GREEN BAY — The guidelines always have been fairly straightforward for the Packers during Dom Capers’ eight seasons coordinating the defense.
Put your players in a position to make plays and execute when opportunities present themselves.
While it took a little time for the defense to find its groove when it came to generating turnovers, the Packers have come to life in the takeaway department over the past three games.
The Packers have secured 12 turnovers during that span, with the offense not giving the ball away once to the opposition. It’s propelled Green Bay to a tie for sixth in turnover margin with a plus-7 going into Sunday’s NFC North title game in Detroit.
Three weeks ago, the Packers were tied for 24th with a minus-5. What’s been the difference? If you ask Head Coach Mike McCarthy and Capers, it boils down to capitalizing off those opportunities.
“You have to get in position to make those plays,” McCarthy said. “I’m not a big, ‘Hey, the ball bounced our way,’ kind of guy. I’m not sitting here waiting for the damn ball to bounce our way. We have to get ourselves in position. That’s the way we train. The instincts, awareness and the footwork, I think our guys have always done a very good job.”
Perhaps even more important than the number of turnovers is what the Packers’ offense has done with them. Green Bay has converted eight of those 12 takeaways into 52 points in its last three victories.
Three other takeaways during that span resulted in kneel-downs at either the end of a half or game. Only one time have the Packers punted the ball back to the opponent.
The Packers approach takeaways as a fundamental component of their operation. The importance of turnovers is engrained in every defender who walks through the door, while the offense preaches ball security daily.
The rewards of the mentality are reflected in the Packers’ plus-99 turnover margin dating back to McCarthy’s first season in 2006, second only to New England and twice that of third-place Atlanta.
Even when the turnovers weren’t as prevalent earlier this season, the defense never lost focus of their importance.
There’s no better example of that than six-time Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews, who overcame a nagging shoulder injury to record his first turnover of the year on a strip-sack of Minnesota quarterback Sam Bradford before halftime of Saturday’s 38-25 win over the Vikings.
It’s those “under duress” plays that not only lead to a higher amount of fumbles, but also create opportunities for a secondary to make plays on the ball if the quarterback gets it out of his hand.
“We just stayed persistent,” Matthews said. “Since Dom has been here the past eight years, we’ve always done a good job of being one of the league leaders in taking the ball away.
“That’s ultimately the difference in the games. You look at the percentages of the games in which you’re able to get takeaways, it favors heavily in the win column. We’ve been fortunate these past weeks, stick at it and hopefully continue to create those turnovers.”
The Packers always have an ace up their sleeve in quarterback Aaron Rodgers when it comes to the offensive side of the turnover margin. The two-time MVP has thrown only seven interceptions on 571 passing attempts this season (1.2 percent).
McCarthy believes any quarterback in the 1.6-1.7-percent range is playing at a highly elite level based on the decisions he’s making with the football. Comparatively, Rodgers has been below that mark six out of his nine years as a starter.
“When you keep that below 1.6, 1.7, that tells you a lot about your quarterback,” McCarthy said. “He’s always done (well) in that area.”
Rodgers currently is on one of the most efficient stretches of his career over the past five games with 206 consecutive passes without an interception.
The combination of the defense taking away the football and the offense holding onto it has been the backbone of the Packers’ five-game winning streak and subsequent playoff push.
“It makes all the difference in the world,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said. “When you talk about Packer football, that’s something Coach McCarthy stresses and emphasizes week-in and week-out as far as protecting the football and taking the ball away (and how) it equates to winning and losing in the National Football League.”
The Packers will need to keep doing what they’ve been doing to keep their winning ways going during Sunday night’s NFC North title game against Detroit.
They’ll face a Detroit team that has the eighth-fewest interceptions and is tied for the second-fewest fumbles lost of any NFL team this season.
While it’s great to steal as many possessions as the defense has over the past three games, Capers is quick to point out there are still plays to be made after registering six takeaways against Seattle on Dec. 4 and another four against Chicago last week.
“I think we’re still doing the same things we always do. You just keep working on those things and you convert your opportunities,” Capers said. “If we had a couple more of those (plays against Minnesota), we’d have another four-takeaway game. That’s kind of where it is this time of the year.”