Run Defense Rises From the Abyss

Green Bay's run defense has gone from No. 32 in the league to one of the best over the past seven games. How has that transformation taken place? Attitude, for one. (David Manning/USA TODAY)

Any chance of the Green Bay Packers winning the Week 3 game at Detroit evaporated when the Lions handed the ball to Joique Bell, Theo Riddick and Reggie Bush eight times in a nine-play stretch late in the fourth quarter.

Not only did that trio help the Lions run out the final 6:54 of their 19-7 victory, but it was a harbinger of things to come for Green Bay’s run defense. The Packers left Ford Field ranked 30th in the league against the run, and they’d find themselves at No. 32 five times in succeeding weeks.

On Sunday, the Packers get another shot at the Lions, with the winner earning the NFC North title and a first-round playoff bye. And the Packers will field a much-improved run defense.

Green Bay enter Week 17 ranked 22nd in the league against the run (120.5 yards per game) and 20th in yards allowed per carry (4.24). While that’s hardly on par with Detroit’s run defense, which statistically has been one of the best in NFL history, the unit has definitely taken a sharp turn in the right direction. Since the bye, Green Bay has allowed only 82.9 rushing yards per game 3.43 yards per carry. If those numbers would have held true for the entire season, the Packers would rank third in run defense and second in yards per carry. As it is, since Week 10, the Packers rank fourth in rushing yards allowed per game and per carry.


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Safety Morgan Burnett said there hasn’t been anything “magical” to explain the turnaround. Coach Mike McCarthy pointed to the fundamentals, such as trusting your teammate, playing with the proper leverage, staying in your gap and “tackl(ing) the damn ball-carrier.”

Defensive tackle Mike Daniels said it was attitude – an attitude that coincided with Sam Barrington moving into the starting lineup against New England.

“When we played the Patriots and I think they needed about a yard or 2 (on the opening series) and, all of a sudden, I heard a loud ‘thump’ noise coming through my left ear hole and I see Barrington jumping up off of LaGarrette Blount,” Daniels said. “That’s exciting. That’s exciting. That thumping, that attitude that we’ve been playing with lately, it’s been a work in progress. It’s been something that’s been building. It’s just going to keep getting better.”

Down the stretch, the Packers have gone with a rotation of Barrington, Clay Matthews and A.J. Hawk at inside linebacker in the base and nickel packages. After mixing and matching and hoping to find the right combination of personnel in the middle of the defense, it appears the Packers have found the perfect mix. Matthews has been an immediate hit in the middle, whether it’s stopping the run, dropping into coverage or providing pressure. Barrington has provided the thumper they’ve lacked since Desmond Bishop in 2010. Hawk has played better in a reduced role.

“Clay’s a playmaker. Wherever we put him, he’s going to make his presence known,” Daniels said. “Sam plays with an attitude that I talked about in the offseason. HaHa (Clinton-Dix) does, Letroy (Guion) does. That’s the way defense is supposed to be played. We’ve been doing it. We have been doing that the last few weeks. If we just keep on making sure we take care of the things we have to take care of, I’m pretty optimistic about our group.”

The improved run defense is paying the kind of dividends you might expect. Since the bye, Green Bay is allowing 19.6 points per game (compared to 23.9 in the first eight games). With more third-and-long situations created, the Packers have 21 sacks in the last seven games compared to 18 in the first eight.

“They’re just such a good unit,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said in a conference call on Wednesday. “They’re strong, they’re tough. They give you problems. Not only in the run game, where they can certainly get after you, but also without question – you drop back to pass and they can put pressure on you. I just see a well-balanced defense that really had no weaknesses.”

Whether the Packers indeed have “no weaknesses” will be put to the test against the Lions, who rank 22nd in the league in scoring but have the big-name, proven firepower to break out at any point. After all, it’s not as if the Packers have faced a bunch of powerhouse running games down the stretch. If, however, this indeed is a legit defense, then the Packers could be poised for a magical January and beyond.

“There comes a point to where you see the bigger picture,” cornerback Tramon Williams said. “The bigger picture was, if we didn’t stop the run, then we wouldn’t make it to where we want to go. At the end of the day, that’s what it was about. We all came to the realization that that was a part of the game that we needed to get better on. We did that. We knew we had the guys in this room to do it. We just had to figure out the tweaks and adjustments that we needed to make it happen. We did that. You’ve got to have guys who want to be better and want to help out, and guys wanted to do that. We’re here today a lot better at that aspect.”

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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