All the pieces were in place Monday night for the Green Bay Packers’ run defense to have a major letdown when the Kansas City Chiefs entered Lambeau Field.
The Packers were facing Jamaal Charles, an All-Pro running back. They were without strong safety Morgan Burnett, perhaps their best run defender. The Packers had allowed 193 and 189 rushing yards, respectively, in the previous two games Burnett missed with injury.
“He’s kind of the field general back there,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “He understands where he needs to fit on runs, all those things. So, obviously, we like it when Morgan is available to us.”
There would have been no surprise if Charles had well over 100 rushing yards in a grinding, clock-controlling effort. Instead, the Packers held him to 49 yards on 11 carries. It was a continuation of the previous week, when the Packers held Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch to 41 yards on 15 carries.
It’s been a stunning turnaround for the Packers, who were gashed in their opener at the Bears when running back Matt Forte ran for 171 yards on 24 carries, a 5.9-yard average. Lynch and Charles, who have nine Pro Bowls and three All-Pro nods between them, combined for just 90 yards and a 3.4-yard average.
“It’s nothing we’re sitting here celebrating, obviously,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “It’s kind of what we’ve come to expect. We gave up a few too many yards in Week 1 with guys being out of alignment and doing their own thing, so to speak. But it seems we’ve shored up those details and have guys playing sound run defense. It’s shown, and we’ve done a really good job.”
The Packers’ run defense wasn’t perfect against the Seahawks and Chiefs. Two weeks ago, quarterback Russell Wilson used a heavy dose of read-option to gain 78 yards on 10 carries. While Lynch didn’t find the end zone, Charles had three rushing touchdowns Monday.
Still, the Packers’ turnaround has come against teams that ranked first (Seattle) and 10th in rushing last season, and the latter came without Burnett on the field. It’s worth noting as the Packers prepare to play at the San Francisco 49ers – which finished fourth in rushing last season – with Burnett’s status uncertain for Sunday.
Capers said the key has been how the Packers defend the run early in games. Both games started with three-and-outs on the opening series. Lynch lost five yards on two carries during the Seahawks’ first possession, while Charles had no yards on his first four carries.
By the time Lynch and Charles climbed out of the red, the Packers already had a double-digit lead.
“You influence how the game goes a lot by how you play the run, and especially how you play the run early,” Capers said. “Because most people in this league, if you stop the run early, they get frustrated and they get away from it. They won’t hang in there and pound it for 3, 4 yards.”
Capers hopes his defense can do the same this week. Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers’ quarterback, is a riddle the Packers have yet to solve. In three games against Capers’ defense, Kaepernick is averaging 100 rushing yards.
The Packers may have a better chance of limiting Kaepernick than ever before. Capers said the run defense’s production can be built on, starting in San Francisco.
“I’ve always believe this – you get what you emphasize,” Capers said. “We certainly emphasize it. I feel like if we can get everybody healthy and get going that we can be a pretty darn good run defensive team, which I think we’ve shown.”
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