GREEN BAY – To understand how good the Green Bay Packers’ run defense has been through the first two weeks of the season, it’s better to focus on what has been happening behind the line of scrimmage, not in front of it.
That’s because the Packers have been doing a whole lot of their work in the opposition’s backfield.
In two games, the Packers already have more tackles for loss (14) than they had in their first five games last year, and that doesn’t include sacks, just runners or receivers getting tackled behind the line of scrimmage.
It’s a major reason why the defense ranks first in the NFL in average rush, holding opponents to a minuscule 1.4 yards per carry on first down and 1.6 overall.
“We’ve been getting penetration in the backfield upfront,” linebacker Julius Peppers said. “The D-linemen have done a great job of being disruptive, getting penetration. And we’ve been doing better tackling.
“I think that’s the biggest difference in why we’re playing the run so well, everybody has been making good tackles.”
When you dig deep to see how the Packers are getting it done, it starts with defensive linemen Mike Daniels and Letroy Guion, who mostly play together in the often-used nickel package. The two set out at the start of training camp to spread some nasty to the defense and decided it would start with their play in the middle.
Daniels’ well-publicized dress down of rookie Kenny Clark on the sideline during one of the team’s first camp practices set the tone.
“Those guys, they get it done,” safety Micah Hyde said. “They’re leaders up front.”
Guion, despite only playing eight snaps because of a knee injury in the 17-14 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, leads the way with three tackles for loss, all on run plays. He set the tone in the Jacksonville game early on by dumping running back T.J. Yeldon for a two-yard loss. Four plays later, he dumped him for another two-yard loss.
On the first play of the second quarter of the Vikings game, Guion took running back Adrian Peterson down for a four-yard loss.
“I’m just playing ball,” said Guion, who probably won’t be playing Sunday against Detroit because of a sprained medial collateral ligament.
Daniels has been equally disruptive, taking advantage of two favorable match-ups on the offensive line the first two weeks of the season and making the opposition pay for trying to block him one-on-one. Daniels has two tackles for loss, a sack and two quarterback knockdowns.
On the winning 25-yard touchdown pass from Sam Bradford to Stefon Diggs in the loss to the Vikings, Daniels plastered Bradford, arriving a quarter second too late to affect the throw.
“I think we’re just playing more aggressively,” Daniels said. “This is only the third year we’ve been an attacking-style defense. All the other years we’ve been pretty passive, pretty flat up front.
“Now we’re really getting after other teams’ offensive linemen. We’re not letting them off the hook. You’re starting to see the product of being an aggressive front. We definitely have a lot of freedom.”
There are other variables as well.
Moving Clay Matthews back to outside linebacker all but eliminates the opposition having regular success on that side of the formation. Matthews is known for being a pass rusher, but his run play always has been first rate and he has stood up left tackles and shot gaps with regularity.
On the other side, the Packers removed Peppers, whose run play has been declining for a while, and replaced him with a healthy Nick Perry. Known for his strength and ability to hold the edge, Perry has been maybe defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ most pleasant surprise.
Teamed with Matthews on the outside, the two funnel everything inside when they’re playing at their best.
“I think everybody understands what we’re trying to get done,” Perry said. “We want to make teams one-dimensional and the only way to do that is to stop the run. Everything else will take care of itself. A lot of guys are taking pride in that.
“Everyone wants to get to third down.”
Another piece of the puzzle has been the trio of inside linebackers who have been rotating based on match-ups and personnel packages. Rookie Blake Martinez (15) and second-year pro Jake Ryan (17) are Nos. 1 and 2 in tackles, which is exactly how Capers' system is supposed to work.
The defensive linemen make the opposition focus on them and the inside linebackers run free and make the tackles.
“They make it that much easier,” Martinez said of Daniels and Guion. “All our D-linemen are amazing keeping guys off of us and I make sure I thank them every time I don’t get touched or can just run free in the backfield.”
Ryan came to the Packers with a knack for making plays behind the line of scrimmage. An outside linebacker his first three years at Michigan, Ryan moved inside his senior year and wound up finishing sixth on the Wolverines’ all-time list with 45 1/2 tackles for loss.
After getting a taste of Capers’ defense as a starter the final seven weeks of last season, Ryan has a better understanding of when he can take chances, or as he put it, make “unethical” decisions.
“It’s just reading the plays and knowing what’s developing,” Ryan said. “Just taking those shots you need to take in order to get the ball down. Sometimes they’re unethical, but most times they work if you’re seeing it well and reading it well.”
All three inside linebackers - Martinez, Ryan and Joe Thomas - each have one tackle for loss.
The Packers’ safeties also have contributed to the run defense, particularly against the Vikings and Peterson. Safety Morgan Burnett has two tackles for loss, including one that stopped the Jaguars on fourth down deep in Packers territory at the end of the 27-23 victory.
The bottom line is that Capers has made it a priority to stop the run this season – it’s not the first time he’s done that – but has given the players the freedom to play without hesitation.
“A veteran player, if he’s taking care of his responsibility, whatever you do after that, if it’s above and beyond, I’m all for it,” Capers said. “We tell them, we have certain things where we say, ‘If you’re going to take chances, OK, then make a play.’
“If you don’t make a play, you know you’ll be held accountable for your area. As guys gain experience, they have the ability to do that, that if a guy is reaching them and he over-reaches them and they can come inside and make the play, then do that.”
The front seven will be looking to feast on a Lions team that lost starting running back Ameer Abdullah for the season and might be without starting right tackle Riley Reiff (ankle).
It will be hard for the defense to keep up this pace and better offensive lines await them, but Clark made a huge leap in Week 2 and starting end Mike Pennel will return from suspension in time for the Dallas game Oct. 16, so they’ll look at this two-game stretch as setting the standard for aggressive play.
“That's exactly what happens, it becomes second nature to the point that we no longer have to say it,” Daniels said. “But we still do.”