The Green Bay Packers' path to the Super Bowl probably includes the two best running teams in the NFL: the Seattle Seahawks and Dallas Cowboys.
The Packers' run defense of the first half of the season would have little chance of slowing the Seahawks' Marshawn Lynch, who ranks No. 3 in the NFL in rushing yards, or the Cowboys' DeMarco Murray, who ranks No. 1.
Since moving Clay Matthews to inside linebacker in their nickel personnel two months ago, the Packers' ability to stop the run has improved measurably. But it still needs some help to keep a Lynch or Murray from being the difference in a game. And in the past couple of weeks, there are signs that the combined play of safeties Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix might offer that help.
When the Packers won the Super Bowl in the 2010 season, the defensive playmaking of defensive backs Charles Woodson and Nick Collins were key. Woodson often lined up at linebacker as a slot cornerback in the nickel defense and made plays against the run and pass. Collins, one of the league's fastest safeties, filled hard against the run and had great range helping in deep coverage.
In slightly different roles, Burnett and Clinton-Dix are showing signs late this season that they can provide some run support of their own. This isn't saying they're as good as Woodson and Collins; Burnett this season has disappeared for stretches, and Clinton-Dix still has occasional issues with rookie mistakes and tackling.
But they are ascending players and have played well against the run the past couple of weeks, especially in the Packers' 20-3 win over the offensively challenged Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. Their stats against the Buccaneers tell part of the story — Burnett led the team in tackles (10) and had a tackle for loss and sack; Clinton-Dix tied for third in tackles (four). The game videotape tells more.
Tampa Bay halfbacks Doug Martin and Charles Sims rushed for only a combined 16 yards on 14 carries, and many of Burnett's and Clinton-Dix's tackles were at or near the line of scrimmage. If the Packers face the Seahawks or Cowboys in the playoffs, they'll need that kind forceful play to have a chance at slowing Lynch and Murray, who are more explosive and harder to bring to the ground than the Buccaneers' backs.
Against the Tampa Bay, the Packers regularly brought a safety into the box to help against the run — more Burnett than Clinton-Dix, though both did it.
Burnett was especially impressive coming off the edge against the run, as he did on a late third-quarter carry by Martin. On a first down, the Packers were in their nickel personnel and Burnett lined up on the line, just outside of Julius Peppers. Burnett played it exactly as you'd draw it up.
The Buccaneerss couldn't account for everyone, so Burnett on the far left edge went unblocked. As soon as he crossed the line of scrimmage, he attacked down the line. He was enough under control that Martin couldn't cut back on him, and he wrestled down the back for only a 2-yard gain.
Earlier, late in the second quarter, Burnett made a run stop playing from a different alignment. On a first down, he started creeping up from deep safety just before the snap, then exploded through the hole in the middle of the line to drop Sims for a 1-yard loss.
Burnett was on him before Sims could pick up any steam. That's a key to tackling backs such as Murray and Lynch — Murray is the league's quickest back to the hole, and Lynch is the toughest to get to the ground. You have to get to them early and at least hold them up so teammates can finish the play.
A few plays later, Burnett lined up at the linebacker level, like Woodson used to, and followed the tight end in motion from the right side of the defense to the left. On the snap, Burnett blitzed off the edge and again drove down the line, hard but under control. He tackled Martin for no gain.
Clinton-Dix didn't make as many tackles but showed he can be similarly disruptive. On a second-and-6 late in the first quarter, for instance, the Tampa Bay ran a toss left to Sims. Outside linebacker Nick Perry played it well by taking on tight end Luke Stocker, staying square to the line and stringing out the play.
Clinton-Dix reacted quickly, blasted through the alley from his deep safety position and dropped Sims for no gain. The Buccaneers didn't convert the third-and-6, and punted.
Slowing Lynch or Murray in the playoffs will be more difficult than stopping Tampa Bay's run game, and not just because of the quality of the backs. The Seahawks (Russell Wilson) and Cowboys (Tony Romo) also have better quarterbacks than Tampa Bay (Josh McCown). They'll audible more and are much greater throwing threats.
But there are ways for defensive coordinator Dom Capers to disguise whether his box safety is playing the run or in coverage. And while Burnett and Clinton-Dix aren't Woodson and Collins, they've improved as the season has gone on. Combined, they just might give the Packers a chance, certainly much better than in the opener nearly four long months ago, when Lynch crashed through the Packers for 110 yards rushing and a 5.5-yard average in the Seahawks' 36-16 blowout.
Even with a strained left calf, Aaron Rodgers showed a key ability to beat the Tampa-2 defense the Buccaneers play under first-year coach Lovie Smith.
The scheme tries to force offenses to go on long drives, accepting short completions and not self-destructing with penalties or other mistakes over a long series of plays.
Rodgers is patient enough to do that. But it also helps that he has the arm strength and accuracy to fit passes over the middle against the deep-dropping linebackers and in front of the safeties. Throws a little high or wide are intercepted. Too low and they're in the dirt.
On a third-and-8 early in the second quarter, the Buccaneers played classic Tampa-2 zone coverage. Jordy Nelson ran a cross barely behind linebacker Dane Fletcher. Rodgers stepped up and zipped a low throw that only Nelson could get to for 12-yard gain that picked up the first down.
The Packers are sure to see more of that coverage as defenses try to take away their quick-strike ability. Without a major threat at tight end, hitting Nelson on crossing patterns is one way for the Packers to beat that coverage.
KUHN ON RUN
In the past few weeks, the Packers have been running best when fullback John Kuhn is on the field in place of a tight end.
Kuhn on Sunday had several good blocks that helped spring Eddie Lacy runs, including late in the first quarter when Kuhn blocked linebacker Lavonte David on Lacy's 20-yard run.
— Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty