Turnover-starved Green Bay Packers defense focusing on forcing the ball out

Ryan Wood
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers defensive back Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (21) runs the ball back after an interception in the fourth quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field on Sunday, September 16, 2018 in Green Bay, Wis.

GREEN BAY – Even if Clay Matthews' hit on Kirk Cousins hadn’t been penalized, and rookie cornerback Jaire Alexander’s interception was never erased, the play would have stood out.

It would have been a rare instance when the Green Bay Packers' defense forced a turnover this season. Through three games, only five NFL teams have forced fewer turnovers than the Packers’ three.

It’s perhaps the most glaring deficiency for a defense that has flashed potential, but too often struggles to get off the field or flip momentum on game-turning plays.

“You can never have enough,” defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said. “I guess we’re averaging, what is it, one a game. That’s not good enough.”

The amount alone does not bring full context to the Packers' inability to force turnovers. Their last two were hardly forced, more a byproduct of the opposing offense’s mistakes.

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On one, Cousins threw a perfect pass that hit open Minnesota receiver Laquon Treadwell’s hands, but Treadwell couldn’t finish the catch. The deflection ricocheted directly to safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who had a fortuitous interception deep in Vikings territory.

Last week, Clinton-Dix was the beneficiary of miscommunication between Washington quarterback Alex Smith and tight end Jordan Reed. Smith threw a pass toward the left sideline, but Reed had stopped his route. The pass sailed directly to Clinton-Dix, who looked more like Smith’s intended receiver.

Both plays were easy opportunities that needed to be made. To Clinton-Dix’s credit, he did. But neither would have happened without serious blunders from opponents.

“We need to be a team that does that,” Pettine said. “We want to force the ball out. We talk about taking the ball away, whether it's forced fumbles. We work a lot on that in practice, strip attempts. And same thing when the ball is in the air, that we've got to go get it.

“So we've left a lot of opportunities out there, and it's something that has been a point of discussion almost daily with us in our room.”

The lack of turnovers is the most obvious symptom for the Packers' overall inability to rush the quarterback. The Packers are tied for 25th in the league with just six sacks through three games. Only four teams have fewer.

The Packers have been called for five roughing-the-pass penalties this season, but only one (Matthews’ hit on Smith last week) was a sack. It’s not that the Packers have constantly pressured quarterbacks, either.

A thin edge rush has been as problematic as anticipated through three games, and without a trade by the league’s Oct. 30 deadline it’s hard to see how the pass rush will improve.

“We've got to do a better job at affecting the quarterback,” Pettine said. “I've stood in here and said that, if we're not sacking the quarterback, we need to at least at the very minimum get him off his spot and hit him. And too many times, it's been like the drill pass skel (skeleton) where there is no pass rush, and that makes it hard on the back end. So when you get interceptions or you can get the quarterback to give up the football, obviously you're having a much bigger effect on him, and that's where we need to go.”

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Said backup outside linebacker Reggie Gilbert: "I feel like we all put that on our shoulders. That whenever we're out there, we've got to get to the quarterback and make life easier for the back end and help out the defense."

At times, the back end has made life easier for the Packers' defensive front. The lone turnover the Packers genuinely forced this season came in their opener against Chicago. Late in that game, Nick Perry rushed around the right edge and strip-sacked Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky on fourth-and-nine.

From the snap, Perry had more than four seconds to reach Trubisky.

A week later, it looked like Matthews would force a game-sealing turnover with a key pressure. A controversial call negated the big play, but those are the plays required to win a Super Bowl. There have been too few opportunities in three games.

Under former coordinator Dom Capers, creating turnovers was the bedrock of Packers defenses. The Packers need it to be the same under Pettine.

“This defense since I've been here,” Matthews said, “we've always done a great job of creating turnovers. Obviously you look at yardage and things like that, but as far as creating turnovers, we've done a really good job of doing that. So pressure, turnovers, obviously a lot depends on the situation we're at within a game. Of course we can get better. We haven't put a full four quarters together. We've shown flashes of being great. We've had letdowns, too.

“We've just got to put it all together.”

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