Next up for the Green Bay Packers is the one divisional opponent who has not broken our quarterback’s collar bone. It’s hard to hate these Detroit Lions.
Even back when Ndamukong Suh was a Lion and was stomping on Packers we didn’t get that mad, because his cheap shots didn’t injure us and did get him ejected and suspended.
There’s also the fact that every time we play against them in big games (playoffs in ’93 and ’94 seasons, division-deciding match-ups at the end of ’14 and ’16), they find a way to lose.
As Milwaukee-born Patrick Noth rhymed on his 2017 release “Green And Gold”: “Minnesota’s team is garbage and the Bears still suck / But honestly, Detroit, we wish you the best of luck.”
But in early autumn games, before the ground is frozen, these big cats have scratched us plenty lately: On Thanksgiving 2013 they destroyed the mighty Matt Flynn 40-10. Ten months later even Aaron Rodgers could only score once, and their offense wasn’t just effective—it was humiliating. Bob McGinn was reminded of that pathetic defeat when writing about our whimpering loss two weeks ago to New Orleans: “Not since Game 3 of 2014 has the Packers’ defense closed a defeat with so little pride. On that afternoon at Ford Field the Lions were able to run the ball 12 times in a row to eat up the final 6:54 in their 19-7 triumph.”
Then, on November 15, 2015, Detroit finally ended over two decades of futility in Wisconsin when Mason Crosby missed a game-ending field goal. That’s three times in the last four years the Lions have beat the Packers in pre-December action.
Can the Packers reverse that trend and keep their record above even? To do so they’ll have to beat these names and jersey numbers:
SCOUTING THE LIONS
True to their recent streaky form, the Lions started the year 3-1 and then lost the next three. Last year, they started 1-3, then rallied to 9-4 before losing their last four. The other time Rodgers broke his collarbone, back in 2013, they were 7-5 after thrashing us on Thanksgiving, and then lost their last four.
#9 Matthew Stafford is in his 9th season as the starting quarterback, and his 2nd without Calvin Johnson. Strangely, the loss of Megatron—all 77 unguardable inches—led to Stafford’s best statistical season: his usual gazillion yards with his lowest full-season interception total ever (10) and an NFL record eight 4th-quarter comebacks. (He’s on a similar pace so far this year for hella yards, couple TDs a game, and single-digit INTs.)
In Detroit they are calling Stafford’s new approach “Cooter Ball” in honor of offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter. (Cooter, Packer fans will remember, replaced Vince Lombardi’s grandson Joe halfway through the 2015 season.) Stafford hardly ever throws deep anymore, hoping instead that wide receiver #15 Golden Tate and halfback #25 Theo Riddick will gain plenty of yards after the catch.
Beyond those two, however, the rest of their eligible receivers are just guys. #85 Eric Ebron was drafted four years ago with the 10th overall pick, but is living proof that being tall and fast does not necessarily mean you have two functioning hands. Against Carolina a month ago his early drop in the endzone was the difference, and he responded to the subsequent boos by telling fans to “Stay Woke.”
The other tight end, newly acquired #87 Darren Fells, is bulky and slow like our Martellus Bennett, but unlike Ebron and Bennett, can actually catch.
Speaking of bulk, the Lions were supposed to have their best batch of big uglies in a decade. They had recent top draft picks at center, left guard and tackle in the cupboard, and then they emptied the piggy bank to replace the right side of the line—for two guys with deep Wisconsin roots. All Packer fans remember how much the Lions overpaid for the 30-year-old, surgically repaired hip that hinges inside our former right guard #76 T.J. Lang. But most of us probably missed that, less than a week before Lang robbed them, the Lions were mugged by West Allis Nathan Hale grad #71 Ricky Wagner, forking over more money than any other right tackle had ever received in NFL history.
Was all that cash and drafts worth it? Not so far. Stafford has been sacked 25 times in seven games, 4th-most in the league. Last year’s first rounder, #68 Taylor Decker, has been out all year after June shoulder surgery and probably won’t be back by Monday. His replacement got replaced last week, but the revolving door at left tackle has not been the main weakness. Right tackle and guard, despite being laden with gold, are not standing, and the left guard, last year’s 3rd-rounder #60 Graham Glasgow, got beat badly for a strip sack against Carolina.
The best statistical measure of any offensive line (other than sacks allowed) is rushing yards gained, and third-year starting running back #21 Ameer Abdullah is still in search of his first 100 yard game, and the Lions haven’t had a 100 yard rusher since…sorry to bring this game up again…but it’s been since Thanksgiving 2013, when Reggie Bush made our linebackers look JV.
On defense, everybody in Detroit thinks they’re good again, and the stats suggest they might be. But from what I’ve seen on film, they don’t have enough blue chippers. Drafting linebacker #40 Jarrad Davis with the 21st overall pick this spring was an excellent decision. His speedy presence in the middle has allowed #59 Tahir Whitehead to move to the strong side, which was needed since he is too slow to play middle.
Davis’s speed helps in pass coverage, of course, but is most spectacular in run defense. I counted three tackles for loss against Carolina (his first game back from a September concussion) all of which appeared to occur immediately after he was shot out of a cannon. This rookie appears to be their best player on defense.
All four lineman are good, but none of them great. Strong safety #32 Tavon Wilson plays in the box like a linebacker, and comes out of his own cannon in run support.
The pass defense is as vulnerable as ever, as Matt Ryan, Cam Newton, and Drew Brees have all proved in the last month. #23 Darius Slay is supposed to be the rainmaker in the secondary, but against Carolina first he was too short, then too slow, and before the Lions knew it they were losing by two touchdowns.
Yet Slay is still clearly better than his fellow cornerbacks, and so almost every offense has come out targeting #24 Nevin Lawson‘s side of the field. As bad as Lawson has been on the edge, nothing is more tempting than the slot when #28 Quandre Diggs is lined up there, which is on most plays.
Free safety #27 Glover Quinn has good range and isn’t afraid to jump a route, but he has a lot of shaky teammates to cover for all at once.
HOW THE PACKERS MATCH UP
Two weeks ago I wrote that the Saint’s rookie phenom Marshon Lattimore might be a shutdown corner and in retrospect I may have understated his case. In the two games since, Lattimore made our Brett Hundley and then the Bear messiah Mitch Trubisky look like they weren’t ready for the NFL yet.
Why do I bring this up now? To suggest that Hundley’s terrible performance against the Saints might have been partly due to our coaching staff’s failing to account for just how good Lattimore is. On a portentous third and short early in the game, Hundley checked to what he thought was an easy slant to Davante Adams, but Lattimore ran the route better than Adams. This early and simple failure may have shaken Hundley’s—and the coaches’—confidence for the rest of the contest.
Now that Coach McCarthy and Mr. Hundley have had an entire bye week alone together it’s possible they have made the adjustments every relationship needs to survive and thrive. And maybe the return of the old flame will be the third wheel they need to really get balanced.
The Lions probably have a better front seven and box eight than the Saints did, so it will be harder for Aaron Jones to repeat what he did two weeks ago. Except that the entire offensive line ahead of him looks healthy together for the first time all season, so as long as Jones can dodge the run blitzes of linebacker Davis and strong safety Wilson he should have room to run.
On defense, this looks like the week we get to see what Vince Biegel is all about. If we can finally get some edge rush, then the good work of Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark on the inside should be more obvious and fruitful, and the confusion of our young pass defenders might get masked. The return of Morgan Burnett could also be crucial for the organization of our defense. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix looked hopeless these past few weeks without his battery mate.
THE MILWAUKEE LIONS…AND TIGERS
Another reason many local Packer fans might have a soft spot for our Detroit football rivals is that, for most the past decade, their best player on defense was one of our classmates and neighbors—Milwaukee native, MPS grad, and All-Big Ten Badger DeAndre Levy.
Levy went to Milwaukee Vincent 10 years after I went to Milwaukee Riverside, and he was the beginning of a 21st century wave of MPS students who are populating NFL rosters. Most of them got their first pads from Earl Ingram and the Neighborhood Children Sports League.
After Levy (Vincent class of ’05) was drafted in the 3rd round by the Lions in 2009, it was current Packer Lance Kendricks (King ’06 and MacDowell Montessori ’02) going in the 2nd round to the Rams in 2011, then Brandon Brooks (Riverside ’07) was drafted in the 3rd round by the Texans in 2012. During Brooks’ season the Riverside Tigers beat the King Generals 51-0 on their way to a City Conference title and a berth in the state semifinals. Five years later, Riverside coach Pat Wagner got the mighty Tigers back to the state semifinals, this time led by Eric Murray ’12 who was drafted last year in the 4th round by Kansas City.
So that’s four MPS grads in the NFL this decade, two of them from Riverside University High School. Of those two, Brooks is the starting right guard for the team with the best record in the NFC, and Murray is the special teams ace and dime back for the team with the best record in the AFC. Back in September when the Eagles visited the Chiefs, Coach Wags was in the stands and snapped this photo of #79 Brandon Brooks crouched a few yards away from where #21 Eric Murray is standing pre-snap.
Murray is working his way into the rotation hoping to earn a lucrative second contract, and Brooks already cashed in big-time when he left Houston for Philly. Neither one of them have been outspoken—yet—on the social justice issues of our time, but Kendricks and Levy have been.
Kendricks joined Martellus Bennett and Kevin King on the Lambeau sideline in October to protest the racism of our current U.S. President. “You wear this jersey at this bar,” he preached to Packer fans, “and you’re proud of what we’re doing on that field, and we’re busting our ass for you. But when we voice our opinion on a social issue, you’re against us?”
The same week Levy was testifying before Congress trying to convince lawmakers and billionaire owners to believe in science. “The moment I said anything about it,” he explained to Representative Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas…
“I had two calls telling me I shouldn’t talk about it. And I don’t know if it was because of CTE or if it’s because the general NFL rule, like only football, only talk about football, only think about football. So I posted simply the research…Nobody wants to talk about anything other than football, but it didn’t sit well with me when I’m talking about brain injury, you know, my brain. It’s not my shoulder. It’s my brain. It controls everything I do. It controls everything we think, we feel, and if I don’t have the right to speak about that as a player, I think it kind of really speaks about the culture of the NFL, what the conversations are. I think that’s indicative of the conversations that we don’t hear, the closed-door conversations between the owners. They still are trying to find ways to silence us.”
Levy is clearly not afraid to speak truth to power. Two Aprils ago he challenged his entire gender. In a startlingly honest open letter about his own sexual evolution and the international problem of sexual assault, he wrote: “It’s important for men, especially in a hyper-masculine culture that breeds so many assholes, to stand up and challenge the values that have been passed down to us. This is not just a woman’s problem.”
How has the league rewarded Levy’s eloquence and activism? By blackballing him and trying to take away money he is contractually owed, of course. Colin Kaepernik’s mistreatment has gotten most of the attention this season, but Levy’s saga is equally heartbreaking and unjust.
When we root against the Lions on Monday night, let’s pour one out for the brilliant NFL career of one of Milwaukee’s own, even though he got many of those tackles and interceptions while playing against our beloved Packers.
His NFL career across the great lake might be over, but the man is only 30 years old, and has a lot more left to give back to his home city and state. We should support him and his causes going forward. Maybe we’ll get to vote for him someday. I think he’d make a great governor.
Tune into the post-bye-week edition of The PackerVerse radio show with callers Bob and Jeff, Sonny, Curious Over the River, and Jim From the South Side along with Wildcat Mark in studio on Center Street.