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Mike Vandermause column: Can Packers win title with this defense? Sure

Dec. 11, 2011
 
Green Bay Packers' Clay Matthews, left, intercepts a pass near teammates Ryan Pickett and Charles Woodson during the Thanksgiving game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. While the Packers' defense ranks poorly in yardage allowed, it fares better in points allowed and has a league-leading 23 interceptions.
Green Bay Packers' Clay Matthews, left, intercepts a pass near teammates Ryan Pickett and Charles Woodson during the Thanksgiving game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. While the Packers' defense ranks poorly in yardage allowed, it fares better in points allowed and has a league-leading 23 interceptions. / Corey Wilson/Press-Gazette

The Green Bay Packers are poised to shatter the age-old myth that defense wins championships in the National Football League.

The Packers are 12-0 and the favorite to win the Super Bowl this season with a defense that is giving up 397 yards per game, second-worst in the NFL.

Their leaky pass defense also ranks next to last in yards allowed (293.0) and plays of 20-plus yards (51).

What in the name of Ray Nitschke, Reggie White and every other former great Packers defensive player is going on out there?

“We’re not happy with it,” said defensive lineman Ryan Pickett. “We’re giving up way too many big plays and that’s the difference between this year and last year. … We’re definitely working on that. We have to change it.”

But do they?

Of course the Packers want to improve on defense, but is it necessary in order to win another championship?

The answer is a resounding “no.”

The Packers have functioned just fine with their defense this season and they need only point to their perfect record to prove it.

History suggests that dominating defenses can most certainly carry a team to a championship. The 2000 Baltimore Ravens, 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers and 2008 Pittsburgh Steelers are prime examples. Those teams were ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in points given up and yards allowed and used that stinginess as a foundation for Super Bowl titles.

But that’s not the only formula for success in the NFL.

Two of the past five Super Bowl champions had sub-par defenses. The 2006 Indianapolis Colts didn’t let a No. 21-ranked defense stop them from winning a title. The same goes for the 2009 New Orleans Saints, who were ranked a lowly 25th in defense.

What those teams possessed were dynamic offenses that couldn’t be stopped, which is a blueprint the Packers are following this year.

No opponent has shut down Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ high-powered offense, which has made up for their defensive deficiencies.

But there is also a sense that the Packers defense isn’t nearly as bad as some think.

“I love our defense,” said Rodgers.

“I don't mind how they're playing. I know they want to improve a little bit, maybe not give up that many points, but they're doing a great job for us."

Is Rodgers just being a good teammate by tossing his defensive mates a bouquet, or is there some truth to his words?

The Packers indeed are doing “a great job” when it comes to forcing turnovers, a statistic far more important than yards allowed. Their league-leading 23 interceptions, including four returned for touchdowns, have had a profound impact.

It’s also time to dismiss the notion that yardage alone is an accurate gauge of defensive prowess.

"I believe the two worst defenses, if you will, as far as yardage are the Patriots and us,” said Rodgers. “And I think we're both doing pretty well this year.”

The Packers and Patriots combined are giving up an average of 405 yards per game yet have a collective 21-3 record. Both teams entered Week 14 as No. 1 seeds in their respective conferences.

All together now, let’s repeat these words: Yardage doesn’t matter when it comes to victories and championships.

“We've (had) a lot of leads this year,” said Rodgers. “We've probably played a little softer than we usually do on defense and allowed some passing yards late in the game, or some rushing yards. Those are not really going to directly impact the game, especially when you're ahead by two or three scores.”

The Packers have held double-digit leads in every game this season and have never trailed entering the fourth quarter. They have allowed more than 400 yards eight times, but in six of those games they led by two touchdowns or more in the fourth quarter.

It suggests the Packers have been in control but have at times needed to withstand frantic comeback attempts by opponents with nothing to lose. That has contributed to a black mark on the defense in terms of yardage but no damage in the standings.

A much more telling number in judging a defense is points allowed, where the Packers are ranked 17th.

They are giving up roughly one touchdown more per game than last season (21.8 points compared to 15.0 in 2010). But the Packers compare favorably in that category to three of the last five Super Bowl champions, including the 2006 Colts (22.5 points per game), 2007 Giants (21.9) and 2009 Saints (21.3).

It should also be noted that when things have gotten tight this season the Packers defense has responded. Five times an opponent with a chance to tie or take the lead in the fourth quarter was stopped in its tracks. The only slip-up came last week when the Giants tied the game with a late touchdown and two-point conversion.

All things considered, the defense has left plenty of room for improvement. But coupled with an explosive offense, the defense is good enough to help the Packers reach their ultimate goal of winning another championship.

mvandermause@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.

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