Communication breakdown, it's always the same,
I'm having a nervous breakdown, drive me insane!
For the Green Bay Packers' defense, there's been a lot fewer nervous breakdowns and a lot less insanity.
Last season, the Packers allowed 71 completions of 20-plus yards and 10 completions of 40-plus yards. Only New England (79) allowed more 20-yard completions and the Packers tied for 17th in 40-yard completions. This season, the Packers have allowed 44 completions of 20-plus yards. That ranks 20th in the league and puts them on pace to allow 54.2. They've allowed six passing plays of 40-plus yards, which is tied for 14th and puts them on pace to allow 7.4.
In both cases, Green Bay is set to reduce those explosive passing plays by about one-fourth.
There are several issues at play, including a vastly improved pass rush and better tackling. The biggest improvement, however, has been in communication. Green Bay hasn't been perfect, but there have been fewer receiving running free and fewer fingers being pointed.
"Everyone's communicating, everyone's on the same page," safety Morgan Burnett said. "When you do that, that's how you most of the time can eliminate big plays. If everyone on the back end's on the same page, whether it's the right check or the wrong check to that defense, as long as you're all playing the same thing, you can eliminate big plays."
Time and again last season, receivers ran free through the secondary. Those issues have largely been eliminated. That's clear with the Packers allowing 6.7 yards per passing attempt this season compared to 7.8 last year.
The encouraging thing is the Packers have done it with a young secondary. That group has gelled, which is a reason why the Packers have allowed 11 touchdown passes but intercepted 11 passes en route to going 7-1 in their last eight games.
At one safety, Burnett, in his third season, entered this year having played in only 20 games. At the other safety spot, the team jettisoned veteran Charlie Peprah in favor of Charles Woodson but wound up going with M.D. Jennings, who didn't play a single snap of defense as a rookie last season. At cornerback, Tramon Williams is an established veteran but third-year player Sam Shields entered this season with 13 starts, second-year pro Davon House didn't play on defense as a rookie and rookie Casey Hayward has established himself as a possible star-in-the-making.
"I think communication has been good and I think the guys are getting comfortable with one another," safeties coach Darren Perry said. "With that being said, the more experience guys get (and) the more comfortable they get in the system, the better you expect the communication to be. I think Morgan and M.D. have done a good job, (as have) J (Jerron McMillian) and Wood — even though he's been out, he's there on the practice field and doing the mental reps — and I think all of those things help."
Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt also pointed to the communication but also style of play. Because of the shoulder injury to Williams and the lack of a pass rush, the Packers played mostly off-coverage last season. With Williams back to form and a rejuvenated pass rush, the corners are back to doing what they do best.
"The one thing that we did, we're pressing more on the outside," Whitt said. "Most of our games, we press them. I'm telling them, ‘Hey, get up there and press them and make them throw fade balls.' So, that's one thing that we've done to eliminate space runners.
"The second thing, they've done a very good job in the meeting rooms of discussing, ‘Coach said this is how we're going to do it but let's make sure we're all on the same page.' We hear them discussing it more in the meeting rooms than ever before. Not just, ‘Joe and D.P. said this is how we're doing it but let's talk about it ourselves.' Most of it is pre-snap communication has really increased. If everybody's on the same page before the ball is snapped, now we can be on the same page when the play is going."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.