Raising Run Defense from Abyss

No one area of the Packers’ defense in 2013 was more head-scratching than the run defense. Here is a look at the highs and lows, the telling numbers of why the Packers are revamping their defensive line, and why notable personnel additions on defense may not necessarily be the answer.

The Green Bay Packers made the defensive splashes they needed this offseason when they signed free agent Julius Peppers and selected Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round of the NFL Draft.

Peppers will look to be a key chess piece in a new approach on defense that coaches say will use “less scheme and more personnel” to fit the skills of their talent.

Clinton-Dix will vie for a starting spot at arguably the weakest position group last season on the team, one that failed to record even a single interception.

But will either marquee addition help the Packers in the area they need help the most?

In one of the great mysteries of the 2013 season, the Packers’ defense went from one of the best run-stopping units in the league to one of the worst. After ascending to third in the league (79 yards per game) following a Week 7 game against the Cleveland Browns, it fell all the way to 25th by regular season’s end (125 yards per game, highest total since Dom Capers took over as defensive coordinator in 2009).

Injuries to outside linebackers Clay Matthews (played in 11 of 17 games) and Nick Perry (12 of 17 games with just six starts) did not help the cause. But for the most part, the run-stopping personnel remained the same throughout the season and the defense was never able to find any measure of its early-season success.

Over the last 11 games (including the wild-card playoff), the Packers yielded 153.9 yards per game on the ground at a clip of 5.2 yards per carry with 14 rushing touchdowns.

In three games over that season-closing span, the Packers allowed at least 204 rushing yard . Granted, one of them came at the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles and the league’s top rusher, LeSean McCoy, and another to division rival Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings, but pedestrian backs Toby Gerhart (91 yards) and Joique Bell (94 yards), along with DeMarco Murray (134 yards) and rookie LeVeon Bell (124 yards), ate the Packers up, too. A quarterback, the San Francisco 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick, killed the Packers again with key runs and 98 rushing yards in a playoff contest.

In Peppers, the Packers might be getting a dynamic defensive player but also one who has fared poorly against the run in recent years. Since 2010, when he graded out as the Chicago Bears’ top run defender based on statistics compiled by Pro Football Focus, he has fallen off the pace. Last season, he graded out ahead of only Shea McClellin and Landon Cohen among the nine defensive linemen on the team who played at least 125 snaps. And among the league’s defensive ends in a 4-3 scheme that played at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps, Peppers ranked 32nd in run defense out of 36 qualifying players. (Note: Peppers will be playing more of a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end position — the “elephant” — with the Packers.)

Another free agent addition for the Packers, Letroy Guion, formerly of the Vikings, consistently graded out near the middle of the pack among his defensive line teammates over the past six years. In 2012, he bottomed out last. And in 2013, out of 69 qualifying interior defensive linemen that played at least 25 percent of their team’s snaps, he was 46th.

Clinton-Dix, on the other hand, might make more of an impact on the back end of the Packers’ defense. Though he has been labeled as a “do it all” safety in scouting reports, he could be deferring early on at the line of scrimmage to second-year player Micah Hyde, who head coach Mike McCarthy has talked up as a four-down player.

Besides nose tackle B.J. Raji, who was re-signed to a one-year deal this off-season, the Packers are re-tooling their defensive line, the meat-and-potatoes portion of their run defense. Three players who were key cogs in their run defense are no longer with the team.

Ryan Pickett, 34, remains unsigned after posting his worst performance as a run defender since 2009 (based on PFF grades). Among teammates, he graded out No. 1 in 2012, No. 1 in 2011, and No. 2 in 2010.

Johnny Jolly, who also remains unsigned, graded out second-worst against the run among the team’s defensive linemen in 2013.

And C.J. Wilson, who signed with the Oakland Raiders this offseason, played just 127 snaps for the Packers in 2013. In previous years, he was a key member of 3-4 base defense.

The inside linebackers basically remain the same for the Packers. Like Raji, A.J. Hawk, based on PFF numbers, had one of his worst years as a run defender. Brad Jones was not much better. But the Packers also return Jamari Lattimore and are counting on second-year defensive linemen Datone Jones and Josh Boyd to make a jump among a group of promising rookies.

Last year’s top three run defenders on the team — Mike Daniels, Matthews and Andy Mulumba — are also back as is Mike Neal, a hybrid player like Peppers, who re-signed this off-season.

Like he proclaimed a year ago with the running game on offense, McCarthy all but guaranteed during the OTAs that his defense would be better in 2014. It all starts with the run defense.

Tale of Two Seasons: Run Defense in 2013

First 6 games:

— Yielded 79 yards per game on just 3.4 yards per carry

— Opponents averaged 23.2 rushing attempts per game

— Allowed 100 yards or more rushing once (Redskins)

— Allowed only 3 rushing touchdowns

— Had a 4-2 record

Last 11 games (including the playoff game):

— Yielded 153.9 yards per game on 5.2 yards per carry

— Opponents averaged 29.4 rushing attempts per game

— Allowed over 200 yards rushing three times (Eagles, Vikings, Lions) and held only two opponents (Giants, Falcons) under 100 yards

— Allowed 14 rushing touchdowns

— Had 4-6-1 record (though Aaron Rodgers’ absence played a huge role)

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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com

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