yard field goal, but opted instead to attempt a Hail Mary. 

Matt Prater already holds the NFL record, nailing a 64-yard attempt in 2013, but despite relatively calm conditions in Chicago, the Lions thought better of it. 

“Anytime at the end of the first half, it’s sort of risk-reward of can he make it?” Lions special teams coordinator Brayden Coombs said. “And what’s the worst outcome if he doesn’t? What yard line do we need to get to? The line’s always moving in terms of what gives you a better opportunity between the Hail Mary and the field goal. That’s one of the most difficult stadiums in the NFL to make field goals. Wasn’t the worst conditions we’ve ever seen, but certainly wasn’t the best, either.”

Here’s the thing: Coombs is confident enough in Prater’s leg strength to go for it in the right situation. But the real risk in attempting the kick was what could happen if it came up short. In that scenario, Cordarrelle Patterson, one of the best return men in NFL history, would be waiting and ready to bring it back the other way. 

“I think what you have to keep in mind is we’re trying to limit the number of times No. 84 is touching the ball,” Coombs said. “Finding an extra opportunity to give him one there, when we have eight offensive linemen on the field who would potentially have to make that tackle, I mean, those are all things that go into that decision.”

Patterson returned the game’s opening kickoff 45 yards, while Prater never ended up attempting a field goal, but did miss one of his five extra point attempts. Additionally, Jack Fox had a subpar day punting the ball, at least by his lofty standards. 

All added up, Coombs said it was the team’s most disappointing special teams performances of the season. 

“We didn’t play very well on Sunday,” Coombs said. “Our guys know that. We’ve talked about that. I would say, overall, this past Sunday was our worst game on special teams, so we’re champing at the bit to get back out there.”

Specialists waiting their turn 

Whether it’s the luxury of having an expanded practice squad this season, or simply insurance if the team were struck by a COVID-19 outbreak, the Lions have kept an extra long snapper and punter under contract much of the year. 

From the looks of it, the Lions aren’t going to need Arryn Siposs any time soon. At least not with the way Fox has been punting in 2020. But keeping rookie long snapper Steven Wirtel around, and away from other teams, could pay off if Don Muhlbach, 39, opted to call it a career after this season. 

“I think both of those guys are going to end up playing for a long time in the NFL, to be honest with you,” Coombs said about the two practice-squad specialist.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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