Ryan Wood and Weston Hodkiewicz discuss the Green Bay Packers' problems with tackling and defending the run. (Sept. 14, 2015)
This story has been updated to correct that the Packers gave up the second-most rushing yards of any NFL team in Week 1.
Any hope the Green Bay Packers have of once again being among the NFL’s elite defenses rests on their ability to consistently stop the run.
String together a few more performances like Sunday and it could wind up being a long season.
The Packers walked out of Soldier Field with a 31-23 victory, but only after giving up 189 rushing yards to the Chicago Bears, the second-most allowed by any NFL team in Week 1. At 29, veteran Matt Forte remains a chore for would-be tacklers, rushing for 141 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries.
His 5.9 yards per carry kept Chicago in manageable down-and-distance situations throughout. The letdown was a lasting headache for the Packers' defense, which struggled to get off the field on third and fourth downs.
Missed tackles factored heavily into the Bears’ bloated numbers. Packers coach Mike McCarthy said coaches found more than 10 missed tackles during film study. They were distributed evenly between defending the run and after the catch, according to defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
“Not good enough,” said Capers of the team’s tackling. “We have to tackle better. Part of that is again the speed of the first game, it’s the first regular-season game. Forte is a good runner. We’re going to see good runners every week. But we have to tackle better. We had too many missed tackles.”
The performance was troublesome given how their slow start against the run plagued them for much of the 2014 season. The Packers sat dead-last in the category at the bye week before moving Clay Matthews to inside linebacker, a catalyst in salvaging a 23rd-ranked performance.
It didn’t help Sunday that Green Bay was without defensive lineman Letroy Guion (suspension) and strong safety Morgan Burnett (calf). Inside linebacker Sam Barrington also left in the first quarter after aggravating the ankle injury that limited him in practice last week.
Still, the Packers expected more from the group, especially after a strong preseason in Capers’ estimation. Green Bay gave up one explosive run to Jonas Gray in the opener against New England, but finished the exhibition season third in fewest rushing yards allowed.
None of that matters now. McCarthy said his message during Monday’s team meeting was self-improvement. Meanwhile, the defensive coaches gave players their own poignant perspective going into Sunday’s game against the Seattle Seahawks.
“Stopping the run,” said inside linebacker Nate Palmer of the emphasis in film study. “That’s pretty much our focus.”
What was troubling about the defense’s performance was for all the uncertainty facing a new Bears’ team under first-year coach John Fox, the Packers knew they were going to get a heavy dose of Forte and were powerless to stop him.
Capers said the Bears showed a few unscouted looks the defense had to adjust to, including a three tight-end package early in the game that forced the Packers to go into their Big Okie package where safety Sean Richardson replaces Casey Hayward.
Chicago offensive coordinator Adam Gase mixed up his run calls among dives, pitches and stretches to keep the Packers guessing with their pressure packages. Rush inside and the Bears darted outside the tackles. Bring pressure off the edge and Forte ran up the middle.
It wasn’t just the two-time Pro Bowl running back who burned the Packers, though. Even quarterback Jay Cutler got in on the action, juking safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix during a 12-yard scramble on third-and-5 near the end of the first half.
“First game (was) a little rusty,” said Clinton-Dix, who took over many of Burnett’s in-the-box responsibilities. “Just two fluke plays with Jay Cutler, he’s an elusive quarterback. He’s not afraid to plant that foot and go back inside into a crowd. It’s just a few plays that I missed and I’m not really worried about it. It’s just a few plays that I know I can make any other day.”
The Packers don’t feel Burnett’s absence changed things for the defense. Clinton-Dix said he felt Hyde did an exemplary job on the back end with communication and making sure players were in the right spots. Capers commended Palmer, who replaced Barrington inside, for how he played on short notice.
So what went wrong and how quickly can it be fixed?
One area McCarthy points to is defenders coming flat-footed when defending the outside zone. It was an issue that first surfaced in the Packers’ third preseason game against Philadelphia when the defense infamously allowed 39 points and 325 total yards in the first half to the Eagles.
McCarthy believes improvement is sought in reemphasizing fundamentals. The Packers will need to hone their craft quickly. This Sunday, they play host to Marshawn Lynch and the Seattle Seahawks, who like to stretch defenses and pound the ball inside.
The Packers seemed to handle the run OK when B.J. Raji, Mike Daniels and Mike Pennel were on the field together, but struggled when pulling a lineman off for an extra defensive back in their subpackages. Regardless, you have to be able to stop the run.
“You better be because you’re going to see a lot of that,” Capers said. “So I’ve seen us play the run very well. I think it’s more a matter of assignment gap control, technique, those type of things with the first game. Again, the second half of last season, our run defense we were playing the same personnel groups and I thought we played the run pretty well.”
For now, Lynch must be salivating at what he’s seen on tape from Green Bay.
Among the run defense’s forgettable moments in regular-season openers over the last five seasons was last year’s showing in Seattle when Lynch, Percy Harvin and Russell Wilson torched Green Bay for 207 rushing yards in the Seahawks’ 36-16 victory at CenturyLink Field.
Harvin wore out his welcome in Seattle a few weeks after last year’s opener, but the combination of Wilson and Lynch drove the Seahawks to within a yard of winning back-to-back Super Bowl titles last season.
“He’s a tough running back,” defensive back Micah Hyde said of Lynch. “He’s one of the best in the league and he’s hard to bring down. We have to gang tackle. It’s rare that you see one guy breaking him down. You have to get your arms on him and hang on. Hopefully, we’ll have some other guys coming.”
The Packers aren’t panicking. Capers acknowledges the problems that plagued the defense against the Bears, but points toward how the Packers clamped down in the red zone and made second-half corrections against the run.
Forte rushed for 105 yards and a touchdown in the opening half against the Packers, but carried the ball only eight more times in the second half for 36 yards.
McCarthy said Barrington would be “hard-pressed” to practice Wednesday, leaving his status in doubt for Sunday, though there seems to be optimism Burnett could be back. The Packers will need all the help they can get with Lynch on deck and Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles in the hole.
Whatever went wrong in Chicago, the defense has less than a week to figure out what went wrong.
“We didn’t play to our ability and we gave up more than we wanted to,” Hyde said. “But going into next week, we’re going to work on that. We have another good back that we’re playing against. It’s going to be a big challenge.”
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