The yardage and points surrendered on Sunday bothered Packers Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers, but one thing troubled him more.
The Packers let the Lions’ playmakers have their way in Green Bay’s 45-41 shootout victory, as receiver Calvin Johnson (pictured) caught 11 passes for 244 yards and tight end Brandon Pettigrew added seven catches for 116 yards. The Packers couldn’t contain the Lions’ most explosive players.
That, more than his defense’s league-worst ranking in yards allowed, doesn’t sit well with Capers heading into the postseason.
“Everybody you play now is going to have some difference-makers, and a big part of your success is going to be how well you can limit those difference-makers,” Capers said on Monday. “That’s just the nature of our game nowadays.”
What the Lions, and specifically Johnson and Pettigrew, did against the Packers on Sunday was in stark contrast to the teams’ first meeting back on Thanksgiving.
In that game, Johnson and Pettigrew combined for just eight catches and 76 yards, and the Packers forced quarterback Matthew Stafford to take so many underneath throws and check-downs that running back Maurice Morris topped Detroit’s biggest weapons with a team-leading nine catches for 81 yards.
Capers indicated that he didn’t defend the Lions the same way on Sunday because of the possibility of seeing Detroit again in the NFC playoffs in two weeks. The absence of linebacker Clay Matthews and cornerback Charles Woodson, who were resting for the playoffs, also didn’t help his unit.
But he wasn’t going to make excuses for plays that repeatedly ruptured into big gains by Stafford’s go-to guys. Johnson and Pettigrew combined for 11 receptions of 20 yards or more, with Johnson having seven of them. Those 11 plays accounted for 279 of Detroit’s 575 yards. A pass interference penalty on a deep ball to Johnson was worth 36 more.
That’s been the Packers’ biggest nemesis all season, as big plays have led to most of the opponents’ scores. The Packers continued to generate turnovers, adding four takeaways to finish the season tied for first in the league with San Francisco (38), but too many big plays led to too many points, the most allowed by the Packers since the 2009 playoff loss at Arizona.
Coming after Stafford with extra rushers wasn’t the answer, either, as the former No. 1 overall draft pick showed his poise and experience against the blitz.
“When we started pressuring, I can think of four times we had a guy flat free, and he just got rid of the ball,” Capers said. “Then you’ve got a one-on-one matchup, and they won a lot of their one-on-one matchups against us yesterday. It will be a good tape for us to look at.”
Capers will also look closely at the tape of his outside linebackers from Sunday’s game in search of the most effective complement to Matthews.
Brad Jones, Frank Zombo, Vic So’oto and previous starter Erik Walden all played while Matthews rested. Capers liked a little of what he saw from each, noting the sacks by Jones and So’oto and the solid edge set against the run by Jones and Zombo, but no one jumped forward and seized the job. Considering Capers mentioned Jones against both the run and pass, perhaps he’s a potential new starter.
“We’re going to get those guys reps this week and take a good look and see how things go and make a decision on who to go with,” Capers said. “They’re guys we can roll through there, too, to try to keep guys fresh.”
Meanwhile, the Packers offense continued to roll along even without its starting quarterback, top receiver and top running back.
Taking nothing away from the record-setting performance by Matt Flynn in place of Aaron Rodgers, Offensive Coordinator Joe Philbin liked the way his entire unit didn’t miss a beat without Greg Jennings or James Starks and while dealing with more shuffling on the offensive line.
“Hopefully it says a lot about all 11 guys in the offense,” Philbin said, declining to give excessive credit to the Packers’ offensive system. “We tell our guys every Saturday we’re really putting our faith and our confidence in the character and the preparation of our guys.”
Flynn was the guy who shined brightest, of course, which Philbin attributed not just to the past week’s preparation but four years’ worth of dedication to improving his game for when his turn came.
“Knowing this myself when I warmed the bench in some of my playing days, it’s nice to see a guy contribute,” Philbin said. “When you see guys work as hard as they do and put in the effort and the time, and for the number of years that Matt has, to have something good like this happen to him, you have to be happy for guys like that.”
Additional coverage - Jan. 2