GREEN BAY – They are by no means perfect. The Green Bay Packers are aware of this, cognizant of both their emerging strengths and their remaining shortcomings.
And it could be easily argued that they did exactly what they were supposed to do on Sunday: Beat the Detroit Lions at home for the 23rd consecutive time, and for the 14th time in their last 15 tries regardless of locale under head coach Mike McCarthy, when the Lions were without their best player.
And, at 2-2 on the season, they are hardly the class of the NFL at this point, and have plenty of work ahead of them.
Nevertheless, their 22-9 victory at Lambeau Field on a sun-splashed October afternoon was a decided step forward. They overcame their uneven moments. Their defense controlled the line of scrimmage, generated pressure on quarterback Matthew Stafford, weathered more injuries. Their offense stayed patient, again put forth a more than effective running game and made some down-the-field plays through the air as a result. On special teams, their kicker who couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn last year was 5 for 5 and remained perfect on the season.
At the quarter pole, the Packers aren’t world beaters and they aren’t the dregs of the NFC. But it certainly appears they’re trending upward as they travel to face the defending Super Bowl-champion Baltimore Ravens in seven days.
“It's time for us to step up and take our game to another level,” said McCarthy, whose Packers (2-2) improved to 7-1 in games immediately following the bye during his tenure. “I'll say this about our football team: We've improved every week, and that's what I like about it. But the reality is, we have so much more in front of us. We've got young players that have played more football at this point of the season than we probably expected coming out of training camp, and we will definitely benefit from that coming down the stretch."
The most important development with this team, however, is the legitimate running game that has appeared. A year ago, the Packers were 20th in the 32-team NFL in rushing yards per game (106.5) and 22nd in yards per attempt (3.9). After putting up 180 rushing yards Sunday – two shy of their season high set at Cincinnati in their Sept. 22 pre-bye loss to the Bengals – the Packers are averaging 141.0 yards per game and 5.3 yards per carry.
“There’s nothing more fulfilling than seeing all the hard work pay off on Sundays,” said right guard T.J. Lang, who won a unanimous decision in his mano-a-mano battle with Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh while left guard Josh Sitton contained Nick Fairley – with both getting help from center Evan Dietrich-Smith. “It seems like together, we’re finally starting to jell as a unit rather than being on separate pages. That’s something we spend a lot of time throughout the week meeting together, talking about plays and it feels good when you go out and execute.”
After a 44-game regular-season streak without an individual 100-yard rusher, the Packers should have had their third straight different 100-yard rusher Sunday. Rookie Eddie Lacy, who suffered a concussion on his first carry against Washington on Sept. 15 and missed the loss to the Bengals, rushed 23 times for 99 yards, nearly joining James Starks (132 yards vs. Washington) and Johnathan Franklin (103 yards against Cincinnati) on the list. He would have made it, too, had his 26-yard run in the fourth quarter not been halved by a holding penalty, or had McCarthy given him the ball on third-and-7 from the Detroit 39 rather than having quarterback Aaron Rodgers kneel down.
“We’ve come out and we’ve made the run game a point of emphasis, put a little bit more on our shoulders,” said Sitton, who was part of the line shakeup this offseason. “We’ve done a lot of good things in the run game.
“The communication between the coaches and players has been really good this year, and I think that’s one of the biggest things for us. And, it’s shown. We’ve done a couple different things, but we’ve done what we do – we’ve just done it better. We’ve got running backs back there playing with an edge and running the hell out of the ball. It’s fun right now.”
That ground success – helped by wide receiver Randall Cobb’s 67-yard run out of the backfield – led to the Lions (3-2) coming out of their defensive shell and bringing safety help down to defend the run. That, in turn, opened up the passing game, as Rodgers (20 for 30, 274 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions, one sack, 106.8 rating) connected with James Jones on an 83-yard touchdown with 3 minutes 12 seconds left in the third quarter to break open what had been a ho-hum 9-3 game to that point.
“We knew coming in we had to be patient with the way they were going to play, keep chipping away (with) short passes, running the ball. And then the big plays would eventually come,” Sitton said. “And they did.”
When Detroit declared wide receiver Calvin Johnson out because of knee soreness, the Lions’ offense was nearly toothless. When the Packers defense was able to limit resurgent running back Reggie Bush both on the ground (13 carries, 44 yards) and on short passes (four receptions, 25 yards), the Lions never really threatened when the game was in doubt.
“We can’t make excuses for ourselves. Whether Calvin is playing or not, we still need to find a way to get it done,” Bush said. “This one is on the offense; we’ll take it on our shoulders. The defense played well today and we have to do a better job of scoring points and sustaining drives throughout the game to help our defense.”
The Packers defense, meanwhile, was part of the reason for that. After allowing quarterback Matthew Stafford to be sacked only three times in the first four games, the Lions gave up five sacks Sunday, all by linebackers: Two by Nick Perry, and one each by Clay Matthews, Brad Jones and Mike Neal.
“Matt had to hold onto the ball to try to get guys open. They did a good job of rushing him and covering,” Lions coach Jim Schwartz said. “I give them credit. It affected the game. We gave up too much pressure and took too many lost-yardage plays.”
The teams will meet again on Thanksgiving Day, and it will be interesting to see which direction each’s arrow is pointing. Injuries to Brad Jones (hamstring) and Matthews (broken thumb) are worrisome. But for now, the Packers appear to have a realistic self-image, while also realizing their potential.
“We are what our record is. We’re 2-2,” said Rodgers, whose team faces back-to-back AFC opponents before a seven-game stretch of NFC opponents, including four against division foes. “We’ve got five division games (left) in front of us. Tough schedule in front of us, tough challenge next week. It’s going to be important for us to win on the road. We’re 0-2 on the road and 2-0 at home; we made the most of our homefield advantage but you have to win on the road to make the playoffs.
“It’s going to be tough – the health of this football team is going to be very important come November and December for us to make the kind of run we want. We had some setbacks on defense today, so we’ll see how they are tomorrow and Tuesday and hopefully get some of those guys back.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.