That changed last Sunday against the New York Jets.
Coming into Week 8, the Packers’ run defense had first been victimized by quarterback scrambles (205 yards through the first four games) and then by power running teams (a combined 346 rushing yards by Miami and Minnesota).
The latter was of particular concern against the Jets, the No. 2 rushing offense in the league coming in with the featured tailback tandem of LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene. But the Packers, despite compensating for injuries with new players just getting acclimated to the defense, put on a run-stopping performance reminiscent of their league-leading effort a year ago, when Green Bay set a franchise record by allowing just 83.3 yards per game on the ground.
The Jets posted 119 rushing yards on 29 carries, which not only was 40 yards below their season average coming in but even more impressive when put in the proper perspective. Take out two odd plays (a 17-yard run by New York punter Steve Weatherford on a fake punt and a 20-yard scramble by quarterback Mark Sanchez in the final 20 seconds with the game decided and the Packers defending nothing but the deep pass) and the Jets had just 82 yards on 27 rushes, a measly 3.0 per attempt.
“We’ll take that every week,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said.
It’s what the Packers got on a regular basis last season, but repeating it has been difficult this season with injuries cropping up on the defensive line right away in Week 1 and continuing throughout the defense all season long.
There wasn’t exactly a lot of continuity this past week, either, with newcomers Howard Green on the line and Erik Walden at linebacker getting a crash course in the defense and being active on Sunday. But the coaching staff got them up to speed as quickly as possible and had a package of calls in which each could contribute in the game.
Green’s addition proved particularly valuable as another big body (he’s listed at 340 pounds) to pair with nose tackle B.J. Raji up front.
Green was claimed off waivers from the Jets at midweek and was able to practice just once with the team on Friday. But he spent a lot of time off the field with defensive line coach Mike Trgovac, in the meeting room and at the team hotel on Saturday night, re-learning as much of Capers’ 3-4 scheme as he could, having been introduced to Capers’ defense as a 2002 draft pick in Houston and in training camp in 2006 with Miami.
After all the preparation, Trgovac in turn gave a “ready list” of calls to Capers he felt Green would understand and be able to execute, and a list of others it might not be safe to rely on him for just yet.
“I pulled out my highlighters and started highlighting certain things for certain situations,” Capers said.
In the end, Green played 34 of the defense’s 69 snaps and did what he was asked, even getting into the backfield once to disrupt a reverse to receiver Jerricho Cotchery that went for a loss of 8.
“Give that kid credit,” Trgovac said. “It’s easy for me to sit in there and go over the calls with him. That’s what I do. But obviously he looked at his book, and sometimes players don’t do that.”
Green’s added size allowed Capers to play more base defense than he’s been able to most of the season, and like any 3-4 the Packers are at their best against the run when they’re in base, with three down linemen on the field. The shortage of down linemen has forced Capers to play nickel more than expected, and that's a big reason the Packers rank 25th in the league in run defense so far this year.
But with outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Frank Zombo setting the edges, linemen Raji, Green, C.J. Wilson and/or Cullen Jenkins either taking up multiple blockers or shedding single blocks, inside linebackers A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop flowing to the ball, and various members of the secondary supporting the run when needed, neither Tomlinson nor Greene broke a run longer than 8 yards, and their combined 76 yards was a season-low for the duo.
“It was a fun thing to watch from a coaching standpoint to see a group of guys come together and understand they’ve got to be accountable for their responsibilities,” Capers said. “I think team defense is more evident in your run defense because everybody has a gap assignment, and it’s like putting a glove on. If somebody’s out of their gap, it just doesn’t work, and you can’t get guys to try to do too much. Especially with the front seven, guys have to be very unselfish. I think our guys showed that (Sunday).”
It clearly took the Jets out of their game. Sanchez had attempted more than 30 passes in a game just once all season before Sunday, but he threw the ball 38 times against the Packers. That’s primarily because the Packers prevented the Jets’ ground game from keeping the chains in New York’s favor.
The Jets ran the ball on first-and-10 a total of 13 times, and only five times did they gain 5 or more yards on those plays. Eight of 13 times after a first-and-10 run they faced second-and-6-or-more, and winning those plays more than 60 percent of the time really helped Green Bay.
It led to the Jets getting in third-and-short only twice all game. On 15 of their 17 total third downs, the Jets needed 4 or more yards to convert, and running the ball when needing 4 or more on third down isn’t common, which put the ball in Sanchez’s hands.
“It felt a little bit more like last year,” Capers said. “Anytime you can go out and dictate the down and distance a little bit more, it certainly helps in terms of playing their play-action game, getting them into more predictable third-down situations. I thought for the most part (Sunday) we did that. It comes down to not always being in second-and-5, second-and-4 situations.”
If Sunday was a sign the run defense is coming around with the current personnel, it bodes well for when veteran run-stuffer Ryan Pickett returns from his ankle injury. Other than the opening snaps against Washington (when he hurt the ankle) and Minnesota (when he tweaked it again), Pickett has essentially missed the last four games, and it’s not entirely surprising the rushing performances by Miami and Minnesota came with the defensive front adjusting to his absence.
The thought of having Raji, Pickett and Green at his disposal to defend the run will feel like a luxury to Capers considering all the adjusting that has been necessary so far this season.
“We’re a great example, you can’t ever have too many big guys,” Capers said. “You can get short on big guys in a hurry.”
Pickett’s status for this week against Dallas isn’t yet known, but after the bye, the Packers have the rematch with Minnesota and another team with a power running game in Atlanta the following week. A second formidable ground game from New York also awaits as the Giants visit Lambeau Field on Dec. 26. If all goes well from here on out, the Packers should be much more capable of handling those rushing attacks like they handled the Jets’.
With Pickett’s return, the continued acclimation of Green, and more time for Walden and the two other new linebackers – Matt Wilhelm and Diyral Briggs – to pick things up, Capers should only have more options on his call sheet in the coming weeks. In addition, Wilson keeps developing the more he plays as a rookie, Jenkins is less inhibited by the club cast on his broken hand now that it’s smaller, Bishop and Hawk are continuing to settle into their full-time roles, and Zombo is holding his own, too.
Hopefully, all that points to the run defense more closely resembling ’09 the rest of the way. There are no guarantees, of course, and the No. 25 spot is a deep hole from which to climb, but for the first time in 2010 it appears the Packers are headed in that direction.
“If we can have another good week of practice and find a way to go play well this coming weekend,” Capers said, “hopefully we can get the corner turned on this injury thing, and now with the number of plays that guys have played, it will do wonders for our depth the second half of the season.”