GREEN BAY – The Packers this week aren't preparing for the same Detroit Lions offense they've seen in recent years.
The Lions, with new head coach Matt Patricia, came into 2018 determined to develop the type of complementary running game that can take some of the playmaking pressure off of veteran quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Despite a 1-3 overall record, the Lions are on their way to achieving that goal, and the Packers are expecting for the first time in a long while to face a Stafford-led offense that will line up and pound the ball on Sunday at Ford Field.
"That whole running back group changes their football team," Head Coach Mike McCarthy said of the trio of rookie Kerryon Johnson (pictured) and veterans LeGarrette Blount and Theo Riddick. "If you want to compare how they're playing offensively, there's a lot of the same players and the same system, but the emphasis on the run is there. There's no doubt."
The change to which McCarthy is referring lies in Detroit's rush offense rankings. For the last four years, from 2014-17, the Lions ranked anywhere from 28th in the league to dead last (twice) in rushing yards per game. They also ranked anywhere from 26th to 32nd in yards per carry.
This year, with an admittedly small sample size of four games, Detroit is ranked 20th in rushing yards and all the way up to seventh in yards per carry with a healthy 4.6 average.
"It's probably right now a run-first offense," defensive lineman Dean Lowry said. "They want to run the ball, and that's something you have to be aware of as a defensive lineman. They're very physical inside. They drafted a (center) in the first round this past year, so that shows you the mentality of how they want to be as an offense."
That first-round draft pick was Frank Ragnow from Arkansas, who has a polished veteran to line up alongside and learn from in former Packers guard T.J. Lang, though Lang is currently in the concussion protocol and in danger of missing Sunday's contest against his former club.
The Lions then spent their second-round pick on Johnson, a 5-11, 205-pound speedster from Auburn who has a team-best 216 yards and a TD on just 38 carries, an eye-catching 5.7 average. He has Lions fans clamoring for him to get the ball more, as the power back Blount is averaging just 2.7 per carry (35-95).
Lowry describes Johnson as "elusive," and when he hit the century mark against the Patriots in Week 2, he became the Lions' first 100-yard rusher in a single game since Reggie Bush back in 2013 (on Thanksgiving against the Packers).
Fellow defensive lineman Kenny Clark said the presence of Johnson has put Stafford under center more, another sign of Detroit's emphasis on the run and desire to set up play-action. Throw in Blount's short-yardage abilities and Riddick continuing to get the majority of his touches as a receiver out of the backfield (five rushes vs. 21 receptions so far this season), and Stafford has a variety of pieces to work with before even turning to an equally diverse receiving trio of Golden Tate, Marvin Jones Jr., and Kenny Golladay.
"It's a different feel just knowing they do want to run the ball a little bit more," Clark said as he enters his third season and fifth time preparing for the Lions.
For the Packers, their run defense is middle-of-the-pack through the season's first quarter (15th in yards allowed, 22nd in average per rush). They've defended the run well twice, against the Vikings and last week vs. the Bills.
The Buffalo game was a strong bounce-back effort after Washington's Adrian Peterson rolled up 120 yards, including a 41-yard jaunt, in Week 3.
Clark said one of the keys against the Bills was the ability of him and Mike Daniels on the interior of the defensive line to handle the "bang doubles" in the Bills' blocking scheme. It's a combination block that's not quite a full double-team, on which a second offensive lineman will help a teammate with an extra block before releasing to find a linebacker on the second level.
Clark said if he can stay engaged with both players, it frees up an inside linebacker like Blake Martinez to make the play. If the blocker releases early to go get Martinez, the linemen have to get off the single block and plug their gap.
The execution against the Bills was mostly the former, as Martinez racked up a team-high nine tackles. Without much of a running game and trailing by multiple scores from early in the second quarter on, Buffalo turned to the pass and the Packers got after rookie QB Josh Allen to the tune of seven sacks.
Detroit's passing game with Stafford is far more dangerous than anything Buffalo presented, but for once against the Lions, the mantra of stopping the run first actually means something.
It's going to take a back-to-basics type of effort against their NFC North rival this time, and that's as good a test as any coming off a confidence-boosting shutout.
"It definitely feels good. It shows all the work we've been putting in, and it finally is starting to click," Martinez said.
"Now we can't make it a one-week wonder."