While that could foreshadow bad news for the Packers should they make the playoffs, considering they’d almost certainly have to beat one or two elite quarterbacks to win the Super Bowl, run defense was first and foremost on coach Mike McCarthy’s mind a day after a 44-23 loss at New Orleans.
“Everybody wants to talk about scheme and personnel. That’s something that you’re always weighing or looking at,” McCarthy said. “Are there other individuals who deserve opportunities? Can we use other individuals a certain way? That’s really what we talk about as coaches day-in and day-out. Our issues on run D are fundamental. We need to do a better job of staying square, getting in our gaps and we need to tackle the damn ball-carrier and put him on the ground. That’s what we’ll be focused on.”
After three weeks of solid run defense in victories over Minnesota, Miami and Carolina, the Packers were run over by Mark Ingram.
The Saints rushed for 193 yards and averaged 6.2 per carry. The Saints, even without impressive rookie Khiry Robinson and versatile veteran Pierre Thomas, had topped that rushing total only once since the start of the 2012 season.
Ingram, a first-round pick in 2011, had played in 40 NFL games before Sunday night. He had topped 100 yards only once. Heck, he’d only topped 80 yards five times. Against the Packers, he rushed 24 times for 172 yards. Of that, tally, 124 yards came after halftime and 121 came after contact, according to Packer Report’s in-game stats. His 7.2 yards per carry was his third-best performance as a pro.
For the Packers, it was another dreadful big-game defensive performance. Stopping Brees is tough enough even under the best of circumstances. It’s next to impossible if it’s always second-and-3 or third-and-1.
“The Achilles heel was the run defense because I think they had 11 third downs and nine of them were third-and-4 or less,” McCarthy said. “You’re playing uphill as a defense there against an offense like that because now they’re in a run-pass mode all the way through. Their play-action passing game obviously has more of an impact on your front seven and they were able to hit the big shots on our back end.”
The barrage of third-and-short situations forced defensive coordinator Dom Capers to keep his bag of tricks under wraps. When the Packers slowed the running games of the Vikings, Dolphins and Panthers the last three weeks, those teams went a combined 13-of-37 (35.1 percent) on third down. The Saints went 6-of-10 (60.0 percent).
“What I’d like to see us be able to do is dictate the down and distance more than we did last night,” Capers said. “I thought they were able to control the tempo of the game because they got their run game going. It has such a big influence. It has a big influence on where you call the game because if every third-down situation is third-and-4 or less, it takes you out of your dime personnel, maybe your dime pressures — all the things you want to do in terms of affecting the quarterbacks. If it’s third-and-3, it’s a heck of a lot different than if it’s third-and-8-or-9. That’s one of the things they were able to do. On third down, we’ve been a much better third-and-6-plus defense than we have been a third-and-5-or-less defense.”
What’s transpired over the last calendar year is dumbfounding. Exactly one year ago, the Packers won at Minnesota. At that point, their run defense ranked fourth in the league.
Oh, how times have changed.
In the last 18 games, including last year’s playoff loss to San Francisco, the Packers have allowed at least 165 rushing yards eight times, including five games of at least 200 yards.
Compare that to the first 79 games of defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ tenure. The Packers allowed 165-plus rushing yards 10 times, including only four games of 200-plus yards.
After Green Bay’s lofty ranking through seven games of last season, it finished the season ranked 25th, then got gashed for 167 yards in the playoff loss to San Francisco. This season, the Packers allowed 207 rushing yards in Week 1 against Seattle, 235 yards in Week 4 against Chicago and 193 yards in Week 8 against New Orleans. After climbing out of the cellar for a week, Green Bay is back at the bottom of the league rankings with 153.5 rushing yards allowed per game. That’s 8.8 more than 31st-ranked St. Louis.
Capers is holding out hope that answers can be found and implemented. Green Bay’s run defense was dreadful to start 2009 but wound up No. 1 in the league. In 2010, the Packers yielded at least 124 rushing yards in five of the first seven weeks and finished the season 18th, only to give up an average of 83.8 rushing yards in four playoff wins.
“I’ve seen us through the first half of the season play pretty good run defense, so I feel like we can,” Capers said. “You look at last night, you might question it a little bit. But I’ve seen us have our moments where we’ve played good run defense. That’s what we’ve got to do this second half. We know when you have something like that you get tested and you get tested until you take care of it.”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.