After solid performances against the Browns and Bills, the Packers are second in the league in run defense in allowing just 74.5 yards per game. They have given up 3.3 yards per carry and just one run of at least 20 yards in 45 attempts.
"I think the stats speak for themselves," coach Mike McCarthy said after Wednesday's practice. "We've been good in the run defense, and that's something you have to do week in and week out in this league, especially in our division. Our division runs the football as well as probably any other division in the league. It's a primary focus and it's a week-in and week-out challenge."
Though Friday night's preseason opponent, the Arizona Cardinals, is the second-worst rushing team this preseason, the Packers eventually will meet much tougher challenges against the NFC North's Adrian Peterson and Matt Forte. Those two backs, and many others, basically had their way with the Packers a season ago.
Giving up 131.6 rushing yards per game in 2008 -- the team's worst mark since 1988 -- the Packers' defense was seventh-worst in the league against the run. Opponents gained an unacceptable 4.6 yards per carry. To make matters worse, the opposition scored 20 rushing touchdowns, the most given up by the team in 10 years.
The Packers' run defense, if anything, was the main contributor to an unexpected 6-10 record.
"We have to (be better). We have no choice," said defensive end Cullen Jenkins. "We want to win and we want to do great things and that involves stopping the run, so we are taking it upon ourselves up front, and with the whole defense, to make sure we get it done."
Jenkins' absence a season ago seemed to be a big factor in the demise of the run defense. He played only the first four games before suffering a pectoral injury that sidelined him for the rest of the season. But really, the Packers' problems ran deeper than just the loss of Jenkins.
"We ran the same coverage almost every play. We were very predictable," said linebacker Brandon Chillar. "That made it very easy for teams to game plan us last year."
It certainly looked that way. Chillar, for one, basically was typecast in the former scheme coordinated by Bob Sanders, which was predicated on one-on-one matchups. Chillar was the Packers' pass coverage linebacker, and though the Packers will use that strength of his this season, he will not automatically cover a tight end one-on-one, like he did a year ago, when a tight end lines up in the slot. He could do any number of things while maintaining a singular team vision.
"Everyone's going to have their eyes on the ball and be able to react a lot faster," he said. "It's a totally different scheme. You really can't compare it."
Another problem the Packers' defense had a season ago was maintaining gap control. Too many times, gaps were left unmanned or guys filled the wrong gap, thus big gains resulted. Opponents had 19 runs of at least 20 yards vs. the Packers.
The new scheme will not always rely on man-to-man matchups. It will rely more on creating confusion, playing zone coverages and having defensive linemen occupy their counterparts to allow the linebackers to make plays. There should be no gap issues this season with the proper communication.
Ryan Pickett will play what many believe is the key position in stopping the run – nose tackle. With just three lineman (and two in some sub packages), the nine-year veteran will be counted on to control the ‘A' gap for the Packers, going man-up with the center. Such a technique will be something new for Pickett, who is playing in a 3-4 scheme for the first time in his career.
"No matter which way he (the center) goes, I've got to beat him to the punch," said Pickett. "I don't know if it will give me a chance to make more plays, but I think it will give our defense a chance to make more plays."
All adjustments aside with Pickett, and Aaron Kampman moving to outside linebacker, the health of the Packers' defense and the giant addition of defensive lineman B.J. Raji (6-foot-2, 337 pounds) give the Packers plenty of hope. All 11 starters return pending, any changes to the lineup before the regular season.
"You're going to have some mistakes made, but that's not going to be a common thing (this year)," said Pickett. "Our communication has been great so far, and I don't think we'll have any problems."