We’re already in Week 4 of the NFL season and our Thursday Night Football matchup pits two longtime NFC rivals against each other as the Green Bay Packers host the Detroit Lions.
The last time these two teams met, the Lions played spoilsport on the final day of the 2022 regular season, defeating the Packers in a game that would have clinched a playoff spot had Green Bay won. However, a lot has changed for each team between then and now, and we’ll be looking at a significantly different matchup than last time.
With each team entering the contest at 2-1, the stage is set for one of them to take an early lead in the race for the NFC North title. Which one will it be? We’ll find out soon enough. Before we break down the matchup, here’s how to watch the game.
Here’s how to watch
When the Lions have the ball
This duel is all about the middle of the field. This is the area the Lions almost always try to attack in the passing game, whether it’s with Amon-Ra St. Brown in the slot, Sam LaPorta underneath or up top, or one of the perimeter receivers on a cross route. That’s where Jared Goff feels most comfortable throwing the ball. It’s also the area the Packers have defended best so far this season, as they rank sixth in FTN’s DVOA on throws over the middle.
How much of that is due to playing against Justin Fields, Desmond Ridder, and Derek Carr/Jameis Winston, and how much of that is actual defensive prowess? The Packers ranked 14th in DVOA against the same throws last year, so it’s probably a little more the former than the latter, but Green Bay has gotten better play (particularly in coverage) from linebacker Quay Walker this year, which is obviously very helped a little. However, his partner at inside linebacker, De’Vondre Campbell, has already been ruled out for this game after suffering an injury in last week’s win over the Saints. This could be a breakthrough for LaPorta, who is coming off a monster game.
From Green Bay’s perspective, the matchup between St. Brown and slot corner KeiSean Nixon is more concerning. According to Pro Football Focus, Nixon has allowed 10 of 11 passes thrown to him in the slot to be completed, yielding 89 yards and a touchdown. St. Brown ranks fifth in the NFL with 11 slot receptions so far this season and gained 124 yards on those plays. St. Brown was limited to just 4 catches for 55 yards (on 9 targets) and 6 catches for 49 yards (also 9 targets) in two games against Green Bay last year, but he also ripped the Packers apart, going 8-109-1 on 10 targets in the season finale of his rookie year. Even when he played against the Falcons last week with a steel plate in his cleats, the Sun God had his most productive game of the season with 9 grabs for 102 yards. He’s the clear focal point of the passing game – only now the Lions have more reliable threats over the middle with LaPorta and Jahmyr Gibbs out of the backfield.
The Packers rank just 27th in DVOA against throws to running backs so far this season, and if David Montgomery returns to resume the early-down grinder role, that could lead to the Lions using Gibbs more heavily as a receiver engage, as he did in Weeks 1 and 2. Last week he scored a career-best 17 runs (more than the first two weeks of the season combined), but drew just two wickets after scoring nine the week before shot once.
As we detailed in our season opener preview, Goff is one of the league’s most vulnerable quarterbacks to pressure. That’s not good news against a defense that features Rashan Gary (12 pressing), Kenny Clark (12) and Devonte Wyatt (10), but the offense has largely kept him from rushing so far this season. (According to Tru Media, he was under pressure on 34% of his dropbacks, compared to the league average of 35.3%.) If you want to get to Goff, it will likely be through internal pressure given the strength of Detroit’s tackles, meaning Clark and Wyatt may have to do the heavy lifting. It might also be a good idea to have Gary rush from the right side of the defensive line against Taylor Decker rather than the left against Penei Sewell, as Decker was limited in training due to an ankle injury.
When the Packers have the ball
There is still a lot of room for improvement here in terms of injuries. We know the Packers will be without both left tackle David Bakhtiari and left guard Elgton Jenkins. We don’t know yet whether some or all of right tackle Zach Tom, running back Aaron Jones and wide receiver Christian Watson will play, or if there will be restrictions on them if they do. They all had at least a limited workout on Tuesday and Wednesday, which should be taken as a good sign, but with Watson in particular, the Packers may want him to get a full workout in before making his season debut. Of course, this is easier to do if you’re not playing on a Thursday night.
Still, there are certain things we know to expect from this version of the Packers’ offense. For one thing, we know Jordan Love will aggressively push the ball downfield. Even without Watson in the lineup, Love is averaging an incredible 10.6 air yards per attempt. According to Tru Media, this is the highest individual rating in the league. His average throw has also reached 2.0 yards past the first down mark, which is the high mark of MORE THAN A FULL YARD. (Derek Carr is 0.9 yards behind bats at second.) He’s really trying to get the ball down the field.
Considering how aggressive Love has been, it’s a little concerning that he has only an average explosive play rate so far (7.5% of his dropbacks have turned into gains of 20+ yards, compared to a league average of 7.4 %), but that’s it. This is where Watson comes into play. More than a quarter of his catches last season (11 of 41) resulted in explosive gains. That’s his role on offense, and the theory is that he’ll help Love take advantage of that opportunity more often. Detroit has been average against deep passes this season (17th in DVOA by FTN), so Watson’s possible return could represent an opportunity to exploit that area of the field – assuming he can play all the snaps.
The play of the Packers’ other young wide receivers (Romeo Doubs, Jayden Reed and Dontayvion Wicks have combined for 26 catches for 362 yards and six touchdowns in three games) makes it less necessary for Watson to make a big impact in his first game of the run season, but the Packers really seem to need Jones to get a handle on their ground game. AJ Dillon has run in the mud all year, averaging just 2.7 yards per carry and only breaking up one run of 12 yards or more while being at or behind the line of scrimmage a disgusting 23.1% of the time. Line was stopped. Jones was the much more efficient and explosive runner of the two last season, and it looks like that will be the case again this year. The Packers obviously don’t want to overload him with work given his size, age and injury history, but if Dillon continues to be so ineffective, they may have to come up with something else.
Where the Lions may be able to gain a surprising advantage here is in the trenches. Aidan Hutchinson is off to a great start to the season as he is tied for the lead (with TJ Watt and Maxx Crosby) with 19 pressures through the first three weeks of the season. He’s also getting to the quarterback quicker this year (2.6 seconds for the pressure and 2.85 seconds for the sack, according to Tru Media) than he did a year ago (2.8 seconds for the pressure and 3.61 seconds for the sack ), a sign that he works faster than the opposing offensive tackles. Alim McNeill, on the other hand, will never put up big numbers given his role, but he was strong in the middle of what has been an effective run defense, checking in fifth in FTN’s DVOA.
The Packers could try to counteract the potential for a frontcourt imbalance by using play-action to unbalance the rush. Love was quite effective on play-action throws, completing 15 of 26 for 247 yards and two scores. The Lions have been prone to run fakes so far this year, ranking 18th in Tru Media’s EPA/Play rankings on these snaps. Trying to hit a downfield shot on play-action could be the Packers’ best chance to make a big play.
Prediction: Lions 24, Packers 20
The injuries to Green Bay’s offense and the above-expected performance from Detroit’s defense lead me to believe that the Lions can contain the Packers’ offense to some degree. (Even in last week’s comeback win over the Saints, the Packers went scoreless for three quarters before scoring two touchdowns and a field goal in the fourth quarter.) The Lions just seem like the better bet to move the ball well offensively – even further away, and even against a Green Bay defense that is also playing quite well.
If you want to know exactly which way you should lean for Thursday night’s game, then I recommend heading over to SportsLine so you can check out the RJ White pick. White is a gambling guru who has made an absurd number of Packers picks, going 60-21-2 against the spread in his last 83 picks involving Green Bay. It’s almost as if the NFL sent him the game script because he seems to know what happens in Packers’ games before they’re even played.