Defensive coordinator Dom Capers informed his players in the team meeting room that they had taken over the No. 1 ranking in the league in scoring defense. The Packers’ average of 15.9 points allowed per game had been No. 2 but jumped up to No. 1 when Pittsburgh surrendered 39 points in a loss to New England on Sunday night, dropping the Steelers from the top spot all the way to No. 5.
Following the Packers in the league rankings are the Chicago Bears (16.2), New York Jets (16.7) and New Orleans Saints (16.8).
The reaction to the news was somewhat muted, according to the players, but not just because they were trying to get back into the swing of things after their restful bye. They also have the proper perspective, knowing there are still seven games to play and a playoff run to make that will depend heavily on the defense continuing to play the way it has in recent weeks.
“No one is going crazy right now,” linebacker A.J. Hawk said. “If after the season we’re looking back at that and we’re the No. 1 defense, we’ll know we did a decent job I think.
“We always talk about being the best defense in the league, so it means something to us, but we also know it’s early. It’s only (mid-November). But at least in my mind that’s one of the only categories that does mean anything, because you can be a defense that gives up 500 yards passing a game, but if you’re only giving up seven or 10 points a game, you’re going to win.”
The Packers made a huge leap in that ranking over their past two games as they improved to 6-3 on the season. Through seven contests, Green Bay was surrendering 19.4 points per game, good for 12th in the league.
But beginning with the final period against Minnesota in Week 7, the Packers have allowed just seven points over the past nine quarters. They shut out the New York Jets and then allowed only one touchdown to the Cowboys in Week 9.
The effort has been all the more remarkable considering the lengthy list of injuries that has affected the unit all season, and all of the adjustments needed with the personnel and packages employed.
But like any defense, the Packers would love nothing more than to give up fewer points than anyone in the league for the entire season, regardless of the circumstances. It’s something a Green Bay defense hasn’t done since the Super Bowl championship season of 1996.
“Coach Capers always tries to show us where we stand, as far as our preseason goals and what we’re trying to accomplish,” nose tackle B.J. Raji said. “It kind of keeps us motivated, you know. It feels good to be No. 1 halfway through the season, but we have to continue that.”
That will certainly be a challenge. Over their final seven games, the Packers face four of the league’s top 10 scoring offenses – New England (No. 1), the New York Giants (5), Atlanta (7) and Detroit (10).
Two areas in particular have contributed greatly to the Packers’ ranking in scoring defense and will need to be maintained against the forthcoming high-powered teams – red-zone defense and what the coaches refer to as “sudden-change” defense.
Last year when the Packers first implemented Capers’ scheme, they led the league in run defense for the first time in franchise history. Stopping the run is always the starting point for Capers. But the Packers finished just seventh in the league in scoring defense in part because of their deficiencies in the red zone and following turnovers or long returns (“sudden changes”).
Last season, the Packers allowed opponents to score touchdowns on 61 percent of their red-zone trips (28 of 46), which ranked No. 28 in the league. They also allowed opponents to score 10 touchdowns following 16 turnovers, and five touchdowns following the six longest returns allowed (five kickoffs, one punt).
This year those numbers are dramatically improved. Opponents are scoring touchdowns on just 46.7 percent of their red-zone trips (10 of 21), climbing Green Bay’s ranking there to the middle of the pack.
Opponents also have yet to score a touchdown after a giveaway this season, converting 13 turnovers into just six field goals. And the defense has allowed just one touchdown following the opponents’ four longest returns this season (all kickoffs) aside from Devin Hester’s punt return for a score, when the defense obviously didn’t get to take the field.
Two other factors during the Packers’ recent defensive surge have been the special teams and the bell cow from last year – the run defense.
Against the Jets two games ago, Packers punter Tim Masthay won NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors for an outstanding day that helped Green Bay win the field-position battle. In that game, the Jets started a drive inside their own 20-yard line five times following a punt, and no better than their own 23 following any of Masthay’s eight punts.
The run defense that day also held New York’s formidable backfield duo of LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene to just 76 yards on 22 carries, with neither gaining more than 8 yards on a single rush.
Then against the Cowboys, the Packers held the trio of Felix Jones, Marion Barber and Tashard Choice to just 39 yards on 14 rushes, with a long of 9.
“Our philosophy has been working well for us so far,” Raji said. “We want to stop the run initially so we can get teams in a more predictable state, so we can come with the blitzing that we do so well. We’re No. 1 in interceptions and sacks, so as long as we keep that up we’ll have a chance to win.”
Indeed, the Packers are tied with four other teams at the top of the league with 14 interceptions, and they’re tied with the St. Louis Rams for first with 28 sacks.
Every category plays a role, of course, but the Packers also know that as quickly as they shot to the top of the scoring defense chart, it can go the other way like it did with Pittsburgh this past weekend.
Considering the offenses the Packers are soon to face, and with four of their next five games on the road, staying at the top might be harder than getting there, as the old saying goes.
“We just have to keep going the way we have been these last couple weeks,” Hawk said. “We’ve put a couple solid games together – offense, defense and special teams – and you have to put the full game together if you want to keep doing that.
“When you look at those scoring defenses, if you look at the stats, it’s so tight with each team and things happen every week. You just have to be consistent. You can’t go blow up and give up 45 points in one game. We know as a defense if we want to win, we can’t do that.”
Additional coverage – Nov. 15