The Thanksgiving Day game is a custom that Detroit invented, but it rarely has meaning beyond the tradition and memories invoked. This year’s Turkey Day matchup is a black and blue rivalry reminiscent of the NFC Norris division of old. And to make the rivalry more intense, this game has meaning for both teams, especially the Lions, who need to keep pace with the Bears, Falcons, and Cowboys, in search of a wildcard.
Aaron Rodgers vs. Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley
Detroit’s pass rush has been primarily from the edge this season, with defensive ends Cliff Avril, Kyle VandenBosch, Willie Young, and Lawrence Jackson applying most of the pressure. The interior rush has not been as dominant as it was last season, largely in part to the attention being paid to Ndamukong Suh.
The addition of Nick Fairley to the interior of the line has given the Lions a nice interior rotation to accompany that of the defensive ends. Fairley finally being healthy, and able to take some quality snaps against Carolina, will allow more one on one matchups for Suh, and for the entire line to remain fresh enough to get a decent rush on passing downs. This will specifically be helpful on third downs, where the Lions’ defense has struggled.
This interior pass rush is integral to the Lions’ success on Thursday due to the super human-like abilities of Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The most troublesome of these for the Lions is the quarterback’s Dan Marino-like quick release. Rodgers is able to neutralize most pass rushes by making quick decisions, and unloading the football in a fraction of a second to his receivers. This is often able to offset outside pass rushes, which take a slightly longer time to reach their target. An interior push into the face of Rodgers can force him to move off of his spot in the pocket, and take the extra second to release the ball. Without the push up the middle by Suh, Williams, and Fairley, the Lion defensive ends will be chasing Rodgers all day to no avail, and the plethora of talented Packer receivers will devour the Lion secondary.
In this game, more than any, the Detroit Lions need Ndamukong Suh to step up, and impose his will on his opponent. If he can control the line of scrimmage, and get Rodgers focused on him early, the lions will have a great chance of slowing down the Packers’ explosive offense.
Kevin Smith vs. B.J. Raji
Nobody expected the Lions’ run game to explode last week against Carolina, even with their lackluster run defense. Even fewer people expected Kevin Smith to make such a significant impact on the game. Smith’s resurrection goes further than aiding in a come from behind victory against the Panthers, however. His presence now forces the Packers to prepare for him, during a short week. The Packers must respect the Lion run game now, even if only slightly.
Smith’s ability to be effective running the ball is paramount this Thursday for several reasons. The first is balance, and the ability to control the clock and keep Aaron Rodgers off of the field. The second is that a significant run threat will keep the Packer pass rush from teeing off on Stafford, and will also keep the Packer blitz packages in check.
This is the most significant Thanksgiving Day game in Detroit in many years, and in many ways, it is the litmus test for how much progress the Lions have made. Detroit can keep pace with the packers offensively, especially considering how porous the Packer pass defense has been. The question remains, which Matthew Stafford will show up on Thursday?