The Packers have allowed 3.10 yards per carry. That’s good for 10th in the league. Who knows if it’s fool’s gold or the start of a notable trend. However, last season, the Packers ranked 29th by yielding 4.63 yards per carry. In 2012, they ranked 26th by allowing 4.54 yards per carry. In 2011, they ranked 26th by allowing 4.67 yards per carry. Even while winning the Super Bowl in 2010 behind the second-ranked scoring defense, Green Bay finished 28th by allowing 4.65 yards per attempt.
That’s four consecutive seasons with run defenses finishing in the bottom seven of the league.
To that end, Green Bay is taking a leaner-and-meaner tact to playing defense. Not to mention a less-is-more approach.
Beefy veterans Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly weren’t retained in free agency – and remain unsigned, despite Green Bay’s lack of proven depth up front. With Pickett at nose tackle and Jolly and B.J. Raji at end, that was 997 pounds of first line of defense. With Raji shifted to nose tackle and flanked by Datone Jones and Mike Daniels at ends, the starting defensive line tips the scales at 927 pounds.
“Weight helps but it’s not the prerequisite to being dominant or being strong or being powerful,” Raji said. “It’s about mind-set, mentality and overall strength. I think our strength staff does a great job. Mike and Datone are plenty strong to get accomplished what we want to get accomplished. I don’t think weight has much to do with it.”
The defensive line is younger, as well. Daniels (25) and Jones (24) are a combined 49 years old. Pickett (34) and Jolly (31) area combined 65. In his third season, Daniels looks like a rising star; Jones is last year’s first-round pick. Another second-year player, Josh Boyd, will be the top backup.
“I was talking to Mike Daniels, Mike is just a good player to play with,” Raji said. “He’s a good player. He wants it. He wants to be great. He wants to be on a great defense. It’s a pleasure playing with Mike. Datone is a little younger. I think he has the desire still but he still has some kinks to work out, but I think his willingness to do so is going to be what separates him. Datone is going to be a great player, in my opinion. It’s just fun to work with these guys. They love football. You try to be as close as possible. We want to win.”
On Saturday, the Rams gained 78 yards on 27 rushes – an average of 2.9 yards per carry. During the first half, when Green Bay’s front-line defenders received ample playing time, St. Louis gained 29 yards on 12 rushes – an average of 2.4 yards per carry. Of the Rams’ final meager total, 20 came on two carries by Trey Watts on the final series of the game.
“Obviously, it’s just one game,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “I think you just look at the guys out there. The quickness, the tenacity, the physicality that we play (and) those guys have, I think it’s only going to benefit this defense, especially the run defense. So, it showed -- I know it was a very vanilla offense -- but we should have a good test this week with (Oakland’s Maurice) Jones-Drew, (Darren) McFadden and obviously getting a few more reps out there against their 1s. But I think we’re progressing in the right direction and it was a good step.”
One change will be in how defensive line coach Mike Trgovac deploys his personnel. Rather than having Raji, Pickett and Jolly playing on run downs and Daniels and Jones playing on passing downs, as Trgovac did for most of last season, Raji will play more often on passing downs and Jones will play more often on running downs.
“Just like I told these guys, there were times when it was difficult to get certain guys in on a certain defense,” Trgovac said. “Now, guys have to know every defense. When I put a guy in there, we don’t care who it is, he is expected to play that defense. There’s not going to be as much trying to specialize with each defense.”
Back at nose tackle, Raji seems primed for the big season that evaded him last year. Raji feels at home at the nose, which puts him in the middle of the action. If Raji is energized, so are the eager young players who will be joining him in the lineup. Based on two preseason games, the early returns are encouraging.
“There’s always room for improvement but I like the effort that we’re playing with and the pursuit,” Raji said. “Everything else (technique and scheme), you can always work on but I like the effort and pursuit.”
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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 email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.