GREEN BAY – Mike Daniels remembers what the Green Bay Packers run defense used to be like. The Swiss-cheese holes up front. The unacceptable yardage yielded.
It wasn’t long ago the Packers statistically had the NFL’s worst run defense. That’s where they ranked after eight games in 2014, a rock-bottom plight that forced them to move Clay Matthews to inside linebacker.
Daniels, sitting at his locker, didn’t need a reminder.
“We were horrible,” Daniels said after last week’s win against the Detroit Lions, his disgust contrasting a winning locker room. “It was embarrassing.”
Their last-ranked run defense feels longer removed than two years ago.
Through three games, the Packers unveiled the NFL’s most dominant defensive front. They rank No. 1 against the run. Their 42.7 rush yards allowed per game are almost 30 fewer than the second-place Philadelphia Eagles.
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The Packers have allowed 128 rushing yards this season. They were the only team to allow fewer than 200. It is the fewest rushing yards the franchise allowed in a three-game stretch at the start of a season since 1933, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
In September, the Packers allowed 1.8 yards per carry. Their average is almost half that of the second-place New York Giants, who are allowing 3.2 yards per carry.
Since the 1970 NFL merger, only four teams allowed fewer than three yards per rush in a season – and none fewer than 2.7. The 2007 Baltimore Ravens were the last to do it, allowing 2.8 yards per carry.
Three games is a small sample size. The Packers’ opponents this season – the Jacksonville Jaguars, Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions – rank 31st, 32nd and 16th in rushing offense, respectively. That partly is because they played the No. 1-ranked Packers run defense, but certainly stiffer challenges await on the horizon.
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Regardless, Daniels’ pride in the Packers’ current run defense is as apparent as his repulsion in the prior deficiencies.
“We’re playing tough,” Daniels said, “and guys are flying around to the ball, and we’re just getting physical with the other team. That’s just that freaking simple. We have different guys now, too. Different personalities. I’m an older guy, so if I’m out there telling everybody to get mean and physical, young guys are listening, and they’re doing it. It’s that simple.”
The Packers use a simple method to evaluate their run defense. The core question is this: What percentage of an opponent’s running plays can be considered short-gain “wins” for the defense?
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers said his defense’s “wins percentage” against the run last season was adequate, but the Packers finished in the league’s bottom half (21st overall) because they allowed too many long runs. Aside from leading the NFL with fewest rushing yards allowed per game and lowest average yards allowed per carry, the Packers have allowed the shortest long run of any team this season at just 12 yards.
They have allowed only one run of at least 10 yards this season. They easily lead the NFL, according to Football Outsiders, with every other team allowing at least three runs of at least 10 yards.
“A year ago,” Capers said, “if we had eliminated the long runs we would have been a top run defense. But that’s what got us.”
On the surface, the Packers’ dominance emerged from nowhere.
In Capers’ first seven seasons, the Packers allowed more than 128 rushing yards in their opener four times. Their average over those seven season openers was 141 rushing yards allowed.
So the 48 yards on 26 carries they allowed in Jacksonville to start this season could be considered unexpected. So could the 19 yards on 12 carries they allowed Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who entered the Week 2 game averaging 110 yards against the Packers in his career.
Daniels, the most important cog in the Packers’ defensive front, was especially pleased with the run defense against Detroit. Even without running back Ameer Abdullah, the Lions' offensive line features former first-round picks at left tackle, left guard and right tackle. The Lions spent their first draft pick on the offensive line each of the past two years.
Regardless, the Packers held them to 50 yards on 23 carries.
“Detroit’s got a talented front,” Daniels said. “They’ve invested a lot of money in their front.”
The Packers’ success defending the run has come despite a nickel-reliant scheme designed to defend the pass.
Though they showed some base 3-4 defense against the Vikings, the Packers play with an extra, fifth defensive back on the field on about 60 percent of snaps, according to Football Outsiders. They usually only have two defensive linemen. It’s a defense that best matches against three-receiver offenses, which have become the NFL’s norm.
Their nickel usage is about average compared to the rest of the NFL. Oddly, it has become a dominant run package. While their personnel hasn’t changed much, their usage has been different this season.
The most visible change is Matthews’ return to outside linebacker. More importantly, perhaps, Nick Perry and Datone Jones have played more snaps than Julius Peppers. Perry and Jones, first-round picks in consecutive years, can’t duplicate Peppers’ pass-rush ability but offer more as run defenders.
With Peppers limited to a situational pass rusher through the first three weeks, the Packers are playing their best run defenders more at outside linebacker.
The quartet of Matthews, Perry, Jones and Peppers have enough size to play defensive end in a 4-3 scheme. In nickel, at least two of them will share the field. Capers believes their extra bulk bolsters the Packers’ edge defense.
“Those are bigger guys who can attack,” Capers said, “that we feel should be good matchups on tight ends and quite frankly on tackles because those guys play physical.”
If fixing their run defense were actually simple, the Packers would’ve figured it out before now. Daniels said the process of building the NFL’s best run defense took years to complete.
It started, Daniels explained, when Johnny Jolly was reinstated in 2013. Jolly, who served six months of a six-year prison sentence, was suspended three seasons for violating the NFL’s drug policy. When he returned, he brought a mean streak requisite for any defensive tackle.
The mean streak rubbed off on Daniels, an impressionable rookie in 2013. Now, he sets the tone for the Packers’ defensive front.
“He’s definitely got the mindset,” rookie Kyler Fackrell said.
After receiving a four-year, $42 million contract extension last December, Daniels has blossomed into one of the league’s best defensive tackles in his fifth season. He is the center of the Packers’ run defense. Around him, everything else evolves.
There’s nothing glamorous about dominating the trenches. Most important, Daniels said, is finding players with the proper mindset. It's the foundation to what has become the NFL's most disruptive defensive front.
Through three games, according to Football Outsiders, the Packers lead the NFL in forcing negative running plays with 19. No other team has more than 13.
“You’ve got to bring the right guys in,” Daniels said, “and our scouting department does an awesome job of doing it. It really started when Johnny Jolly came back in 2013, and the attitude shift started to change every year, and every year we’ve gotten tougher, more physical, more violent, playing with more of an attitude. To stop the run, that’s how you have to be.
“We take pride in doing it. For a long time, the strength of our team was our defensive backs. The focus on stopping the run might have not been as strong, but our defensive line room has a lot of pride. Not saying it wasn’t before, but now you can see it.”
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