MIKE O'HARA

O'Hara's Friday Focus: Sunday's game begins a last-gasp attempt to salvage the season

Posted Nov 16, 2012

This week’s Friday Focus looks at a position change for the Packer with a Detroit-area background, a key matchup that involves that change, whether Matthew Stafford throwing to Johnson can carry the offense, and injury issues that have affected both teams.

It’s the part of the schedule the Lions have looked forward to since the second week of the season, but not the record they wanted or where they expected to be in the standings.

After playing six of their first nine games on the road, the Lions will be homebodies for five of the last seven – starting Sunday against the Packers at Ford Field.

They can’t take back games they should have won – giveaways to Tennessee on the road and at home to Minnesota in back-to-back weeks – or rationalize why the statistics make them look better than indicated by being 4-5 that has them in last place in the NFC North.

Whatever the record, or what got them to a position where they must grasp at any advantage they have, Sunday’s game begins a last-gasp attempt to salvage the season.

There is no reason to sugar coat the situation.  Even a brutally difficult closing stretch has to be approached as “win or else.” That includes Sunday.

“You hate to say ‘must win, ‘ but it’s the utmost importance to get this win, especially in our division,” said Calvin Johnson. “More and more, you can’t stand by and expect they’re going to come. You’ve got to go and take it, and it starts on Sunday.”

After Sunday, the Lions host the powerful Houston Texans in the traditional Thanksgiving Day game and finish off the three-game home stand on Dec. 9 against the revived Indianapolis Colts and their star rookie quarterback Andrew Luck.

It’s a tough closing run, and the first step is all the more difficult because of how the Packers have dominated the Lions over the last six years.

“It’s a very important stretch, obviously, and it starts this week with Green Bay,” Coach Jim Schwartz said. “It’s the only one we can play this week. After having six of the first nine on the road, it’s good to get back to Ford Field against a quality opponent. It’s going to be a very, very important stretch for us.”

The Packers, led by quarterback Aaron Rodgers and a resourceful roster, have overcome injuries and a slow start to get to 6-3. They have a four-game winning streak.

The Packers are favored, and deservedly so. The atmosphere around the Lions this week is that they realize that the situation is reaching the desperation point. If the Lions play with controlled abandon and at a high energy level throughout the game, they have the firepower to pull off an upset. That has to be proven, though.

The realistic pick Sunday is Packers 28, Lions 27.

This week’s Friday Focus looks at a position change for the Packer with a Detroit-area background, a key matchup that involves that change, whether Matthew Stafford throwing to Johnson can carry the offense, and injury issues that have affected both teams.

Megatron – mega problem: When the Lions played the Seahawks, cornerback Richard Sherman decided to call himself “Optimus Prime,” the leader of the Autobots and nemesis of arch-enemy Megatron.

This week, it was Packers cornerback Tramon Williams who adopted  the tag of Optimus Prime.

Johnson is the anti-diva among NFL receivers. Matching nicknames means little to him.

“It doesn’t do anything for me,” he said. “It really doesn’t.”

The only way to stop Johnson is if he’s injured too badly to play, or the Lions stop throwing him the ball.  The latter has happened occasionally this year because of the way defenses gang up on him.

Johnson has been hurting of late, but he’s hit the second half of the season with a  vengeance. In the last two games, he has 19 catches for 336 yards. That included a 12-catch, 207-yard game in last week’s loss to the Vikings.

Johnson has a league-high 947 receiving yards. The last time he faced the Packers was in the last game of last season at Lambeau Field. He shredded their secondary for 11 catches and 244 yards. Of course, that was before Tramon Williams became “Optimus Prime.”

Offenses can ride a running back easier than they can a receiver because of the nature of their positions, but if any receiver is a focal point, it’s Johnson.

“When you have Calvin Johnson, to throw the ball more makes sense,” said offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.

“Running backs, you turn around and give it to them. With receivers, you’ve got to maneuver them, get them open, and even sometimes for the reason of just get him the ball even though he’s being double- and triple-covered.”

In that situation, throw it anyway.

Rodgers revenge: Aaron Rodgers is regarded by most analysts as the best at his position and on track for a Hall of Fame career. He has compiled a sterling resume since succeeding Brett Favre as the Packers’ starter in 2008.

The baton of quarterback greatness has not been passed on the level of  Favre-to-Rodgers since Joe Montana gave way to Steve Young in San Francisco in 1991.

Rodgers led the 2-1 Packers to the Super Bowl championship and a 15-1 record in the regular-season last year, when he was voted the league’s MVP.

Rodgers can make every throw, and he’s smart, tough and able to move.

In his last 24 games, Rodgers has 70 TD passes against only 11 interceptions. Rodgers is having another great year, with 25 TD passes, five interceptions and a passer rating of 107.4. It’s the fourth straight year his rating has been over 100.

But Rodgers has a chip on his shoulder that keeps him motivated. The biggest one was welded in place in 2005, when the 49ers drafted Alex Smith first overall. Rodgers was the second QB drafted, but not until the Packers took him 24th overall after an outstanding career at Cal.

On his weekly radio show in Green Bay, Rodgers told a story about how a Cal professor gave him an “F” in a class on food preparation. The professor also gave Rodgers a lecture on his expressed desire to play in the NFL.

After recounting the story on his radio show, Rodgers followed up by saying: “Thank you for adding to that chip on my shoulder. And I hope you’re a fan.”

Stafford was asked about Rodgers having a chip on his shoulder.

“I wish he’d just get over it and just start getting complacent and start throwing picks,” Stafford joked. “That would be awesome.”

Packers’ handyman:  T.J. Lang is making a drastic position change on the Packers’ offensive line, but it hasn’t caused any consternation for anyone – Lang included.

After starting all 16 games at left guard last season and the first nine this year, Lang is moving to right tackle for Sunday’s game. Brian Bulaga sustained a season-ending hip injury in the Packers’ last game, a victory over the Arizona Cardinals.

Lang, a native of Ferndale, has been a valuable and versatile performer for the Packers since being drafted on the fourth round in 2009 out of Eastern Michigan and Brother Rice High. He started three games as a rookie, and became a full-time starter last year.

Moving from tackle to guard isn’t simple, especially since Lang is moving from the left side to right tackle. Coach Mike McCarthy doesn’t have any reservations about Lang’s ability to make the adjustment.

“T.J. Lang’s a hell of a football player,” McCarthy said in a conference call interview with the Detroit media.  “You know, he’s really one of the upcoming leaders on our football team. He has an ability to play pretty much four positions on the offensive line, -probably five if you ask T.J.
In addition to working at guard and tackle on both sides, Lang also has gotten practice snaps at center.

“He gives us great versatility, and he looks pretty natural out there at the right tackle position,” McCarthy said.

Streaks/personnel/matchup:

Streak: It’s a good one for the Packers. They are 12-1 in the last 13 games against the Lions. The only loss was at Ford Field in Game 13 in 2010. Rodgers went out of the game late in the first half with a concussion and was replaced by Matt Flynn.

Drew Stanton went the distance for the Lions and threw a TD pass to Will Heller late in the game. It was the first of a season-ending, four-game winning streak for the Lions.

Personnel/injuries: In addition to Bulaga, the Packers are without three Pro Bowl players – wide receiver Greg Jennings, pass-rushing linebacker Clay Matthews and safety Charles Woodson.

The Lions’ defense could get some help with the expected return of cornerback Drayton Florence, who’s been out since breaking his arm in the second game of the season. Cornerback Chris Houston went out late last week against Minnesota with a sprained ankle, but returned to practice on Thursday.

Matchup: The Lions’ pass rush hasn’t been effective of late, but it should get some chances to get to Rodgers.

He has been sacked 29 times, the most of any quarterback.

At left defensive end, Cliff Avril should give the Lions an advantage working against Lang in his first pro start at right tackle. Whether that proves to be the case remains to be seen. The Packers have full confidence in Lang, and for good reason. He has played well.

Avril has been bothered by a bad back in recent weeks. He has 4.5 sacks and is below last year’s pace, when he had a career-high 10.5 sacks and six forced fumbles. He has not been credited with a forced fumble this season.