Thursday Night Football Preview: Showdown in the Motor City
The NFC North divisional matchup for this week's Thursday Night game features two teams trending in opposite directions.
The Packers have lost four of their last five games, while the Lions are riding a three-game winning streak since cleaning house in their front office. So while the Packers are still in the hunt for a division title and the Lions are clawing their way out of the bottom of the standings, this game just might be closer than what these two teams' current records suggest.
So what will the Lions have in store for their division rivals when the Green Bay Packers come to town?
The Pre-Game Rundown
For the first time in his NFL career, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers looks like a mere mortal. The leader in passing efficiency among all quarterbacks with at least 200 drop backs last year with a Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back of 0.34, Rodgers sits as just the 18th most efficient signal caller this season, right behind Brock Osweiler, Brian Hoyer, and Kirk Cousins.
Probably not if you're the Green Bay Packers.
It's clear that Rodgers is feeling the pain of being without number-one outside receiver Jordy Nelson. In his absence, Rodgers has had to rely on Randall Cobb -- who has been operating at less than 100% for most of the season -- and a quickly aging James Jones in the passing game. But perhaps the biggest disappointment in the receiving department, has been second-year wideout Davante Adams. With his time on the field marred by an inordinate number of drops -- including three just last week -- Adams sits as the second-least efficient receiver with at least 50 targets this season, with his 0.36 Reception NEP per target ahead of only Tavon Austin.
Mostly an afterthought when the passing game is clicking, the running game may now the one silver lining to the Packers' playoff hopes. Eddie Lacy seems to be finding his groove at just the right time, amassing 139 total yards (including 105 on the ground on 17 carries) and a touchdown against the Bears last week. Peaking at just the right time, the team will likely lean on Lacy and his counterpart James Starks more and more as the passing game continues to sputter and the weather dips to freezing temperatures in Lambeau Field.
In contrast to the Packers, the Lions are surging, as they enter this contest on a three-game winning streak that culminated in a 45-to-14 dismantling of the Eagles on Thanksgiving Day.
Oddly enough, the biggest contrast between these two teams in this game might just be at the quarterback position, with Matthew Stafford on fire. Since Week 10 Stafford has accounted for an impressive 0.34 Passing NEP per drop back. To put this number into perspective, Carson Palmer currently leads the league in efficiency with a mark of 0.33 Passing NEP per attempt.
Stafford's efficient play the past few weeks has done well to mask their deficiencies in the running game. Indeed, despite having a trio of preseason darling running backs in Ameer Abdullah, Joique Bell, and Theo Riddick, the team has combined for a -0.57 Rushing NEP per attempt that ranks them as the 10th least efficient rushing attack in the league this season.
The Packers' Game Script
Rodgers and company will look to kick-start their passing game against a Lions defense that ranks as one of the worst in the league. On the season, their Adjusted Defensive NEP per play of 0.21 ranks them as the third most generous team against the pass.
However, as mentioned previously, with Adams struggling recently and shutdown cornerback Darius Slay potentially shadowing Jones, Rodgers may look to Cobb and tight end Richard Rodgers to move the chains through the air in this contest.
The team should also look to feature a more balanced attack with Lacy and Starks in the backfield going up against a softer Lions run defense, a unit that ranks just 16th against the rush according to our advanced metrics.
The Lions' Game Script
For Stafford and Calvin Johnson, their matchup against the Packers' 18th-ranked pass defense should allow them to continue the success they had last week against Philadelphia. Last week against the Eagles' 13th-ranked pass defense, Johnson accounted for a Reception NEP of 13.73 thanks to 3 receiving touchdowns on the day.
And even with Johnson entering this matchup with a quetionable tag due to an ongoing ankle injury that has plagued him the past few weeks, the 6' 5" wide receiver should have his way against Green Bay's two 5' 11" corners in Sam Shields and Casey Hayward.
Despite a favorable matchup on the ground -- the Packers rank 24th against the run according to our metrics -- don't expect to see a lot of running from Abdullah, Bell, and Riddick in this one.
Just last week, the Lions' backfield combined for 110 yards on the ground despite facing a reeling Eagles rush defense that had just surrendered 235 rushing yards to Doug Martin the week before. So while on paper it certainly makes sense for Detroit to try to run on a weak rush defense, the real question is whether or not the running game will be able to get anything going on the ground regardless of the matchup.
Fantasy Football Implications
Even with his recent struggles, Rodgers makes for a decent start in this game as he faces a Lions defense that ranks among the worst in defensive efficiency against the pass and has given up the 11th most fantasy points to quarterbacks this year.
While Cobb is a must-start, Rodgers may find a better time hooking up with his tight end, Richard Rodgers; the Lions give up just the 18th most points to wide receivers, but they're surrendering the 9th most points to tight ends.
As mentioned earlier, with the passing game struggling as of late, the team may lean on Lacy and Starks a bit more, making both attractive plays. On that note, the one-two punch in Green Bay's backfield should find success against a rush defense that is giving up the 10th most points to tailbacks this season.
Stafford and Megatron face a tougher task as they face a Packers defense giving up the 17th and 22nd most points to quarterbacks and wide receivers, respectively. However, after a number of mediocre lines, Megatron exploded for three touchdowns last weekend, showing he can still be an elite WR1 option when he and Stafford are clicking.
While Abdullah seems to be dominating the touches in the Lions backfield -- amassing 17 touches to Bell's 9 and Riddick's 7 last week against the Eagles -- none of these options are strong starts as they face the 13th most efficient defense against the rush this season according to our NEP metrics.
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