Getting Inside the No. 1 Defense

The Packers haven't fielded the best defense in the NFL since winning Super Bowl XXXI. We detail several reasons why this Packers' defense has soared from No. 18 at the bye to No. 1 after three consecutive superb performances.

So, Atari Bigby, how does the phrase "No. 1 defense" sound?

"Sounds good to me. Sounds good. Sounds like we're reaching our goals," the hard-hitting safety said.

The Packers haven't boasted the NFL's top-ranked defense at the end of the year since winning the Super Bowl following the 1996 season, but that's their lofty perch after smothering Detroit (272 yards), San Francisco (284) and Dallas (278) during a season-saving three-game winning streak. Green Bay is yielding 281.5 yards per game, ahead of the Jets (283.9) and Steelers (288.4).

The NFL ranks its defenses and offenses in terms of yards. The more important measuring stick, of course, is points allowed, and the Packers are a solid 11th with 19.5 points allowed per game.

"Sounds good, but it's the NFL. One week you'll be this, one week you'll be that," inside linebacker Nick Barnett said. "We kind of in this locker room keep things in perspective and know that it takes one game at a time to finish out. Obviously, it's a goal. We all feel good about being No. 1. There's no hiding that fact. But you're not No. 1 if you don't end the season No. 1."

It's appropriate that Barnett and Bigby are the first two players named in this piece.

Bigby started the season-opening win over Chicago, then was sidelined for the next three games with a knee injury. Barnett was limited for the first three games before returning to full-time duty with the Week 4 game against Minnesota.

Thus, Bigby's return to the field and Barnett's return to every-down linebacker coincided with the Packers' return from the bye week. At that time, the Packers ranked 18th in the NFL in defense — 20th against the run and 17th against the pass.

The Packers have been climbing ever since. After trouncing punchless Detroit and Cleveland after the bye, the Packers were ranked third in defense (12th vs. the run; fourth vs. the pass). They slipped to fourth with a second loss to Minnesota and stayed there for three weeks before moving to third after beating San Francisco. Now, they're No. 1 overall, including fourth against the run and sixth against the pass.

"Obviously, that's what you shoot for, to try to be No. 1," defensive end Cullen Jenkins said. "Now it's just going to an even harder time trying to keep it."

The learning curve

A stellar preseason notwithstanding, it's not surprising the Packers suffered some early growing pains on defense.

The 11 preferred starters from 2007 and 2008 were the same players who the Packers lined up with to start this season. That meant wholesale changes as the defense moved from the Jim Bates-Bob Sanders 4-3 defense to Dom Capers' version of the 3-4.

For some players, that meant new positions. For everyone, it meant new roles, new terminology and a new way to play.

"No. 1, you have a new defense put in so there's a learning curve," Barnett said. "Guys just started to get more comfortable and more comfortable with the defense. As that happens, we have enough talent to play good and be that dominant defense that we want to be. I think guys just kept fighting and kept fighting. You kind of have some guys who don't believe in the scheme early because it's a new one, it's totally different than what we'd been playing for years. Now, I think guys are all buying into it and just playing it."

That learning curve was evident early. The Packers couldn't stop the run in a Week 2 home loss to Cincinnati. They couldn't stop the pass in a Week 4 loss at Minnesota. Though the defense wasn't entirely to blame, the Packers gave up 38 points in back-to-back losses to Minnesota and Tampa Bay.

The frustration began to bubble through the cracks. Some of the players, namely Jenkins after the second Minnesota game, wondered aloud whether this scheme was right for them.

But Capers — whose legacy of first-year success implementing his scheme was a major reason for why he was hired — and coach Mike McCarthy stuck with what they believed in.

"We're going to fold or we're going to play ball," nose tackle Ryan Pickett recalled McCarthy saying.

Charles Woodson gets a sack and strip in the big win against Dallas. Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Playing ball

The Packers got things figured out in the nick of time. With the season on the line, Green Bay shut down a high-octane Dallas offense in a 17-7 win, jump-starting a three-game winning streak leading to Monday night's game against Baltimore.

"Everybody doing their job and playing Packer football," safety Nick Collins explained. "Once you're fundamentally sound in everything, it's hard to beat this defense. The past couple weeks, everybody's been tuned in and playing their role, and it's paying off and it's showing up."

"There's been some attitude adjustments," Jenkins said.

McCarthy likes to call it "stacking success," and the strong performance against Dallas proved that this defense was capable of making Capers' scheme work. Experiencing success together on the playing field and having it reinforced on film helped convince the players.

"You trust in it but it took some adjusting," Jenkins said. "Anytime you do something different, there's going to be little growing pains involved. I think we've gone through ours already. Hopefully all that stuff is behind us."

While the hallmark of a Capers-coached defense is sacking the quarterback, what Capers has said all along is that it starts with stopping the run. During training camp, McCarthy asked Capers several times whether his unit could stop the run. Well, at the bye, the Packers were a woeful 20th in the NFL in run defense. Capers was worried. Now, they rank fourth in both rushing yards allowed (89.1 per game) and rushing yards allowed per carry (3.62).

"That's our No. 1 thing," Pickett said. "When Coach Capers got here, he said, ‘You've gotta stop the run.' That was the first thing we have on our list every week. We have to stop the run. No matter who we're playing, we've got to take the run out, we've got to make teams one-dimensional. That's what we've been able to do."

Some other areas stand out, as well. The Packers rank second in the NFL with 27 takeaways. To put that in perspective, about 20 percent of opponent drives have ended without getting an opportunity to score. The solid run defense equates to more third-and-longs, with Green Bay ranking fourth in third-down defense.

"Our positives are essential to having a good defense," rookie B.J. Raji said.

Pickett added something else to the equation.

"Our offense pretty much takes care of the ball better than anybody," Pickett said, alluding to the team's second-ranked time of possession advantage of almost 7 minutes per game. "There's a reason why we're the No. 1 defense is because our offense holds onto the ball so long. Teams don't have much time to do it. If we get a three-and-out, then our offense holds the ball for 5, 6 minutes. All of that contributes to being the No. 1 defense."

The big picture

To a man, the defensive players know the No. 1 ranking comes with one gigantic asterisk: There are five games to go.

"No, (but) I feel like we're on our way," Jenkins said when asked if he felt the Packers were truly the NFL's top defense. "It's not the end of the season. Unless you hold that spot until the end of the season, then you're not the No. 1 defense for that year. Our goals are season-wide. We're not just trying to make it to the No. 1 spot for Week 11 and then lose it. We want to keep that spot. We still feel like we've got a lot of improvement to do, a lot of good play left in us that we still have to go out there and show."

"I don't know. To be honest with you, I don't know," Bigby said when asked the same question. "I know we're a good football team. I know we know our capabilities. The numbers don't lie, and the numbers say we're the No. 1 defense in the league."

To be sure, there's work to be done. Nobody's confusing this Packers defense with some of the NFL's legendary units. The propensity to give up large chunks of yards when opposing teams spread the field and go no-huddle is a concern. So, too, is a red-zone defense that is yielding touchdowns on 63.3 percent of possessions inside the 20-yard line. The league average is 53.9 percent. The season-ending injuries to Aaron Kampman and Al Harris are huge concerns.

Of course, the naysayers will look at the schedule. Of the 11 games, the Packers have faced Detroit's 26th-ranked offense twice, along with Chicago (23rd), St. Louis (24th), San Francisco (29th) and Cleveland (32nd). That's six games against bottom-10 offenses compared to three games against top-10 offenses — Minnesota (fifth) twice and Dallas (fourth).

On the other hand, these players were good enough to get the Packers to the NFC title game two years ago. Outside of the question marks surrounding the guys replacing Kampman and Harris, there are no obvious holes, and there are plenty of playmakers — led by Charles Woodson.

"It's building confidence with our defensive ranking right now, and it's something that we wanted to generate more productivity for more players," McCarthy said. "Statistics are a barometer. It kind of gives you something to look at both from a positive standpoint and a negative standpoint. We still need to keep focused on doing the little things, and that's the way we approach it. Being No. 1 in Week 12, 13, 14 really doesn't give you any merit. You want to be No. 1 at the end of the season. But I think our defense definitely is on the right pace to be the championship defense that we anticipate we'd have here."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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