A version of this story was published by the Detroit Free Press.
When facing a high-octane offense like the Green Bay Packers, you must eliminate mistakes and cannot waste opportunities to score points. This is especially true at Lambeau Field, where the Packers entered last Sunday’s contest with the Detroit Lions averaging 41 points per game.
As the road team in this NFC North title game, the margin for error for the Lions was slim. We knew they would have to play one of their best games of the year to have a chance at knocking off the Packers.
The Lions made a few big plays including a mammoth goal line stand, a key touchdown before the half, and a blocked field goal in the fourth quarter. But twice in the first half the Lions drove into Green Bay territory only to come up empty. It was a handful of plays the Lions failed to accomplish while the Packers converted that were the difference in the 30-20 loss.
Let’s examine four game-changing plays that Detroit failed to execute that swung the game in Green Bay’s favor.
After the defense stuffed the Packers on seven goal-to-go plays, the Lions took over at the one-yard line and picked up a first down to gain breathing room. On third-and-13, Matthew Stafford threw out of bounds to a well-covered Corey Fuller and failed to see a wide-open Eric Ebron over the middle for a likely first down.
This brought the punt unit onto the field and set up the games’ first score.
There were a few main factors that allowed this punt return touchdown to occur. First, you’ll notice the Packers return team doubled right gunner Cassius Vaughn and threw him to the ground (below, top right). This afforded returner Micah Hyde plenty of space to survey the field and maneuver accordingly.
You can see the alley form as Hyde cut to his left. Three Lions were in position to make plays on the ball: fullback Jed Collins, starting linebacker Tahir Whitehead, and long-snapper Don Muhlbach.
On any big return, the returner must always make at least one man miss. Hyde skipped away from Collins and sprung loose, aided by blocks (both were close to block-in-the-back fouls) on the other two defenders.
Once he was past Collins, Whitehead, and Muhlbach, Hyde was in the open field and outran the punter to the end zone.
Well executed by the Packers, miserable performance by the Lions special teams in the biggest game of the year.
After coming away with no points on the their first drive into Packers territory, the Lions again put together a promising drive. Yet they made mistakes on multiple plays, which cost them points. On this play, Stafford overthrew a streaking Johnson. The receiver split a double-team on a post route and was in the clear. How did he break open? When Kellen Davis motioned across the formation to the strong side, the Packers safeties switched roles. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix dropped into the box to guard against the run and Morgan Burnett became responsible for the deep middle.
Burnett was late dropping into position and Johnson was able to run through corner Sam Shields. Ebron created a few yards of separation on his over route against Tramon Williams, which attracted Burnett’s attention. With Burnett out of position, Stafford chose to launch the deep ball and began his throwing motion before Johnson broke open.
Stafford did not miss by much, but it was a throw the Lions needed him to connect on.
After the incompletion, Stafford put his hands on his head, knowing he had missed a rare chance to hit on a big play. In order to beat great teams on the road, you have to make these plays. This should have been a 61-yard touchdown. Stafford made some nice throws to bring the Lions back, but he did not play well enough.
The Lions converted on third-and-short on the next play and a few plays later, picked up a first down at the Packers 31. Facing fourth-and-down after an Ebron drop, and an incompletion on third down, Jim Caldwell elected to bypass a 48-yard field goal attempt and instead kept the offense on the field on fourth-and-10. As they did for a large chunk of the game, the Packers had a safety to Johnson’s side of the field. This left Golden Tate matched up against Williams in soft coverage on the right side.
Tate ate up the cushion and sold a vertical route, before he broke off on a comeback five yards past the sticks. Stafford was flushed from the pocket but spotted Tate open in front of him.
Tate’s body language seemed to indicate disbelief (many of you probably reacted with four letter words) as he watched the ball sail over his head and land nearly 15 yards behind him. The Packers took possession and drove 69 yards for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead.
Fast-forward to the final stanza. Trailing 21-14 just 84 seconds into the fourth quarter, the Lions blocked a long field-goal attempt and the offense began with excellent field position at their own 42. However the good vibes were short-lived. On the ensuing play, Stafford and Joique Bell botched the exchange on the handoff and the Packers recovered. Green Bay then marched 42 yards for a touchdown to go up 28-14 with 8:46 to play, cementing the Lions fate.
It was impossible on tape to see who was at fault given the angles, but you just cannot make that mistake and expect to win.
The Lions were resigned to fight an uphill battle for the entire game. Though the defense wasn’t great, they did enough against a powerful Packers offense to keep the team in the game. The Lions offense again came up small and special teams wiped away momentum by giving up a touchdown and had a kickoff go out of bounds, setting up the Packers go-ahead touchdown. The Lions must make more of these plays in Dallas and cut down on simple mistakes. If they don’t, this 11-win season will come to a bitter end, and become the 23rd consecutive season without a playoff victory.
Credit to NFL Game Rewind for the game film. All Illustrations and GIFs were created by Marlowe Alter for the purpose of reporting, commenting and critiquing.