Packers' run defense bests Bears in battle in the trenches
CHICAGO — On an October afternoon in 2016, laughter reverberated around the tight quarters of the visitor’s locker room at Lambeau Field. Its occupants, the Dallas Cowboys, were minutes removed from disemboweling the stoutest run defense in the National Football League, and their star tailback, Ezekiel Elliott, had gutted the Green Bay Packers for 157 yards on 28 carries. With a box score in hand, Elliott’s offensive linemen snickered.
Thirteen months later, it’s quite possible the Chicago Bears approached Sunday’s game at Soldier Field with similar confidence in their own ground attack. After all, the Bears ranked sixth in the league in rushing yards per game (130.1) with their starter, Jordan Howard, sitting fifth among tailbacks in yards (662). And their opponent, the Green Bay Packers, had a run defense ranked outside the top 20.
“We knew it was going to be a big game on the defensive line and the front guys,” nose tackle Kenny Clark said. “And I think we did really good.”
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With their season in freefall and their defensive coordinator under fire, the Packers answered a smash-mouth challenge with a violent uppercut of their own. They paired consistent interior pressure with aggressive edge play to stonewall Howard for the second time this season, handcuffing a rookie quarterback who is not quite ready to carry the team by himself. The Bears fell more than 70 yards shy of their rushing average while the Packers, who snapped a three-game losing streak with a 23-16 win, conjured an impenetrable run defense for the second consecutive week.
Their most recent opponents, the Bears and Lions, carried 50 times for 119 total yards in the span of six days.
“It feels good to win,” outside linebacker Nick Perry said. “The winning is back. Everybody did a great job with helping that. I think we got a good thing going, and we’re going to continue to put our best foot forward moving onto the next game.”
In an era of schematic complexity, Sunday’s game carried a throwback feel. All week, the defensive linemen of the Packers discussed the need to buckle their chinstraps for a heavy dose of Howard, who at 6 feet tall and 224 pounds is among the more physical runners in the league. The Bears were going to run the football, the Packers knew it and the game would be won in the trenches with base defense battling jumbo formations.
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The Bears handed to Howard three times on the opening possession, including once with an extra offensive lineman on the field, and all three plays yielded negative yardage: -1, -1, -3. After an initial first down, the drive quickly ended with a punt.
“We knew that they were a run team,” Perry said. “We had to stop that first. Everything else would continue to come.”
Stopping the run meant setting a consistent edge against the stretch plays of offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains, who has been with the Bears since 2015. As the offensive line moves laterally, Howard trails behind with the option to turn the corner or pick a cutback lane to move north and south. This style of play taxes the gap integrity of a defense, which must move collectively without creating an obvious hole. Big gains are the result of players straying outside their lanes.
Because of the Packers’ 3-4 defense, a wealth of responsibility falls on the outside linebackers to dictate the direction of a particular play, according to Matthews. When they line up wide of the tight end (called a Wide 9-technique), they are generally asked to force the runner back inside by setting a hard edge. When they line up directly over the tight end (more of a 7-technique), their job is to string the play toward the sideline so other defenders can converge.
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“I thought for the most part, when we’re in a 9-technique we shut the edges down and forced it all inside, let those guys like Mike (Daniels) Kenny (Clark), Blake (Martinez), Jake (Ryan) fit up in there,” Matthews said. “And then the few times we were in the 7-technique, we just stretch it all the way out the sidelines in which case our guys were there. I think that was the most important thing. … I felt like we were very sound and we won those one-on-one matchups.”
The stat sheet agrees. Aside from Martinez, who had his quietest game of the season, every player Matthews mentioned had at least one tackle for loss, including multiple tackles for loss by Perry and Daniels.
Their ability to generate consistent penetration rendered Howard ineffective in the first half and invisible in the second. Though he finished with 15 carries for 54 yards, only four of his attempts came in the second half. Taking away a 25-yard burst in the second quarter — his longest play of the day — Howard averaged a paltry 2.07 yards per carry.
He touched the ball only three times in the fourth quarter.
BOX SCORE: Packers 23, Bears 16
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“That’s perfect for us, him finishing with 54 yards,” Clark said. “This game is on the defensive line and the front guys, the front seven, because we knew they were going to run the ball. They had a really good offensive line and then Howard and (Tarik) Cohen are really good backs. We knew they were going to run the ball 30-plus times probably in the game, so we knew it was on us.”
And for the second straight week, the Packers answered.