The Detroit Lions could not beat the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field even when the Packers rested Aaron Rodgers in Week 17 of the 2011 season; former Packers backup Matt Flynn threw six touchdowns in Green Bay's 45-41 victory. That Lions defeat, along with another one last season, kept Detroit winless at Lambeau since 1991. Progress has been made, but for the Lions to end the streak, they'll need more than Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson on offense. They're going to need another dimension, and for the first time in the Stafford era, they have one.
Reggie Bush is just getting started in Detroit, but already the versatile running back has been a game-changer for the Lions. In their latest conversation, ESPN.com's Mike Sando and Matt Williamson explain why Bush's addition marks a critical step in the Lions' quest to join Green Bay and New Orleans among the NFC's offensive elite.
Detroit plays at Green Bay on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.
Sando: Matt, I don't think either one of us is quite ready to predict a Lions victory at Green Bay, but we're both feeling a lot better about this offense with Bush in the lineup. The way Bush gashed Chicago for 121 yards on 13 inside runs made the Lions almost unrecognizable.
Williamson: No doubt. We're seeing the fulfillment, finally, of the Lions' plan to build their team the way the Indianapolis Colts built theirs around Peyton Manning. Both teams used first overall picks on quarterbacks. Both have invested in offensive skill players while building a pass-first offense suited for playing in a dome. Both have tried to accumulate pass-rushers on defense. And both have done all these things knowing the offensive line would be an afterthought, the defensive back seven would be just a bunch of guys, the special teams would suffer, and the bottom seven to eight guys on the roster would be as bad as any in the league.
Sando: It hasn't always been pretty. For years, the Lions paid a premium for high draft choices under the old collective bargaining agreement. That set them back. So did missing on Titus Young, Derrick Williams, Jahvid Best and Mikel Leshoure -- all offensive skill-position players chosen in the first three rounds since 2009. It's not as if Brandon Pettigrew is a Pro Bowler, either. But in Bush, the Lions appear to have hit a home run. The 28-year-old all-purpose back is averaging 144.3 rushing and receiving yards per game this season, second toLeSean McCoy among qualifying players.
Williamson: Last year, the Bears and Lions were the two teams that relied on one guy on offense more than any other team did. As great as Brandon Marshall (Bears) and Calvin Johnson (Lions) were, somebody else needs to contribute. If the Lions had hit on Young and Best, this might be the best offense in the league already. Broyles should become a good slot guy for them, but they needed another big-play option, and that is Bush.
Sando: Bush has run 26 pass routes from three different locations in the backfield. He has run seven routes from the right slot, six from the left slot, nine from the perimeter and even one from the tight end spot. It's tough keeping track of him on TV. I can only imagine what it must be like for defenders.
Williamson: There might not be five backs in the league who can truly run a wide receiver route tree, not just wheel routes and screens. Marshall Faulk is the best example of that guy ever. Bush can detach and run a deep post. Safeties will have a hard time with that, let alone linebackers.
Sando: Bush had 565 yards rushing and 742 yards receiving way back in 2006, his rookie season. He had 2,000 yards rushing over the past two seasons with Miami, but I guess I'd forgotten just how versatile he could be.
Williamson: It's been quite an evolution for Bush. He has done a great job of reinventing himself. His time with the Dolphins had a lot to do with it. He looks bigger. When he came in with New Orleans, he looked like McCoy. The league didn't know what to do with specialty guys at the time. But he was exceptional for his impact in the Saints' offense. He forced defenses to pick their poison. Do you treat him as a receiver or as a running back?
Sando: Right, and if you played nickel personnel, they could go I- and run it. If you played base, they could split Bush out in space to throw the ball. It's what every smart offense should be seeking -- mismatches.
Williamson: Nickel or base? There is no right answer when it comes to defending Bush. The Saints now haveDarren Sproles, but he's never going to carry it 200 times in a season. Bush has become that type of player. He has naturally gained weight and size with age. His stint in Miami showed he can be an every-down back. They did not use him as that split guy. Now, with the Lions, we are seeing the best of his last two stops. He is still able to be a great outside runner, but they don't have the line for that. That is OK. They still get him in space and they throw it to him.
Sando: The Lions are running from traditional passing formations. They've been in the 11 personnel for 69.2 percent of rushing plays this season, up from 43.4 percent in 2012. They are averaging 18.5 rushing plays per game from this traditional pass-oriented grouping, the third-highest figure in the league behind Philadelphia (24.5) and Green Bay (19.0). That is up from 10.6 for the Lions last season.
Williamson: Those plays and formations are really hard to defend. I think they are more dangerous in the 12 personnel, though. In 11, they don't have three good receivers. Their secondary tight ends are OK. When they came out in 12 against the Bears, Chicago countered with a base defense. The Lions spread everyone wide and ran four vertical routes, setting up play-action to Bush. The linebacker bit a little and Bush ran a real quick jerk route. Stafford put it on him and he ran to daylight. It's almost impossible to defend.
Sando: Can this Lions team hang in a shootout with the Packers or Saints?
Williamson: I think they can now. They are good enough to play their style of offense and let their defensive line rush the passer. Let Stafford throw it around the yard, and let Calvin Johnson go for 160 yards, and let Bush get 100-plus yards and Joique Bell 60. Sunday's game at Green Bay is a real measuring stick for the Lions. Before the season, I predicted the Packers would win it all.
Sando: We've barely touched on the Lions' offensive line. The outlook appeared pretty grim entering the season, but the changes have worked out better than expected. I know you've been really high on rookie guard Larry Warford. He's a big reason why Bush is finding those rushing lanes inside. This offense appears to be on its way, but it has not yet arrived. If you're the Lions' GM, Matt, what do you need to add next?
Williamson: They still have only two threatening weapons. It's much easier to defend the Lions than the Packers or the Broncos. Stafford is still a work in progress. Cowboys QB Tony Romo is better than Stafford is right now. The Lions need one more pass catcher, maybe a DeAndre Hopkins type or a Tyler Eifert type. I'm thinking of WRs a team can draft in that 15-25 range of the first round. Add a player like that, and then you can start talking about the Lions beating the big dogs, as long as Stafford continues to mature. For now, the Lions have to feel good about finally having that second weapon teams must fear. That's a big step forward for this team.