GREEN BAY—The Packers’ run defense passed its first test of 2013, but the exam in Week 2 will be no less important.
Last week against the 49ers, the Packers defended San Francisco’s top running backs much better than they did in two meetings the previous season, which bodes well as Washington’s Alfred Morris comes to Lambeau Field on Sunday.
A few days ago at Candlestick Park, the tandem of Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter combined for just 68 yards on 27 carries, a paltry 2.5 average. Only one run really hurt the Packers, when Hunter broke loose for 23 yards on the 49ers’ go-ahead TD drive in the fourth quarter.
That’s a far cry from the 2012 season, when the production from Gore and Hunter in the opener (and then from the duo of Gore and LaMichael James in the playoffs) was more than double that. Even without factoring in quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s running, the 49ers’ top backs piled up 293 yards on just 51 carries in two games last year, a gaudy 5.7 average.
Of the difference in the effort, surprise starter Johnny Jolly said, “It was basically every man doing their job, being in their gap when they need to be in their gap.”
It also helped to go into the game with considerable depth up front. Head Coach Mike McCarthy said the game plan called for a lot of base defense, which requires three down linemen, and as a result the Packers had seven of their eight defensive linemen active for the game.
That allowed starters B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett and Jolly to have C.J. Wilson behind them, rotating in for some base snaps, while Mike Neal, Mike Daniels and Datone Jones handled many of the nickel and dime packages, which call for only two linemen.
“We wanted to have a healthy rotation,” McCarthy said. “It’s something you keep track of. I’m very aware of each rep that every player plays in the game, what their reps are over the season. You have targets based on play time, because everybody has a role.”
Those roles may not change much this week against Morris, who was the No. 2 rusher in the league last season behind Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson.
In racking up 1,613 rushing yards and 13 TDs last season for Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, Morris topped 100 yards six times before finishing the regular-season with a 200-yard day.
“He’s a typical Shanahan back,” Raji said. “He’s going to press the hole and look for the cutback. He looks for the weakness in the defense, and he’s very effective.”
If there’s one word about Morris’ game that’s been continually repeated in the locker room this week, it’s that he runs “downhill.”
“He’s a one-cut guy – he makes his cut, makes his decision to get downhill and gets downhill fast,” Pickett said. “You have to bring it when you tackle him, because he gets out of the first tackle a lot.”
Morris came out of the gate slowly in Week 1, with just 12 carries for 45 yards against Philadelphia on Monday. He didn’t have a single game a year ago with totals that low in either category. A big factor was the Redskins’ falling behind the Eagles’ high-octane offense 33-7 early in the third quarter.
Green Bay’s defense would love to play with that kind of advantage, but it obviously can’t count on that. With Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III coming off reconstructive knee surgery and not presenting the same running threat he did as a rookie last year, the Packers are preparing for Morris to be force-fed.
“They do a great job of making those linemen run sideline to sideline, and he just has to plant his foot and get upfield,” outside linebacker Clay Matthews said.
“The defense is in for a long day if you can’t set the edge and force him back inside, but we feel good about how we’ve done as a defense, playing the run.”
For what it’s worth, Matthews on Thursday declined to respond to San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh’s contention that he’s a dirty player, and he did not say whether he was fined by the league for his late hit out of bounds on Kaepernick.
Trying to break the tension a tad, Matthews said, “I’m an awesome player. I’m not a dirty player.” In a much more serious tone, he repeated multiple times, “I’m moving on to the next game.”
The Packers’ run defense is moving on to its next challenge, too.
“We have good players up front, we have good linebackers. We imposed our will last Sunday,” Raji said. “It wasn’t enough, but we’ll try to take the positives away from the game, and if we continue to play this way, we’ll have a heck of a run defense.” Additional coverage - Sept. 12