How Does Packers’ Defense Take Next Step?

The Packers have made big strides defensively this season. Following through on these four items will propel this defense into a championship-caliber unit.

For three consecutive games, the high-powered Green Bay Packers offense has looked like just another run-of-the-mill outfit. During those three games, they’ve averaged 22.7 points.

For the first time since 2010, the defense has ridden to the rescue.

When the Packers won the Super Bowl that season, the defense single-handedly won two games necessary to get the Packers in the playoffs. Against the Jets, Aaron Rodgers had perhaps the worst game of his career but the defense pitched a shutout in a 9-0 win. Against the Bears in Week 17, with Green Bay needing a win to get in the playoffs, the defense dominated a 10-3 triumph. During the past three games, Green Bay beat the 49ers 17-3, the Rams 24-10 and the Chargers 27-20.

The 2010 defense was spectacular. It gave up a touchdown or less six times, including a total of 10 points during a key three-game stretch. It finished second in the league by allowing 15.0 points per game.

The 2015 defense has been spectacular a times en route to a No. 3 ranking in points allowed. Against San Francisco, Colin Kaepernick was sacked six times and the 49ers gained just 196 yards. Against St. Louis, Nick Foles was intercepted four times. Against San Diego, the Chargers moved the ball up and down the field at will for most of the final three quarters but went just 2-of-6 in the red zone, with Clay Matthews, Datone Jones, Julius Peppers and Damarious Randall all coming through during the final goal-line stand.

Bigger challenges are ahead.

“People now have six games to study us so you study your tendencies and you try to look at things the way your opponent’s looking at you,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “That’s one of the benefits of the bye week. Obviously, we’re going against another veteran quarterback that will call a lot of the game at the line of scrimmage out in Denver. We’ve got to take and try to utilize this time and take advantage of it.”
How do the Packers take that next step to become a championship defense? Here’s the blueprint.

More Peppers: Nobody’s going to quibble with Julius Peppers’ 5.5 sacks in six games. That puts him on a pace that would challenge his career-high count of 14.5 set in 2008 with Carolina. He can change a game even without getting to the quarterback. Would Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers have beaten Randall on that fourth-down pass had Peppers not had a tremendous pass rush? We’ll never know.

Nonetheless, Peppers is coming off one of the great seasons in memory last season when he had four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and two interceptions for a total of nine turnover plays. Only J.J. Watt, with 10, had more. This season, his turnover ledger shows just one forced fumble. As the games get bigger, the Packers will need more big plays from their 35-year-old star.

Tackling better: With 60 missed tackles, no team has swung and missed more often than Green Bay, according to ProFootballFocus.com’s film review. With byes taken into account, the Packers’ 10 missed tackles per game is the third-most in the league.

Some of that is a byproduct of the running backs the Packers have faced. Nor has it helped that sure-tackling safety Morgan Burnett has missed five of the last six games. However, according to PFF’s tally of the 40 inside linebackers who play at least 25 percent of the snaps, Clay Matthews is tied for 39th and Nate Palmer is tied for 30th in tackling efficiency. If he had enough playing time, Joe Thomas would be at the bottom of the heap. Combined, they’ve missed 23 tackles. 

Tighten up vs. the run: The Packers rank No. 24 against the run and No. 27 in yards per carry. Some of that is the continued dead weight from Chicago’s Matt Forte in Week 1 and the 168 yards in scrambles by quarterbacks Russell Wilson, Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick in Weeks 2 through 4. After giving up 159 yards to St. Louis’ Todd Gurley in Week 5 — that hefty number was based on volume as much as his play-per-play success — the Packers held the Chargers to 2.9 yards per carry.

It is interesting to note that there’s almost no correlation between winning games and fielding an elite defense. Of the top 10 teams in scoring defense, four teams are allowing 3.71 yards per carry or less while four teams are allowing at least 4.47 yards per carry. New England, which with Green Bay is the betting favorite to win the Super Bowl, is allowing 4.86 yards per rush. Nonetheless, when the best thing you do as a defense is rush the passer, getting the opponent into third-and-long is a winning formula.

Tighten up vs. the quick passing game: It’s interesting to note the parallels. Without a deep passing game, Green Bay’s offense has relied on a quick-hitting passing game. Defenses have adapted, which has played a role in the Packers’ offensive problems the past few weeks.

Because of the Packers’ prolific pass rush, expect teams to follow the Chargers’ offensive plan of attacking the Green Bay secondary with quick passes. Rivers threw for more than 500 yards by throwing a bunch of passes no more than 5 yards down the field. With a declining skill-set, the quick game is what Denver’s Peyton Manning does best.

“San Diego did a great job particularly with their style of release against our corners, so we’ll spend a little more time on that,” McCarthy said. “This game is about trying to improve continuously and staying true to fundamentals is something that we do each and every day. I guarantee you as I stand here today, when we get together as a staff, it’s going to go back to fundamentals. We’re going to spend more time on fundamentals next week with the extra day getting ready for the Broncos.”

Bill Huber is publisher of 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 www.twitter.com/PackerReport.


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