Through the first seven games of last season, the Packers ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing defense. Their 83.6 rushing yards allowed per game was almost on par with the 2009 defense, which set the franchise record with 83.3 rushing yards allowed per game.
Then Forte and the Bears came to town.
In a Nov. 4 game best known for Aaron Rodgers’ broken collarbone, Forte broke Green Bay’s juggernaut run defense for 125 of the Bears’ 171 rushing yards.
It was a stark moment.
Over the final nine games, the Packers gave up 1,415 rushing yards. They went from 83.6 per game and 3.70 per carry in the first seven games to 157.2 per game and 5.16 per carry in the final nine games. Instead of being in contention for the best rushing defense in franchise history, the Packers allowed 2,000 rushing yards for only the third time since 1990.
The first eight games of this season haven’t been much different. Entering Sunday night’s matchup against Forte and the Bears, Green Bay’s rushing defense ranks 32nd with 153.5 yards per game and 29th with 4.78 yards per carry. That includes the teams’ Week 4 matchup at Soldier Field. Forte rushed for a season-high 122 yards to lead Chicago’s 235-yard performance. In the first three games, Chicago had rushed for only 192 yards.
“We pretty much kept it simple,” Forte said in a conference call on Wednesday. “We felt like we had to run the ball against them in order to keep drives moving and stuff like that. Our offensive line did a great job of taking care of the front seven or eight that they had in the box. Once that happens, it’s up to me to make somebody miss in the secondary. We basically ran our basic run plays. It wasn’t anything special.”
Forte and Bears coach Marc Trestman downplayed the statistical dominance. Including the 121 yards on 24 carries in the teams’ Week 17 matchup last season, Chicago has run for 175.7 yards per game and 5.38 yards per carry in the last three games.
“Well, I’m not going to go into that,” Trestman said during his conference call. “What I can tell you is this: I have tremendous respect for (defensive coordinator) Dom (Capers). Whatever we did the last time is not necessarily an indication of what we’re going to do this week. ... We’re not looking at this thing lightly because we’ve had success the last couple times moving the football. The bottom line is, the last two times (we’ve played), we haven’t scored enough points to win.”
While the Bears took the politically correct route, the Packers have to know they have a three-alarm problem on their hands. Sunday’s forecast calls for a low of 31 with a 50 percent chance of snow showers. With the potential for seven cold-weather games in the final eight weeks of the season, the fate of the season might boil down to the run defense’s ability to heat up as the tundra freezes.
On Wednesday, just like he did on Monday, coach Mike McCarthy pointed to fundamentals being the primary flaw.
“I’ve seen us through the first half of the season play pretty good run defense, so I feel like we can,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said last week. “You look at (the New Orleans game), 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.”
The Bears will test that run defense in a big way. After playing promising run defense with 111 yards against Minnesota, 112 against Miami and 108 against Carolina, Green Bay was destroyed for 193 rushing yards by the Saints before the bye.
In the last 18 games, including playoffs, the Packers are allowing 156.1 rushing yards per game and 5.01 yards per carry. They’ve yielded at least 130 rushing yards in 12 of those games and at least 167 rushing yards eight times.
“It doesn’t matter. I don’t really look at what somebody’s ranked in the league because this is the NFL,” Forte said. “There are still good guys on that team. Just because they may be ranked that low, it doesn’t mean that their defense can’t stop the run or they’re not that good. This is the NFL. Guys get paid to play football, play defense, and they’re still good. It’s always a question from the outside. ‘Oh, they’re ranked last in the league in this so you guys should do this on them.’ You still have to go out there and execute plays and make sure that we practice hard at what we’re going to do out there on the field and make sure that we can make those plays happen.”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.