Packers' touted run defense unproven

Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Green Bay Packers linebacker Jake Ryan (47) tackles Dallas Cowboys quarterback Matt Cassel in a game at Lambeau Field.

GREEN BAY – All week players and coaches have been telling reporters how good of a show it will be to watch Tennessee’s No.3 –ranked running game against Green Bay’s No. 1-ranked run defense.

You’ll probably hear the announcers on the Fox broadcast talk about it incessantly when the Packers and Titans meet Sunday at Nissan Stadium.

But before you consider this to be a last-man-standing scrum in the trenches, consider this: The teams’ success in their respective areas has come against poor-to-mediocre competition.

The Packers’ defense embraces its No. 1 run ranking, but they have to be aware that six of their eight games have come against run offenses that rank 22nd or worse. It includes the New York Giants (32), Minnesota (31), Detroit (27) and Jacksonville (26).

In those six games, the Packers have held the opposition to 2.46 yards per carry and three touchdowns.

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Against the No. 1-ranked Dallas Cowboys, they were exposed. The Cowboys ran 33 times for 191 yards, a 5.79-yard average. Two weeks later, against No. 10 ranked Atlanta, they allowed 90 yards on 19 carries, a 4.74-yard average.

“Our focus is on ourselves,” linebacker Datone Jones said. “We’re not worried with who we’re playing or what our ranking is. We’d like to be ranked No. 1 at the end of the season, but there’s a long way to go.”

The Titans are similarly successful against weak competition.

Seven of the nine run defenses they’ve faced are ranked 17th or worse. They include Cleveland (31), Miami (30), Houston (28), Jacksonville (24) and Indianapolis (22).

In those seven games, they have rushed for 4.62 yards per carry and nine touchdowns.

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Against the No. 8-ranked Vikings, however, they ran 22 times for 64 yards, a 2.9 average. Against the No. 5-ranked San Diego Chargers, they rushed 19 times for 80 yards, a 4.2 average.

Regardless of all that, Packers coach Mike McCarthy and Titans coach Mike Mularkey are making sure their guys know how good the other team is.

“They're very talented, well-coordinated,” McCarthy said. “Mike Mularkey is someone I've always had an appreciation for, just not only as a coach but his approach to the game and his schematic adjustments, formations, shifts and so forth

“And the way they run the football. Their run versus our run defense, it's going to be a hell of an afternoon. I think it's a great matchup. I think it's going to be a heck of a game.”

The Titans have a bonafide running back in DeMarco Murray (807 yards on 174 carries, seven touchdowns) and capable offensive line that includes first-round tackles Jack Conklin (2016) and Taylor Lewan (2014).

Murray ranks second in the league in rushing and, if his backup Derrick Henry (calf) is healthy, they have two hard-running backs to defend against. The Titans move their tight ends, wide receivers and running backs around in order to make defenses adjust just before the snap of the ball.

It can cause young players to focus on the wrong things.

“I think it can (bother you) if you let it,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. “You (have to) let the game flow. With teams that do that, it’s actually easier to play them on the road because you can hear them more and the crowd is quiet when their offense is out there. “

“If you have to make adjustments, it’s really hard when you do that (at home).”

There will be a lot of stress on inside linebackers Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez. They will have to read the motion and shifts and adjust their alignments accordingly. In some cases, they’ll have to help the defensive line with its shifts.

Both Ryan and Martinez like to sell out on run plays, but they’ll have to be careful because the Titans love play-action and quarterback Marcus Mariota can suck in linebackers with read-option fakes.

“It all starts with awareness and knowing your job,” said Scott McCurley, inside linebackers coach. “And then throughout the down you have to see it all. We’ve talked about having big vision, you have to see the receiving threat and you have to see the run action inside and it’s tough sometimes.”

With linebacker Clay Matthews (hamstring) out, the Packers won’t be as stout on the edges where Murray will try to bounce plays and Mariota will attack with read-option. When Matthews and Nick Perry are together, the Packers make it tough on teams getting outside. Julius Peppers and Jones aren’t nearly as good playing the run.

It means coordinator Dom Capers probably will use a hefty dose of eight-man boxes, bringing Morgan Burnett or Ha Ha Clinton-Dix up near the line to take away an additional gap. Rookie Kentrell Brice, one of the team’s hardest hitters, might get some time there, too.

“I think the big thing in a game like this with a running game is so important is the eye control, the discipline in your technique and not getting nosey and letting a guy get behind you because you’re so focused in on trying to stop the run and getting up against those backs,” safeties coach Darren Perry said. “We’ve just got to make sure we’re smart and we’re playing with good discipline.”

By game’s end, it should be clear which team is truer to its ranking.

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