But it’s about to hit a put-up-or-shut-up stretch of games during which it will be sternly tested and forced to prove just how much progress it has made.
Beginning this Sunday, the Packers will face Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson, Atlanta’s Michael Turner and San Francisco’s Frank Gore over the next three weeks. The trio ranks first, fifth and third, respectively, in the NFC in rushing yards this season, with Peterson’s 908 yards good for No. 2 in the league through nine games.
Throw in the New York Giants’ Ahmad Bradshaw, who ranks second in the NFC with 838 yards and will come to Green Bay in Week 16, and that’s four of the NFC’s top five backs on the Packers’ schedule over the final seven regular-season games -- a group that has combined for 14 100-yard games already this season.
“We’ll have our work cut out for us,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “We’ve got some of the best in the league, and it starts this weekend with Peterson.”
The goal for the run defense to open this stretch of games is simple – perform better against Peterson than last time. Back in Week 7, the Packers lost Cullen Jenkins to a calf injury in pre-game warm-ups and Ryan Pickett to a re-aggravated ankle problem in the first quarter, and Peterson took advantage of the depleted defensive front to rush 28 times for 131 yards.
That was part of Minnesota’s 196 yards rushing for the game and part of the 346 rushing yards the Packers surrendered over a two-game stretch against the Dolphins and Vikings.
Since then, with Jenkins returning to health, behemoth Howard Green joining the club off waivers and rookie C.J. Wilson continuing to improve, the run defense finally turned the corner. The Packers held the New York Jets’ LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene to a combined 76 yards in Week 8 and then limited the Cowboys to just 39 rushing yards heading into last week’s bye.
Now, the progress must continue. Capers said he likes the way the linebackers are playing the run, with A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop holding their own on the inside, and Clay Matthews and Frank Zombo setting the edge on the outside. Capers considers all four solid run players.
The secondary has done its part, too, with Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams tackling well off the corners and Nick Collins and Charlie Peprah filling aggressively from their safety positions.
But the whole key is the group up front, which could be getting Pickett back at the right time. Pickett is questionable on the injury report for Sunday’s game, but he did a little bit more in practice each day this week and seems to have a decent chance to play.
His availability, along with the shrinking club cast on Jenkins’ hand and the added familiarity Green has with the system now that he’s been with the team for a few weeks, could have the Packers as well-prepared as they could hope for the upcoming challenges.
“Knowing where you need to be is the biggest thing in the run game,” said Green, a 340-pound veteran who put in a lot of extra time with defensive line coach Mike Trgovac to quickly acclimate himself to the Packers’ scheme. “If you’re in your right gap, the run game will be sound. That’s from the defensive line to the safeties. Everybody has a gap to be in, and if you’re there, the run is kind of shut out.”
If Pickett can play – after missing the Jets game he tried to play again vs. the Cowboys, only to re-tweak the ankle in the second quarter – one of the intriguing possibilities in terms of personnel would be putting Green, 337-pound nose tackle B.J. Raji and the 340-pound Pickett across the front together in a short-yardage or particular run situation.
All capable of holding their own against a double-team, that trio could make it very hard for any of the offensive linemen to get off the line and make effective blocks on the linebackers.
“That’s a pretty stout front I would say,” Green said. “A real stout front. That’s a benefit to us, having us in there together. We can eat up a lot of blocks and let the linebackers run and do their thing and be productive. At the same time, we’ll make our plays that come to us.”
Added Trgovac: “Yeah, we really like that option. But we have to see it work yet in a game. We did it a little bit in the Dallas game early but then ‘Pick’ went down again, so we didn’t get a chance to really get a great evaluation on it.
“It does make a difference when you can put some bigger size out there. Our scheme is built around big guys at the nose and at the two end positions, and when you have bigger guys, it’s harder to move them.”
The guys who aren’t as big should continue to elevate their impact as well.
Jenkins, who has been wearing a club cast since breaking his hand in Philadelphia in Week 1, has seen his snaps against the run limited at times because of his difficulties grabbing and tackling with the cast. But his protective wrap continues to shrink and may be its smallest yet this week after having an entire week to rest over the bye. With Jenkins closer to full capacity, Capers won’t be as inclined to take him off the field because he can be so effective against the run and as a pass rusher.
Then with Wilson, the Packers have a rookie becoming more reliable than many seventh-round draft picks at this stage. Listed at 290 pounds and still adjusting to playing on the interior as a pro rather than on the outside in college at East Carolina, Wilson has used his quickness off the ball to protect himself against getting washed out of his gap.
“If you watch C.J., he kind of feels his way early in games, and then as the game goes along, he starts making more and more plays,” Trgovac said. “That early part of his game where he’s feeling his way through will kind of go away with more experience that he gets.”
All this additional depth, a luxury the Packers haven’t enjoyed at times this season, could benefit Raji more than anyone. Raji played by far the most snaps of any defensive lineman through the first nine games, out of necessity as much as anything. But it will be crucial for him to remain as fresh as possible down the stretch, which hopefully will help produce a stouter collective effort in Round 2 vs. Peterson on Sunday.
“For the most part it’s trying to keep his 2-yard gains to 2-yard gains instead of 2 yards turning into 8, 9 yards,” Raji said of defending Minnesota’s explosive all-pro. “Because after a while -- he’s capable of breaking anything -- but you don’t want to give him things where he can get going and feel good.”
That approach will apply to Turner, Gore and Bradshaw as well, and how well the Packers apply it will factor into whether they’ll make a playoff run or not.
The Packers got their run defense back in shape before the bye, and then used the time off to rest and heal up a bit. Now the progress has to show up, from here on out.
“We’ve got good run teams coming up. Believe me, I’m well aware of that,” Trgovac said. “That’s why it’s important for us to get ‘Pick’ back and get some continuity. We had an early practice this week in pads and we had a practice Thursday in pads and we had big run periods in that. We definitely have to play the run better than we did in the first Minnesota game.
“You have to have confidence. I think we can stop the run against anybody. If we do it right and we match it up and we stay healthy, I feel good we can stop the run against anybody.”
Additional coverage – Nov. 19