'No excuse' for league's worst run defense

Weston Hodkiewicz
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The Chicago Bears no longer have the dubious honor of being the NFL's worst rushing offense.

Bears running back Matt Forte tries to avoid a tackle by Ha Ha Clinton-Dix during the first quarter at Soldier Field.

They have the league's worst run defense to thank for that.

The Green Bay Packers' struggles to stop the run infiltrated another game Sunday at Soldier Field. Timely turnovers and an all-world quarterback ultimately resulted in a 38-17 victory, but the Bears and slow-starting Matt Forte bled the Packers for 235 yards on the ground despite not having a carry of more than 19 yards.

It was the 10th consecutive game the Packers have allowed more than 100 rushing yards, and the performance plummeted them to 32nd in the NFL in run defense. The 176.0 yards per game the Packers are allowing on the ground is nearly 20 yards more than the winless Oakland Raiders.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy knows the stat sheet isn't pretty, but still sees the run defense's early problems as correctable.

"I'm aware what the numbers are, nobody likes it," McCarthy said. "But there's some things we did the last two weeks technique-wise that's not new for us; we're doing more of this year than we have in the past. This particular game against Chicago, we didn't do those types of things."

The Packers understood there might be an adjustment period with changing the philosophy of their defense during the offseason. They allowed veterans Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly to walk in an effort to construct a defensive front centered on younger and more versatile linemen.

However, many of the same problems have permeated this season. After ranking as high as third in NFL run defense in late October 2013, the Packers have allowed 2,154 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns over their past 14 regular-season games, an average of 153.9 yards per contest.

Last year's slide from third to 25th led to the Packers allowing Pickett and Jolly to walk in free agency. Instead, they re-signed B.J. Raji, brought in Letroy Guion and drafted Southern Mississippi's Khyri Thornton in the third round.

Raji (biceps) and Thornton (hamstring) landed on injured reserve before playing a regular-season game, which pushed Guion into the starting lineup despite missing most of training camp with a hamstring injury.

However, there was no innocent party on Sunday. Linemen failed to hold gaps, and linebackers and defensive backs had no shortage of missed tackles.

Meanwhile, a Bears' rushing offense that had been averaging 64 yards a game boosted its per-game average by 40 yards and catapulted itself 12 spots in the NFL rankings at the Packers' expense.

"We got gashed on some plays," said defensive back Micah Hyde, who had one of the defense's eight missed tackles according to Pro Football Focus. "I think that's evident, but at the same time, we won the game. Everything is a lot better when you win. We can build off the tape and correct the run fits and stuff like that."

So far, the loss of Raji has proved to be a significant one. The former first-round pick was coming off his worst statistical season, but seemed to be motivated and comfortable in his move back to nose tackle.

When the realization hit that Raji would miss the entire season, the Packers didn't break stride and didn't panic about their decision to part ways with either Pickett or Jolly. They stayed committed to their young linemen.

There's no turning back with Pickett, who finally came off the market last week when the Houston Texans signed him to a one-year contract to help fill out their depleted defensive line. A fixture on the Packers' defense for seven seasons, the 34-year-old veteran had a tackle in 20 snaps in Sunday's 23-17 Houston victory.

Third-year defensive lineman Mike Daniels appears to have responded the most to his expanded role in the Packers' defense. His 14 tackles lead the line, but it's been a chore to find a complement. The 6-foot-4, 315-pound Guion has three tackles in 95 run snaps.

One answer could be Mike Pennel, a 6-foot-4, 332-pound lineman out of Colorado State-Pueblo who was one of two undrafted rookies to make this year's team. He played 22 snaps with a stop against the Bears.

"There's just small little things we have to fix and we'll get it done," Pennel said. "We're just growing together. We're learning. The vets are keeping us on our technique and everything. A lot of people hitting us with a lot of different things. We just have to trust in our coaching and we'll get better at it."

The early problems against the run aren't solely on the defensive line, though.

Outside linebackers Julius Peppers, Clay Matthews, Mike Neal and Nick Perry are responsible for setting an edge. According to Pro Football Focus, Forte rushed for nearly 7 yards per carry when running outside of the tackles despite making only one defender miss on his 23 carries.

The Packers have moved away from the two-gap scheme traditionally featured in Capers' zone-blitz defense where linemen hold up blockers to free linebackers, but all parties still have obligations.

"I think, once again, your job as a coach is to put the player in the best situation to be successful," McCarthy said. "We're very critical of ourselves and our players are very accountable. One thing about what happened yesterday, they're all things that are all correctable.

"But giving up that much yardage, there's no excuse for that. We understand that, but there are things we can definitely work on and improve on."

The Packers' defense has been up and down, but the run defense always has been adequate. Even when the Packers ranked last in total defense in 2011, they were still a respectable 14th against the run.

McCarthy has no plans for an in-season overhaul, so it's going to be up to the defense to straighten itself out.

The sooner, the better.

"Since Day 1 of my football career, my coaches have always said, 'Stop the run,'" Hyde said. "You stop the run, you can switch things up from there and make it a one-dimensional game and that's always easier on a defense. That's just what we try to do. We weren't successful (Sunday). That's evident, but we can build off the positive things."

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