GREEN BAY – Holding onto the No. 1 ranking in run defense won’t be easy for the Packers this week.
Heading into Sunday’s game at Tennessee, Green Bay holds a razor-thin lead over Baltimore in the run defense rankings (75.8 to 76.1 yards allowed per game), and the Packers now face their biggest test in a month with Titans running back DeMarco Murray.
With 807 rushing yards, Murray is second in the league to Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott, and the Titans are the No. 3 rushing offense overall.
Four weeks ago, Elliott rolled up 157 yards at Lambeau Field to knock the Packers out of the top spot. Green Bay’s defensive front wasn’t proud of how it played. Particularly upsetting was that Elliott rushed for 67 yards in the fourth quarter, a sign the Packers had been worn down.
The Packers have since climbed back to No. 1 – though technically the Ravens might move ahead statistically on Thursday night against Cleveland – and keeping that spot this week could go a long way toward a big road victory.
“Every week we want to go out and show we’re the top run defense in the league,” rookie linebacker Blake Martinez said. “We just want to keep improving each week whether last game was good or bad … and keep that title.”
The Titans don’t present the same challenge as the Cowboys, schematically speaking. Dallas would line up, dig in their heels, and come right at the defense. Not Tennessee.
“This team is more a shift and motion team,” Martinez said. “They use that to disguise what they want to get into, and then try to make you think too much, and not be able to get into the right check, before they snap the ball.”
Murray made a name for himself earlier in his career with Dallas, of course, and has topped 100 yards rushing against Green Bay twice before (2013, 2014 playoffs).
Both Martinez and fellow inside linebacker Jake Ryan describe Murray similarly. He has the power to hit a hole hard and the speed to bounce it outside at any moment. He also has 226 yards receiving, putting him over 1,000 yards from scrimmage in just nine games.
“They’re good at what they do,” said Ryan, who is coming off of one of the better games in his young career. “They’ve got a good offensive line that can push ahead. We have to play fundamentally sound defense.”
Murray isn’t Tennessee’s only running weapon, though. While becoming a more accomplished passer in his second season (94.1 passer rating), QB Marcus Mariota can move the chains with his legs, too.
He’s had two games this season with at least 60 rushing yards. He had a 14-yard TD run last week against San Diego, which was nothing compared to his 87-yard TD jaunt as a rookie last December.
“He’s a threat, so you have to be cautious in your rush lanes,” outside linebacker Nick Perry said. “Our main focus is to contain him.”
Martinez, from Stanford, played against the former Oregon QB in the Pac-12 Conference, and he’s seen some of the same images on film then and now – Mariota being chased by a defender and not getting caught.
Martinez was once one of those pursuers, and Oregon’s ultra-fast-paced, no-huddle offense made it tough from the start because defenders would get tired playing so many snaps. Mariota only added to the challenge.
“He’s an amazing athlete,” Martinez said. “One time I chased him down, pushed him out of bounds, and he jumped over like a 6-foot-tall table and landed before he went into the stands wall. I was like, OK, this guy is a freak.
“I went back and was like, all right, I have to get ready because they’re about to snap the ball again.”
The Titans use Murray’s production to run an effective play-action game with Mariota, whose only vulnerability appears to be turnovers. He’s thrown eight interceptions and lost four (of seven) fumbles this season.
But the potential for turnovers won’t be there if the Packers can’t get the Titans out of their pound-the-ball, play-action game, and that means handling Murray first and foremost.
“Their run game versus our run defense,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “It’s going to be a hell of an afternoon.”