GREEN BAY — There’s no magic formula or cutting-edge philosophy that’s enabled the Packers’ run defense to get off to its stifling start to the 2016 season.
In fact, the recipe for allowing only 78 rushing yards through the first two games has been rather simple for the defensive front.
Penetrate and tackle.
“The D-line has been doing a great job of being disruptive and getting penetration,” linebacker Julius Peppers said. “We’ve been doing a better job tackling. I think that’s been the biggest difference in why we’ve been playing the run so well is everybody making good tackles.”
The production is coming from every level of the defense. The line has been active in the opponent’s backfield, outside linebackers have contained the edge, and inside linebackers and safeties have corralled anyone who has squirmed through.
The early results have been staggering for the run defense’s effectiveness – 48 carries for 78 yards (1.6 yards per attempt) with the longest carry going for a mere 12 yards.
The Packers haven’t just been holding the line, though. They’ve been breaking through in producing multiple tackles for loss against the run in each game so far.
Those negative plays have allowed Green Bay’s pass-rushers to pin their ears back on third downs, which has helped the Packers generate the fourth-most sacks (seven) and a 27.6 third-down percentage.
“Us older guys up front, we’re really starting to gel,” defensive lineman Mike Daniels said. “We have tough young guys that when new come out of the game, they come in and get physical with the opponents. Our safeties have always done a really good job in the run game and our young linebackers are on the spot. They’re really hunting back there.”
The Packers didn’t overhaul how they coached run defense. They’ve always included several tackling periods during practice.
Other than introducing tackling donuts to practice, the only other change the coaching staff made was how much they emphasized the importance of pursuit and finish during the offseason.
There’s probably also something to be said for how much youth General Manager Ted Thompson has infused into the defensive front over the past few seasons.
Many were concerned a young and unproven defensive line might be a weak spot for the Packers’ defense going into the season, but it’s been the exact opposite with the young linemen following the lead of Daniels and veteran Letroy Guion.
With the Packers already without Mike Pennel, that depth was critical to stopping Adrian Peterson and the Vikings’ run game on Sunday when Guion dropped out with a knee injury.
Rookie first-round pick Kenny Clark stepped in the game and held his own, standing up to double-teams and giving the linebackers room to maneuver and make the tackle.
“I’ve liked our aggressiveness of the guys up front. They’ve been attacking,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “It’s not sit and read, they’re attacking. It comes down to lining up and whipping your man a lot of times and I think we’ve done a good job of not giving up vertical seams. … We’ve done a nice job of keeping people going east and west and staying in good leverage positions.”
The effectiveness of the Packers’ trio of inside linebackers – Jake Ryan, Blake Martinez and Joe Thomas – also has been a pleasant surprise for the defense.
The rotation has Ryan and Martinez playing in base and nickel packages, with Thomas handling dime responsibilities and occasionally rotating into the nickel in certain matchup situations.
The Packers made upgrades on both the defensive line and inside linebacker positions after having difficulty against the run in 2013 and the first half of 2014.
It’s early, but the investment in young defenders at both positions appears to be paying dividends.
“I think we have a good rotation with Joe and Blake,” said Ryan of the inside linebackers, who have combined for 29 tackles this season.
“Joe is more of our fast nickel guy and going out there in our dime, too. I think the coaches have it down with what they want to do with us.”
The only part that’s been missing for the Packers has been turnovers during the early portion of the season.
Thomas’ interception on the opening series against Jacksonville remains the only turnover the defense has generated, but history shows those opportunities come with stout run defense and pressure.
When the Packers set a franchise record for fewest rushing yards allowed in 2009, it’s no coincidence the secondary led the league with 30 interceptions.
The Packers face another stiff test this Sunday in Detroit after holding Peterson and Jacksonville’s T.J. Yeldon in check. The Lions are averaging 126.5 rushing yards per game, though starting running back Ameer Abdullah was placed on injured reserve on Wednesday.
Capers cautions that the run defense has a long way to go to meet the lofty expectations the coaches set for it this year, but there’s no arguing that it’s off to a good start.
“I think everybody understands what we’re trying to get done,” said linebacker Nick Perry, who has six tackles and 1½ sacks. “We want to make teams one-dimensional and the only way to do that is to stop the run. Everything else will take care of itself.
“Everybody wants to get to third down and rush the quarterback. Everybody wants sacks, picks. I think everybody understands that and we’re excited to do that throughout the whole season.”
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