By Ashley Dunkak
Even with one of the best defensive lines in the NFL, getting to Super Bowl-winning quarterback Aaron Rodgers will not be easy Sunday when the Detroit Lions take on the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field.
“Sometimes you can have a great pass rush and you can’t get there because the quarterback throws it quick,” Lions head coach Jim Schwartz said. “Aaron Rodgers can do that. Plus he’s a very good scrambler. Those are two things we’re going to have to combat as far as our pass rush goes. Can’t get frustrated if he’s throwing the ball quick because there’s not a whole lot you can do about that as a defensive line, but we also need to be able to get him on the ground if he scrambles around. He’s made some big plays, keeping plays alive with his legs. It’s going to be a challenge up front.”
Nevertheless, Schwartz seemed confident because of the way heralded defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and company have played so far this season. The Lions have recorded nine sacks and forced four fumbles, and the line’s harassment of opposing quarterbacks has helped Detroit’s defensive backs collect eight interceptions.
“[The defensive line has] kept relentless pressure on the quarterback, and good things happen when that happens,” Schwartz said. “Our interceptions show that, sacks and strips and things like that. We were lacking turnovers last year, and it was something we were really good at in 2011. Our takeaways dropped in half last year. I think one of the best signs of our first quarter of the season is we have the makings of being able to create some turnovers.”
On the other hand, Green Bay’s defensive line is no joke itself. That unit has helped the Packers defense rack up seven sacks and force seven fumbles. The group includes several massive individuals in 325-pound Johnny Jolly, 337-pound B.J. Raji and 338-pound Ryan Pickett. Even by NFL standards, those are large, large men.
“They’ve got some big guys up there,” Schwartz said. “They reloaded with a lot of good defensive linemen. They can put pressure on the passer. They can create turnovers. That’s always been a thing with their defense. It really doesn’t matter what their rankings are and things like that. You have to take care of the ball.”
The Lions allowed the Chicago Bears to make a blowout a close game with a late turnover last week, and Schwartz recalled a similar effect the last time Detroit played in Green Bay.
“You go back in our game last year up in Lambeau, we were really rolling, I think it was 14-3, our offense was moving the ball. It was a wet, a ball slipped out of the quarterback’s hand, they scooped it up and scored a touchdown,” Schwartz said. “Another time we had a little bit of a miscommunication on a route. We ended up getting an interception. Those two plays changed the course of the game.”
This season, Detroit has given the ball away seven times. So far those mistakes have been more than offset because the Lions are fourth in the NFC with 11 takeaways so far. More often than not, though, the offense has looked solid. While Detroit sometimes gets stuck early and settles for field goals in the red zone, the Lions for the most part move the ball well.
A significant amount of that success can be credited to the team’s retooled offensive line, which includes three new starters.
“As a group, the offensive linemen have done well,” Schwartz said, though he also credits quarterback Matthew Stafford. “A lot of that has to do with Stafford because Stafford gets rid of the ball, and some of the times people think he’s making bad throws, he may be just throwing the ball. But we’ve also run the ball a lot better, and we’ve had some matchups against some lines that we’ve had trouble with in the past, notably Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings.”
Tight end Brandon Pettigrew may prove to be another largely unsung hero for the Lions. After struggling last season and early this year, he snagged seven catches Sunday, stepping up in the absence of injured wide receiver Nate Burleson.
“He went through a little bit of a rough spot, but he’s a good player,” Schwartz said. “Talent wins out in the long run, and hard work wins out in the long run. Brandon has never changed his work ethic, he’s continued to work hard. He’s a guy that feels a lot of responsibility when it comes to our offense and making it go, and he wants to do well for us.”
Pettigrew might not be a go-to guy every week like he was Sunday, but Schwartz said the Lions can rely on him when they need to.
“Depending on what the defense does, he’s going to be in the game plan or maybe not as much in the game plan,” Schwartz said. “This was a game plan where, particularly in the first half, they were really working hard to play a lot of cover two. We were making them pay with the run game and also making them pay with the tight end. If they chose a different game plan, we’d have other guys that step up.”
Off to a 3-1 start this season, the Lions have just one fewer win right now than they got the entire 2012 season. Detroit vice chairman Bill Ford Jr. showed his confidence in the club when he spoke at a charity event earlier in the week and used the phrase “when we win” in talking about this weekend’s game against the Packers.
“That definitely means a lot to us,” Schwartz said. “I said this coming into training camp – we’re very excited about our chances. I think a lot of people made fun of those comments and things like that or were very critical of those comments, but we haven’t wavered in our confidence in this team.
“We’re going to have a lot of things to deal with,” Schwartz continued. “We’re going to have rough spots. But Mr. Ford, the Ford family, they’re all behind us, we’re all behind them. We’re in this together – players, coaches, front office, ownership, and I think that we want to put a team that Detroit is proud about.”