Defensively, the Green Bay Packers will live by the big play. Or they’ll die by the big play.
By most measures, the Packers will be packing a mediocre defense for their trip to Detroit for the NFC North title game. Green Bay ranks 22nd in points allowed with 24.3 allowed per game. The Packers are 20th in yards per game and 27th in yards per play, 29th in passing per game and 31st in passing per play, 24th on third down and 27th in the red zone.
The defense has done one thing especially well during its five-game winning streak, though, and that’s big plays.
Against Philadelphia, the defense forced only one turnover but yielded just three plays of 20-plus yards, tied for the fifth-fewest in the league.
Against Houston, the defense matched those numbers, with that 20-yard play count tied for ninth.
Against Seattle, the Packers’ defense played its best game of the season. Not only did it force a season-high six turnovers but it gave up just two plays of 20-plus yards, tied for the fifth-fewest in the league.
Against Chicago, the defense played well for most of three quarters before faltering late. It yielded four plays of 20-plus yards — tied for 12th-fewest in the league — but forced four turnovers.
Against Minnesota on Saturday, the Packers led 38-13 when the Vikings took possession with about 9 minutes to go. While the Vikings scored two meaningless touchdowns late in the game, most of the big-play damage came in the first half, when the Vikings had four of their five 20-yard plays. Only eight teams allowed more 20-yard plays, though Green Bay did collect two more takeaways.
“We went out and started with a three-and-out,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said on Monday. “We had a couple of big plays from a standpoint of the two fumble recoveries, which we turned into two touchdowns. I thought Clay (Matthews’) play was a critical one because they had the ball at midfield. If they’re able to go down and get points there, it’s probably a little bit different game.”
Add it all together, and you get this:
— In the first 10 games of the season, the Packers gave up 44 plays of 20-plus yards. That ranked 26th in the NFL.
— In the last five games of the season, the Packers have yielded 17 plays of 20-plus yards — which equates to exactly one less 20-yard play per game. That’s tied for 12th in the league.
And for turnovers:
— In the first 10 games, the Packers’ defense forced nine. That ranked 23rd in the NFL.
— In the last five games, the defense has forced 14 turnovers — two more than any other team in the league.
At this point, the Packers’ defensive identity has been pretty well established. This unit isn’t going to suddenly morph into the 2010 edition of the Packers’ defense. Green Bay’s hopes of winning the division on Sunday night at Detroit and then making a playoff run will hinge on limiting big plays against while making a few big plays to steal a few possessions and set up Aaron Rodgers and a red-hot offense.
“That’s where people score points on you,” Capers said of explosive plays. “Even though they had a couple drives in the first half, we did a nice job down in the red area and held them to field goals. If our offense is scoring touchdowns and we’re holding the opponent to field goals, then over a period of time that’s what you want. Don’t let them score quick and, if they do get down in the red area, try to keep them to field goals.”
Bill Huber is publisher of 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 www.twitter.com/PackerReport.