Packers' run defense: A quest for competence
Before the Green Bay Packers dispersed for the bye week, coach Mike McCarthy had a message for his 32nd-ranked run defense.
The hemorrhaging has to stop.
Each time it appears the defensive gaps have congealed, a new running back reopens the wound. It happened again in Green Bay's 44-23 loss to New Orleans when Mark Ingram had a career day with 172 rushing yards and a touchdown on 24 carries.
McCarthy gave his defenders some time to clear their minds. He didn't go over corrections from the Saints game until after the team returned from the bye week Monday and the coaches had time to perform some self-scouting of their own.
You don't need to turn on the tape, however. Everyone in the locker room knows allowing 153.5 rushing yards per game is unacceptable.
If the 2,456-yard pace holds, it would be the third-most rushing yards Green Bay's defense has surrendered since the 16-game schedule went into effect in 1978, trailing only 1979 (2,885) and 1983 (2,641).
The good news for the Packers is you don't need a top-ranked run defense to win a Super Bowl. Actually, the worst-ranked unit will suffice in the modern NFL. The Indianapolis Colts gave up an average of 173 rushing yards per game in 2006 and still managed to win Super Bowl XLI.
"You never want to be last. You want to be first," defensive lineman Letroy Guion said. "We'll do all the things we need to do in practice and keep continue working. This game is a really hard game to play. You have 31 other good teams out there that's preparing like we're preparing. We just have to step it up and do better."
The most humbling performance came in a 38-17 win over Chicago on Sept. 28. The lopsided score helped camouflage what was an abysmal day for the run defense, which Matt Forte and the rest of the Bears' offense gashed for 235 rushing yards.
It caused the Packers to scrap their 4-3 scheme at halftime. It's yet to see the light of game day since.
The Packers actually kept pretty good tabs on Forte early in his career. He rushed for 465 yards and a touchdown on 138 carries in his first nine games against Green Bay (3.4 yards per carry), but he's nearly matched those totals in the three games since.
All three of his 100-yard rushing performances have come during that recent stretch, accompanied by a robust 5.2 yards per carry average.
"He's a complete back," McCarthy said. "I think anytime you talk about running backs, the first thing you look at (is) do they play first, second and third down? Because that tells you about their versatility. And Forte is the top of the list.
"Anytime you have a three-down back that has the ability in all three phases of his job, it's obviously a big challenge."
The Packers changed their defensive philosophy in the offseason. They allowed space-eating veterans Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly to leave in free agency after a late-season fall from third in rushing defense to 25th. Instead, they invested in younger, more athletic linemen.
Blossoming defensive end Mike Daniels has responded to his expanded role, but the rest of the unit has struggled with inconsistency and injury. The centerpiece of the line, veteran B.J. Raji, was lost in the preseason after tearing his right biceps, which required season-ending surgery.
His replacement, Guion, played all of nine snaps in the preseason because of a hamstring injury. He admits it took him the first three weeks of the regular season to start feeling like himself again.
Perhaps the most important piece was Datone Jones, last season's first-round draft pick who has missed the past month with an ankle injury. The 6-foot-4, 290-pound defensive end was the embodiment of the changes the Packers planned for their defense.
As a rookie, Jones was used almost exclusively as the only true defensive lineman in the dime subpackage. This year, he was positioned to be an every-down player, joining Guion and Daniels in the 3-4.
Jones had 12 tackles and a sack in the first five games before spraining his ankle against Minnesota on Oct. 3. He's twice returned to practice only to suffer setbacks, but "feels confident" about playing against the Bears after getting through Monday's workout unscathed.
Jones still isn't the Packers' best run defender. His minus-5.2 grade defending the run from Pro Football Focus is actually the worst of all of Green Bay's linemen, but his return certainly can't hurt a unit that's been rotating in two undrafted rookies, Mike Pennel and Luther Robinson.
"I'm 290 pounds. I'm a big guy. It takes time," Jones said of his injury. "Freak accident, got caught off guard and that was it. Felt like I was off to a great game when I did get hurt. It was unfortunate, but I've been putting a lot of time into my rehabilitation and getting back. I've been moving great, and I'm excited about this week."
The Packers had a chance to rethink their approach after Raji's season ended in the third preseason game against Oakland. Pickett and Jolly were still on the market, but general manager Ted Thompson didn't bite.
The Houston Texans eventually signed Pickett, who turned 35 last season, but still rank 23rd in the NFL in run defense. He has nine tackles in six starts.
The Packers are counting on their younger defensive linemen with an average age of 24.5 years to improve rather than the regress, like they saw their veterans do as the 2013 season wore on.
History shows you don't need the league's best run defense to win a Super Bowl. Five of the past eight Super Bowl champions, including the 2010 Packers, ranked no higher than 18th in the category.
Top 10 might be out of the question, but the quest for competence starts now. That's the Packers' goal in the second half. An improved performance against the reeling Bears would be a good start.
"We just have to be on the same page," Jones said. "We have to come out and come out hard and fast and make sure that we're setting that standard from start to finish. That's the main goal. We have a lot of special players on this football team that can get the job done."
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