Line Powers Run Defense From Bad to Historic

With basically the same personnel as last year, Green Bay's run defense is on the verge of a franchise record. "When you put an emphasis on something and you work for it and you're achieving that goal, obviously there's a lot of pride," line coach Mike Trgovac said.

Mike McCarthy had plenty of questions for Dom Capers. Chief among them: Can the Green Bay Packers' defense stop the run?

McCarthy's query was one part question and one part challenge to the veteran defensive coordinator.

Green Bay's plunge from 13-3 in 2007 to 6-10 in 2008 was chained to the defense's plunge in run defense.

When the Packers reached the NFC title game two years ago, they were a sturdy 14th against the run (102.9 yards per game) and 10th in yards allowed per carry (3.9). Last year, however, was a disaster. The defense ranked 26th against the run in terms of yards (131.6 per game) and yards allowed per carry (4.6).

Enter Capers and a mostly new defensive coaching staff. The only key changes in personnel to the front seven have been the loss of Colin Cole (free agency) and Aaron Kampman (injury) and the addition of draft picks B.J. Raji, Clay Matthews and Brad Jones.

Despite basically the same cast of characters, the turnaround has been astounding, and it's a big reason why the Packers are 10-5 and headed to the playoffs. Green Bay leads the NFL in run defense (85.7 yards per game) and is second in yards allowed per carry (3.7).

"That's a goal of ours from the time we started," Capers said on Monday. "From the very first time I came in and met with Mike, I knew that was a priority for Mike. Really, our base philosophy starts with stopping the run. If we can't stop the run, then we can't go to step 2 and pressure the quarterback and all those things that you like to do."

Looking deeper inside the numbers, the 2008 defense gave up 15 rushes of at least 20 yards. This year's defense has yielded six. Last year's defense gave up 121 rushing first downs. This year's defense has allowed 66. Last year's defense allowed six individuals to rush for 100 yards — including Minnesota's Adrian Peterson doing it twice. Only four teams have topped 100 yards this year, with Seattle's 115 yards snapping the Packers' streak of seven consecutive games of 81 yards or fewer.

Thus, entering Sunday's finale at Arizona, the Packers are in position to set a franchise record. If Green Bay holds the Cardinals to no more than 77 rushing yards, it will set the mark for fewest rushing yards allowed in a 16-game season. The 1994 club allowed 1,363 yards and 85.2 per game.

"I didn't know that we could break the franchise record here," defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. "Whenever you have something that you put in as a goal, anything in life, whether it's wanting your kid to be the best student and he ends up with a 4.0, when you put an emphasis on something and you work for it and you're achieving that goal, obviously there's a lot of pride. There's a lot of pride in that (defensive linemen) room about it. It's with every group. Every group is so important in this run defense. Every piece fits together, and if one piece breaks down — as they will — somebody else covers for him."

Stopping the run has been a team effort.
Scott Boehm/Getty Images
While Trgovac was right in sharing the credit, the starting point for a strong run defense is the line. Under the old scheme, tackles Johnny Jolly and Ryan Pickett and ends Cullen Jenkins and Kampman too often lacked proper gap discipline. Nonetheless, Trgovac thought he had plenty to work with, even though the grunt work that is a necessity in a new scheme didn't seem to suit a group that had a playmaking mind-set.

"You could see that they were good players," Trgovac said. "For one thing, they had size. There wasn't a lack of size. You had some injuries here last year that probably influenced some things. They could move pretty well for big guys. We saw the potential to have a good run defense, and then we put a big emphasis on it."

The emphasis was slow to sink in. The defense allowed 151 rushing yards to Cincinnati in Week 2 and 149 yards to St. Louis in Week 3. But once the linemen began settling into their new roles, the Packers began to rise up the league rankings. After the bye week, Green Bay ranked 20th in run defense. It's been in the top five for seven consecutive weeks, and passed Baltimore this week for No. 1.

"It's a matter of when guys take pride in something and things start going right for them, they start challenging each other to make sure this guy's in his gap and this guy's in his gap," Trgovac said. "I think as a whole unit, all 11 on defense, they are taking great pride in that right now. I think it means something to them when they look at (the rankings)."

So much pride that when asked about his personal performance shortly after the Seattle game, Raji pointed to the defense's newly minted status as No. 1 against the run.

"That means hard work paid off for us," he said. "Up front, you've got to stop the run. Linebackers and secondary, they have a little more to worry about, but up front, we've got to take care of the run."

"That's great," added Jolly, who Trgovac lauded for his high football IQ. "We've been working hard throughout March and through training camp and the season. We've come a long way. We've stuck in it together, worked hard, and now we're at the top. We've just got to keep preparing and make sure we keep that title."

For all the talk about Capers and his ability to create sacks and turnovers through his schemes, his ability to build a stout run defense has meant more than anything.

"Frankly, the No. 1 objective was run defense," McCarthy said. "I felt that was the area in my prior three years that needed to improve. Anytime you set out to accomplish something for your football team primarily on defense, and you're sitting at No. 1, I think that speaks volumes."

While the NFL indeed is now a quarterback's league, the ability to stop the run shouldn't be overlooked. Since 2000, the Super Bowl champions' run defenses have finished second (Pittsburgh), eighth (N.Y. Giants), 32nd (Indianapolis), third (Pittsburgh), sixth (New England), fourth (New England), fifth (Tampa Bay), 19th (New England) and first (Baltimore). The porous Colts' defense finished second in run defense in the playoffs en route to winning Super Bowl XLI and the mediocre Patriots' defense finished second in run defense in the 2001 playoffs en route to winning Super Bowl XXXVI.

"You still have to make the offense one-dimensional," McCarthy said, "and I understand that the offenses in today's game are going more with the passing game, but the ability to shut down the run and dictate the flow of the game, it helps you with your calls from Dom's standpoint. We're very pleased with our production so far in the run game."

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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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