Packers must solve NFL's top defense
It was a little more than a year ago that long-time defensive coordinator Wade Phillips took to his Twitter account to express his frustration with the NFL job market.
“Disappointed not even an interview after 7 straight full seasons of top 10 D with 3 different teams. Last 5 times as D C= playoffs1st yr,” Phillips tweeted.
The phone never rang and the 68-year-old coach sat out the entire 2014 season, uncertain of whether another opportunity would arise. That was until his most recent boss, former Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak, replaced John Fox as the Denver Broncos’ coach in January.
Less than two weeks later, Kubiak hired Phillips to bring his 3-4 defense to the Broncos. Entering Sunday’s showdown of unbeatens against Green Bay, Denver leads the NFL in nearly every defensive category, including total defense (281.3 yards per game), pass defense (192.2 ypg) and sacks (26).
It puts the Broncos well on their way to extending Phillips’ streak of making a playoff appearance in his first year as a team's defensive coordinator to six. When asked recently about the key to his defense’s success, however, Phillips deflected the credit.
“It’s not about me, it’s about these guys,” Phillips said. “And it’s not only them, it’s the position coaches that really coach them. I don’t really do a whole lot.”
The Broncos were among the league’s top defenses a year ago under the direction of coordinator Jack Del Rio (now the Oakland Raiders' head coach), but they’ve turned up the pressure with Phillips' 3-4. Their eight fumble recoveries and four touchdowns already have surpassed their production in 2014.
Their pressure packages have resulted in 12 players contributing to their league-leading sack total. It starts with three-time Pro Bowler Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, who is thriving since transitioning back to outside linebacker after playing defensive end last season.
Back spasms forced the 33-year-old Ware to sit out the Broncos’ 26-23 win over Cleveland before the bye, but he’s expected back against the Packers. His replacement, former undrafted free agent Shaquil Barrett, sparkled against the Browns with a team-high nine tackles, 1½ sacks and a forced fumble.
The pass-rushing rotation, which also features first-round pick Shane Ray, is comparable to Green Bay’s second-ranked pass-rushing unit that consists of an all-pro (Clay Matthews), a revitalized veteran (Julius Peppers) and a slew of capable outside linebackers (Mike Neal, Nick Perry and Jayrone Elliott).
The danger with the Broncos is that they are deep at nearly every position on defense. The switch to a 3-4 scheme has allowed the Broncos to get Brandon Marshall and Danny Trevathan both on the field. With defensive end Derek Wolfe back from a four-game suspension, the Broncos come out of the bye week with their weapons fully loaded.
“(Miller and Ware) are their two standout guys, but they have some guys on the inside who can penetrate, as well,” Packers right guard T.J. Lang said. “They’re just solid. They do a really good job of playing well together. Their pressure package, their stunt package is very dynamic. It’s definitely going to be a big test for us.”
The matchup with the Packers creates an interesting juxtaposition. Denver’s defense has yet to allow an opponent to score in the opening quarter, while no NFL team has scored more in the first 15 minutes this season than the Packers, who have outscored opponents 66-9.
It has played a big part in each team’s 6-0 start, as Green Bay’s offense has struggled to maintain the early momentum for an entire game and Denver has yet to score a touchdown in the first quarter, settling for 12 points off four field goals.
The Broncos’ 29th-ranked offense has been surprisingly lackadaisical, with time appearing to catch up to 39-year-old quarterback Peyton Manning, whose arm strength has diminished noticeably during a sluggish start. His 10 interceptions are tied for the most in the NFL. It has led to a 72.5 passer rating that ranks lowest of all quarterbacks with at least 200 passing attempts.
Denver’s biggest advantage has been on defense, though the Packers hold a slight edge in scoring defense in allowing a league-low 16.8 points per game. Their red-zone defense saved them in a 27-20 win over San Diego before the bye week, despite Philip Rivers throwing for 503 yards.
Under seventh-year coordinator Dom Capers, Green Bay is second in the NFL with 23 sacks from nine players. Although the Packers don’t have an inside-linebacker combination like Marshall and Trevathan in Denver, Matthews' rotating inside has improved both their pass rush and overall run defense.
The Packers should benefit from the return of safety Morgan Burnett from an aggravated calf strain and possibly even defensive tackle B.J. Raji (groin) and Perry (shoulder sprain), who returned to practice Monday after sitting out against San Diego.
Coming off a disappointing showing against the Chargers, there’s added motivation for the Packers to prove they belong in the conversation with the likes of Denver as one of the NFL’s elite defenses.
“We’re willing to take on the challenge,” cornerback Casey Hayward said. “Everybody says they’re the best defense in the league, one of the best defenses in the league. Their numbers show they are one of those defenses, but we’re No. 1 in scoring defense right now. So hopefully we can keep that going.”
Something will have to give Sunday, whether it’s Green Bay’s string of 24 consecutive games with a first-quarter score or Denver’s early dominance on defense. Under Phillips, the Broncos have yet to allow more than 24 points in any game this season.
Their top-ranked passing defense is one of only two allowing fewer than 200 yards per game, thanks to a persistent pass rush and the play of cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, who have combined for five interceptions and three touchdowns.
The 1,100-mile trip to Denver begins a challenging start to the second half of their season for the Packers. Survive Sunday and another road game against 6-0 Carolina awaits. Early betting lines make the Packers three-point favorites over the Broncos, though they likely will need to solve Phillips’ defense to escape with a win.
It's a tall task that two NFC North rivals — Minnesota and Detroit — already have failed to accomplish.
“I think these are the biggest challenges as far as going on the road, playing an undefeated football team, great defense and definitely a Hall of Fame quarterback,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “I think these are the games you really love to play and you really enjoy.”