GREEN BAY — The Packers’ run defense knows what the numbers are through the first month of the 2016 regular season.
No NFL team has allowed fewer rushing yards through the first four games than Green Bay, which has limited opponents to a mere 171 rushing yards on 86 carries (1.99 yards per attempt).
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that is the second-fewest rushing yards allowed by a team through four games since the NFL began compiling individual stats in 1933.
The Packers maintained that torrid pace during Sunday’s 23-16 win over the New York Giants, limiting them to only 43 yards on 15 carries.
The Packers remain one of only two teams yet to allow a carry of more than 20 yards this season, but they face a steep challenge this Sunday against the NFL’s top-ranked rushing offense in Dallas.
Running behind what’s considered one of the league’s top offensive lines, fourth-overall pick Ezekiel Elliott (6-0, 225) has gained 546 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 109 carries (5.0 avg).
“I think they’re averaging 155 yards a game rushing, so you don’t have to say much more than that,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “They’re physical and that’s the first thing you look at when you look at the Cowboys’ offense is their ability to run the ball.”
Forcing offenses to abandon the run has allowed the Packers to crank up their pass rush. Their 3½ sacks per game currently is tied for fourth most in the NFL.
Down to their third-string running back, the Giants made it clear early on that they intended to throw the ball in deploying at least three receivers during all 54 of their offensive snaps.
There were some questions going into the season about how the Packers’ run defense would fare considering how young the team was both on the defensive line and at inside linebacker.
So far, the youth movement has paid dividends. The defensive front is getting penetration, outside linebackers are holding the edge, and the inside linebackers have been active.
It’s turned out to be a perfect recipe for dominance in the trenches early on.
“I think everything starts with the way our defense flies around,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “Our defense, the pursuit is high. It starts up front with penetration and their ability to stop the run game and try to force them more into one-dimensional throwing.
“When you’re dictating when the ball is being thrown, it definitely helps you as a defense.”
As well as the defensive line and inside linebackers have closed their gaps, the outside linebackers and defensive backs have held the edge to prevent many runs to break outside.
The rotation of Nick Perry, Clay Matthews and Datone Jones on early downs has played a role in that, along with defensive backs Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Morgan Burnett and Micah Hyde occasionally providing support.
Perry, a first-round pick in 2012, is having a career year with 4½ sacks in four games. The sacks are fun, but it’s the negative yardage plays on first and second down that make them possible.
“A lot of people see sacks as the big stat,” Perry said. “We take more pride in getting sacks. Setting the run, doing all those good things too helps put us in a position where we can get sacks. It all works hand-in-hand. If you do that … it allows us to get more into those situations where we can get more sacks.”
Capers will be the first one to say how big a difference stopping the run can make, especially after giving up 189 rushing yards in last year’s opener in Chicago.
The performance put the run defense in an early hole that it battled for most of last season, which led to the coaching staff emphasizing pursuit and finish going into this season.
Despite the loss of Tony Romo to a back injury, the Cowboys have used Elliott’s ground production to make life easier for rookie quarterback Dak Prescott.
With as many resources as Dallas has poured into its offensive line, it’s important to continue to stress the fundamentals that put Green Bay in this position to start with.
“That’s always a concern because they’re very good blockers,” Capers said. “They’re very athletic and Elliott looks to me like he’s really hit his stride in terms of yards per rush.”
The Packers jumped into the top 10 in total defense (317.2 yards per game) after holding the Giants to a little more than 200 yards on Sunday night.
While the run defense continues to make waves in allowing only 42.8 yards per game to start the year, the Packers are fine staying under the league’s radar at this point.
Right now, their only focus is on Sunday and finding a way to stop Elliott, who has rushed for at least 130 yards in each of Dallas’ last three games.
“We’ll get noticed somewhere down the road,” Perry said. “The main thing for us is each week we’re coming out here and preparing to stop these offenses, and really being aggressive and a dominant defense. I think everything else will take care of itself.”
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