The issues plaguing the Green Bay Packers' run defense are nothing new. There's more than a full season of evidence illustrating the unit's inability to consistently stop opposing ground attacks.
Since ranking third in the NFL through the first seven weeks last season, the Packers have given up an average of 153 rushing yards per game over their last 18 regular-season games (5.0 yards per attempt).
The Packers and defensive coordinator Dom Capers felt they were making strides after containing Minnesota (111 yards), Miami (112) and Carolina (108) over the last three weeks, but the defense again bottomed out Sunday against New Orleans.
They have Mark Ingram's career day to thank for it. Making his first start of the season, the fourth-year running back rushed for 172 yards on 24 carries in the Packers' 44-23 loss.
It was only Ingram's second career 100-yard rushing game.
When it was over, the Packers' defense came 7 yards short of conceding 200 rushing yards for the third time this season. They surrendered a season-high 235 yards to Chicago a month ago before timely turnovers propelled the Packers to a 38-17 victory.
The 6.2 yards per carry they allowed to the Saints was enough to slide the Packers back into last in the NFL in run defense (153.5 yards per game).
"The run defense was our Achilles' heel clearly on defense," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Monday. "Too many missed tackles. We had a couple adjustments that were not clean that were probably reflected more in the down-the-field passing game. We need to improve there. That's happened to us twice now. It's definitely a focus from a defensive standpoint."
The Packers and Capers felt they were on the verge of finding answer; even jumping out of the 32nd spot after a hardy performance against the Panthers.
However, many lingering problems returned against the Saints and Ingram, whom Pro Football Focus credited with 10 forced missed tackles on his 24 carries. Coming into Sunday's game, Ingram had three on 40 attempts the entire season.
The Packers knew it was going to be difficult to seal off Drew Brees and his quick release, but the inability to contain the run presented the Saints' second-ranked offense with opportunities Green Bay's defense could ill afford.
"I thought they were able to control the tempo of the game by controlling the down and distance," Capers said. "When a team gets their run game going a little bit, then you have all those third-and-short situations. You don't have the third-and-long situation where you can get your dime defense out there and go to work on them."
The Packers went to dime only on nine snaps, often playing their nickel package early before switching back to the traditional 3-4 late when they had to sell out against the run.
The Packers feel confident about their personnel, though McCarthy admitted the absence of strong safety Morgan Burnett (calf) likely played a role given his stewardship of the defense and how well he'd been playing the run.
Rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix struggled to match that production with a team-high three missed tackles. According to Pro Football Focus, the defense's 13 misses were the most since the 18 the Packers had in a 36-16 loss to Seattle in the opener.
Looking for plays, Capers cycled his inside linebacker with Sam Barrington starting again next to A.J. Hawk and Jamari Lattimore subbing in as the lone inside linebacker in the dime package.
Everything the Packers tried failed to stop the Saints. With the running game humming, Brees proceeded with a perfect second half in completing all 11 of his passes for 124 yards and three touchdowns.
It's been 12 games (including playoffs) since they held an opposing offense to less than 100 rushing yards in a game, but the Packers haven't lost hope.
"I've seen us through the first half of the season play pretty good run defense, so I feel like we can," Capers said. "You look at (Sunday) night, you might question it a little bit. But I've seen us have our moments where we've played good run defense. That's what we've got to do this second half. We know when you have something like that you get tested and you get tested until you take care of it."
The Packers spent this offseason changing the look of their defensive line. They jettisoned Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly, and didn't back down from their plans even after B.J. Raji was lost for the season.
Letroy Guion has had his moments and Mike Daniels has come into his own, but something is missing. Part of Capers and his staff's midseason self-scouting this week will be dedicated to finding where the troubles lie.
Capers hasn't been afraid to adjust, but time is starting to become an issue.
"We were heading in the right direction, but it was just, give credit to their offense," outside linebacker/defensive end Mike Neal said after the game. "They do a lot of stuff on timing, they get the ball out of the quarterback's hands quickly and they keep you off balance by running the ball. You've got to make their game one dimensional. You can't give them the advantage of dictating what they want to do right and left. We just have to play better."
One point McCarthy drove home following the loss was the Packers cannot be a team that lives and dies off turnovers. The defense needs stops and it starts with stopping the run like it did early last season.
The Packers are 32nd in the league in run defense. Their 4.8-yards per carry is tied for third to last. Their only option is improvement, especially as the temperatures dip and the importance of running the ball increases.
"Our issues on run D are fundamental," McCarthy said. "We need to do a better job of staying square, getting in our gaps and we need to tackle the damn ball carrier and put him on the ground. That's what we'll be focused on."
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