Packers’ playoff push led by defense, special teams, but Lions not sleeping on Rodgers

Detroit News

Allen Park — With no information other than the final scores, you could have safely assumed the Green Bay Packers’ four-game winning streak coincided with quarterback Aaron Rodgers getting hot.

You’d be wrong.

Rodgers’ stat line during the stretch has been pedestrian, certainly contrasted against the lofty standards he’s established throughout his Hall of Fame career. While the Packers have averaged nearly 30 points those four victories, Rodgers has completed 64.2% of his passes with exactly one touchdown each game, to go with a pair of interceptions. His passer rating in those contests (87.0) is below his full-season figure, which is already the lowest of his career.

No, these Packers haven’t been as reliant on their quarterback carrying them as they’ve often been in the past. Look no further than last week’s game against NFC North champion Minnesota Vikings. After the first quarter, the Packers had jumped out to a 14-3 lead, but Rodgers was just 2-of-6, leading an offense that registered two first downs and 32 total yards.

It was Green Bay’s other units leading the charge in what would end up being a 41-17 smashing of Minnesota. Scorching-hot return man Keisean Nixon had a 105-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and the other score came courtesy of a pick-six by safety Darnell Savage Jr. And that might have been the second-most impressive thing the defense did in the first quarter, behind a goal-line stand after the Vikings recovered a blocked punt at the 1-yard line.

Lions coach Dan Campbell can appreciate and relate to this brand on complementary football the Packers have been playing during their stretch run, thrusting a team that had been written off to the cusp of a playoff berth heading into the Sunday Night Football showdown with Detroit.

“That’s really been their strength is when they need a unit to pick it up, they’re picking it up, or if one’s struggling, the other two units pick it up,” Campbell said. “They are doing that, very much like we are. That’s what we’ve been doing. We’re playing complementary football. We’ve been pretty good in all three phases. If one’s not having the greatest day, the other two have picked up the slack, so we’ll need to do that again.”

The Packers defense has been particularly impressive in recent weeks. They’ve intercepted at least one pass in eight of the past nine games, having recorded multiple picks in five of those contests. That includes nine through the four-game winning streak.

“I think both (Jaire) Alexander and (Rasul) Douglas are playing at a really high level outside the numbers right now,” Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said, talking about the Packers’ starting cornerbacks. “I think they’re extremely well-coached. For the most part they’re playing with vision on the quarterback. That’s what helps lead them be in the right spot.

The Packers are Douglas’ third team in four seasons, but he’s taken his game to another level in Green Bay, tallying nine interceptions the past two seasons. And Alexander, a first-round pick in 2018, has emerged as one of the game’s top young defensive backs. He’s posted a career-high five interceptions this season and is coming off a game where he played a central role in holding Vikings superstar receiver Justin Jefferson to a career-low one catch for 15 yards.

Leading up to that matchup with Jefferson, Alexander talked a big game before backing it up on the field. Opponent or not, Campbell can appreciate that.

“I always appreciate guys that are competitive,” Campbell said. “I don’t care who you are. I mean, you can always respect that even when it’s the opponent. You can respect a guy that wants to compete and believes in himself and goes out and shows it.

“…He’s an outstanding corner and he is very versatile,” Campbell said. “…He’s got ball skills, he’s feisty, he fights, he’ll come up and attack the run game. So, he’s just somebody we have to know where he’s at, at all times, in the pass game. But there again, look, I like our players, man. I like our receiving corps, I like (Amon-Ra) St. Brown. He’s pretty feisty too. So, I like our matchup. I do.”

For what it’s worth, Alexander was also the last player to intercept Lions quarterback Jared Goff, who has since embarked on a career-long and franchise-record streak of 290 consecutive passes without being picked.

That kind of high-level ball security always has been Rodgers’ calling card. He actually holds the NFL record for most consecutive passes without an interception at 402, and no quarterback has a lower career interception rate than his 1.4%.

But that hasn’t been the case this season. Rodgers’ 11 interceptions are his most since 2010. The exclamation point with those struggles came in the earlier meeting with Detroit this season, when he threw three.

But the Lions refuse to be lulled into a false sense of security. Regardless of what happened last week or last month, it’s easy to remember Rodgers is just one season removed from winning his fourth MVP award. And before a loss to Buffalo on Sunday Night Football in late October, he had won 13 straight primetime games, a stretch where he threw 36 touchdowns and two, yes two, interceptions.

“I think we all know that’s still Aaron Rodgers,” Lions cornerback Will Harris said. “We know the talent that he has and what he’s been able to do throughout his whole career. You have to be prepared for his best. Regardless of what’s happened or not happened this year, that’s still Aaron Rodgers. That’s still a crazy, generation talent. That’s a legit guy that’s been a legit guy every year he’s been in this league. You have to gear up for that and make sure your eyes are right, your keys are right and be prepared to battle.”

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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