The Green Bay Packers’ run defense is almost out of the woods.
There’s one final hurdle the Packers must clear without Letroy Guion during a ground-game gauntlet to start the 2015 season. It comes this Monday night against the Kansas City Chiefs and Jamaal Charles, who will have had 11 days by game time to stew over his late fumble In last Thursday’s 31-24 loss to Denver.
Guion, who’s serving the final week of his three-game suspension, isn’t the be-all, end-all for defensive success, but the 6-foot-4, 315-pound defensive lineman represents a versatile piece to what coach Mike McCarthy felt could be the deepest line the team has fielded in his decade leading the Packers.
They also will take whatever reinforcements they can get after losing starting inside linebacker Sam Barrington (foot) and defensive lineman Josh Boyd (ankle) to season-ending injuries the past two weeks.
Regardless, the defensive front was successful in finally containing Marshawn Lynch (15 carries for 41 yards) in Sunday’s 27-17 win over Seattle. The five-time Pro Bowler ran them over for 312 total yards in the Seahawks’ two wins over Green Bay last season at CenturyLink Field.
Multiple positions factor into how well your defense contains the run, but things seem to have fallen into place upfront with a lighter B.J. Raji, a heavier Mike Daniels and former undrafted free agent Mike Pennel, whose role should expand even more after the loss of Boyd.
Charles, a four-time Pro Bowler in his own right, will challenge the outside zone more than Lynch, who’s primarily a between-the-tackles bulldozer. At 28, the 5-foot-11, 197-pound running back remains as dynamic as ever so long as he holds onto the football.
Ball security overshadowed Charles’ otherwise brilliant performance against the Broncos. He had 21 carries for 125 yards and a touchdown, but the second of his two lost fumbles was returned for a touchdown in the final minute of a tied game.
Charles has 27 fumbles and lost 19 of them in 99 career games (including playoffs). That works out to a lost fumble every 5.2 games. Comparatively, Packers running back Eddie Lacy has four fumbles with three lost in 36 games or one lost every 12 games over his first two-plus seasons.
It’s the first time the Packers actually will be matching up with Charles outside of a preseason game. He was out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament when Kansas City pulled off a 19-14 upset of the previously undefeated Packers on Dec. 18, 2011.
Despite their performance Sunday, the Packers still rank 31st in run defense due to the problems they had stopping Chicago’s Matt Forte in the regular-season opener. The breakdowns were a defense-wide issue with several missed opportunities at the second level and outside zone.
Statistically, the Packers had more missed tackles against Seattle (14) than Chicago (eight), but they did a better job of gang-tackling and swarming to the ball. The line’s ability to batten down the hatches went far in quietening Lynch and limiting Russell Wilson’s big-play opportunities.
Raji played heavily into accomplishing that feat. Listed at 6-foot-2, 337 pounds, he reported to training camp 10 pounds under that estimation, his lowest weight as a professional. Mixed with a steady helping of yoga, the 29-year-old nose tackle said he feels like he did during his first two NFL seasons.
Raji looks like it, too. Disruptive with two tackles for loss, he helped set the tone early against Seattle. It came a week after Raji earned his first sack in more than three years early in the opener against the Bears.
“I thought B.J. played one of his better games,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “He was active. He got off blocks. He controlled his gap. I thought he did a nice job of being physical on the center, on their guards. So that was encouraging. He was a big part of that, and that enabled us to limit Lynch.”
Raji’s increased flexibility is evident when you watch his occasional routine before series, which consists of a deep backward bend while lying on his back. He already had a quick first step, but the weight he’s shed allows him to sustain his burst off the line of scrimmage.
The seventh-year lineman stayed in Green Bay throughout his rehab after tearing his right biceps muscle in last year’s preseason. He felt the injury gave him a different perspective and fed into his motivation to put a dismal 2013 season behind him.
“I’m so happy for him because he’s been catching a lot of flak and saying he isn’t the same guy,” defensive lineman Mike Daniels said recently. “He’s put a lot of work in and rededicated himself to this thing. … I’m honored to be able to play next to him.”
The Packers need more than just Raji to stop Charles, who can hurt you from anywhere and is dangerous in the open field. As a receiver, he was quarterback Alex Smith’s third most popular target (52) behind only Dwayne Bowe (90) and tight end Travis Kelce (81), according to Pro Football Focus.
Charles likes to bounce outside, so it’ll be on every Green Bay linebacker to fill gaps and set the edge. Clay Matthews looks more and more like an inside linebacker each week, not rushing at all from the outside against the Seahawks and serving as the dime inside linebacker relaying calls.
The Chiefs used 2013 third-round pick Knile Davis to take carries off Charles last season. He’s bigger (5-foot-10, 227) than Charles, but actually registered a faster time in his 40-yard dash at the combine (4.39 seconds). Kansas City teased getting him more involved, but he’s had only 10 touches in two games.
Ultimately, Andy Reid’s West Coast offense starts with getting Charles involved. It’s what keeps drives manageable for Smith and helps take attention away from Kelce (6-foot-5, 260), who’s quickly developing into one of the league’s most promising young tight ends.
The Packers’ 154 rushing yards allowed in the first two weeks don’t tell the whole story, but another rupture against the Chiefs could put the run defense in danger of another slow start. It took all of 2014 to pull Green Bay out from a wretched September.
The work won’t be over after this opening stretch of three consecutive 1,000-yard bell cows. The Packers will then be tested by a series of heralded young rushers over the next month in San Francisco’s Carlos Hyde, St. Louis’ Todd Gurley (or Tre Mason) and San Diego’s Melvin Gordon III.
First thing’s first. Dom Capers’ defense must find a way to contain Charles and his career average of 5.5 yards per carry. Like against Seattle, it will take another collective group effort to make it happen.
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