On the Brink: Defensive Woes

The Packers lack playmakers at inside linebacker and safety and they suddenly can't stop the run. So, with all the focus on Aaron Rodgers, the Packers have gone from 11th in defense to 20th, including from third to 19th against the run.

How have the Green Bay Packers gone from 5-2 and in first place in the NFC North to fighting to save their season on Thursday at Detroit? Here's is Part 2 of our analysis.

Lack of impact players in middle of defense

A.J. Hawk (five sacks) and Brad Jones (three) have combined for eight sacks. Safeties Morgan Burnett and M.D. Jennings have had their moments. Still, the Packers simply don't have any game-changing players in the middle of their defense.

That's especially striking at safety. In Sunday's critical game against the Vikings, Burnett played all 80 snaps but the Packers used a rotation reminiscent of a pro wrestling tag-team match at the other safety spot. Jennings played 54 snaps, Chris Banjo played 17 and Sean Richardson — activated from the PUP list on Saturday — played 11 in his first game in a year. Jennings, Banjo and Richardson entered the league as undrafted free agents. Jerron McMillian, a fourth-round pick last year, has practically fallen off the face of the earth after tripping over his own feet and almost costing the Packers the game at Baltimore. Other than special teams, he's played just eight snaps in the last six games.

So, there was Hawk giving up a big gain to undrafted free agent tight end Chase Ford. Neither Hawk nor Jones could derail the Vikings' dominant run game. Burnett, a ballhawking safety in college, has intercepted a pass in just one game out of his past 39. Maybe Burnett could play more deep coverage if the Packers had a safety who could tackle at the line of scrimmage. Perhaps Richardson is that guy, but that's a tall task considering his long layoff.

Run defense's disappearing act

The run defense is the great mystery. In the first six games, Green Bay allowed 474 rushing yards, or 79.0 per game. In the last five games, the Packers have allowed 786 rushing yards, or 159.2 per game. That's twice as many rushing yards on a per-game basis.

"We're in a valley right now. We need to get out of it in some aspects of our team," coach Mike McCarthy said on Monday. "Going through the grades, going through every call, every assignment, it really comes down to leverage, fits and tackling and tenacity of the finish of the play was a little up and down. Time and time again, we had excellent leverage but then we don't complete the play."

On Sunday, according to our count, Adrian Peterson got 89 of his 146 yards after contact. Toby Gerhart, on the other hand, took advantage of dominant blocking, with just 27 of his 91 yards coming after contact. The Packers missed Johnny Jolly, to be sure, but B.J. Raji and hobbled Ryan Pickett need to play stronger at the line of scrimmage to keep blockers off of Hawk and Jones. It was a tremendously disappointing performance considering the Vikings' scattershot passing attack and the solid performance against the Giants' run game the week before.

"They had two excellent runners that extended runs and that's the part you've got to win," McCarthy added. "When you create leverage and fit in run defense, that's where the play starts, that's not where it ends. We just didn't do a very good job finishing once the leverage and the fit was established. You can go all the way through it, double teams and this and that, but it really came down to execution."

As a rule, we're reluctant to criticize the coaching because it's impossible to know the line between scheme and execution. For the most part, this is the coaching staff that helped the Packers win a Super Bowl in 2010. Did they suddenly forget how to coach? Was it defensive coordinator Dom Capers' fault that Hawk couldn't cover an undrafted tight end? Was it Capers' fault that a six-man rush couldn't get home, resulting in a 31-yard completion? Was it Capers' fault that Matthews lost contain on a third-and-long running play by Peterson in overtime? Or does it all come back to not having Aaron Rodgers and his ability to cure so many problems?

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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 packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.

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