GREEN BAY – The Green Bay Packers defense produced its signature performance of the 2019 season Monday night in Minnesota in terms of yards allowed, holding the Vikings to 139 yards of total offense in a 23-10 victory. Within that, the Packers allowed 57 yards rushing – their third-best total of the year and a continuance of better play in that area.
Through the first 10 weeks of the season, the Packers allowed opponents to rush for at least 100 yards seven times and gave up an average of 126.9 yards per game. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine considers an “explosive” run to be one of at least 10 yards, and in those first 10 games the Packers allowed 26 such runs. Nine of them went beyond 15 yards.
During that stretch of the season, the constant refrain from the coaches to the core players on the front seven was that the holes in the rush defense were largely self-inflicted: Players not staying disciplined in their gap assignments and trying to do too much.
Something clicked during the bye week, though. In the five games since the break, the Packers have allowed two 100-yard games to opponents and allowed 96.2 yards per game.
They have allowed 11 explosive runs, and only four of 15-plus yards.
Not coincidentally, the defense has gone from giving up 20.5 points per game to 19.5, and 384.7 yards per game to 333.6.
“Certainly when you’re in the middle of it, it’s frustrating because as a staff we know what it’s supposed to look like,” Pettine said. “You have to go through the process and you can’t just flip a switch and just transfer what we know and assume that they know it. Some guys just need to see it or need the reps before it clicks in.
"I don’t think there was ever a point where we felt like this is who we are. I just think we all had a sense of how close we were, that it was just a handful of things here and there, certain things we wanted to get cleaned up. And as I’ve mentioned in here before, just with so many new faces, with a new staff, us finding our identity as a defense from schematic standpoint as well, and it’s taken me as a game-planner and a play-caller some time as well.
"I have a much better sense today than the beginning of the year, throughout the year at times, of who we are.”
Leaders on the defensive front pointed to two elements that have helped the turnaround on the ground: health and practice time.
Across the defensive line, Kenny Clark, Dean Lowry and Tyler Lancaster have played all 15 games. Montravius Adams and Kingsley Keke have played 13. In the linebacking corps, Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Kyler Fackrell, Rashan Gary and Blake Martinez have played 15 games. B.J. Goodson has played 14.
“We get to really know each other,” Za’Darius Smith said. “I feel like that. That’s something that helps a lot because when you practice, you play better and to be beside guys you’re going to play with each and every week. Have them out there at practice is a big thing because now we can communicate on situations to where if I don’t know something, Dean Lowry can help me. Or if Kenny don’t know something, Preston can help him. So it’s a situation like that, I feel like that’s big for our team as far as communication and being together each and every day at practice.”
And with that health and schematic cohesion has come sounder play – and then a greater impact along the line of scrimmage.
“I think also a big reason why we’ve improved in the run the last month or so is you’ll see a lot of guys playing on the other side of the line of scrimmage,” Lowry said. “Guys like Kenny Clark and Z and Preston and Lancaster are just getting consistent knock-backs, so it’s hard for those running backs in zone schemes to really cut downhill and hit their holes. That’s a big thing, too.
"You have guys playing at a high level and they can make the play in their gap but also out of their gap, too.”