Run defense limits explosive gains
No NFL team enters a season looking to rank 30th against the run.
However, that doesn't necessarily mean the Green Bay Packers' defensive front will be sitting ducks in Sunday's showdown with New England and the Patriots' never-ending line of running backs.
After giving up five gains of 14 or more yards to Mark Ingram in a 44-23 loss to New Orleans before the bye week, the Packers have gone 80 consecutive carries over their last three games without allowing a gain of more than 13 yards or a rushing touchdown.
Quick offensive starts have played a role in that, but the elimination of explosive gains has reduced the defense's yards allowed per carry to 3.45 during that three-game stretch, which is the range the defense strives for.
The Packers have accomplished that mostly through their nickel package, utilizing two true defensive linemen and an extra defensive back. A steady rotation of Mike Daniels, Josh Boyd and Letroy Guion joined with the presence of Micah Hyde in the slot and Clay Matthews at inside linebacker has helped pull Green Bay's run defense out of the gutter.
"That was a big focus of us coming out of the bye week," said Packers defensive line coach Mike Trgovac of eliminating big running plays. "That's always our goal is to eliminate explosive plays. We've placed a big emphasis on it. We'll keep doing it and not stopping. I think the guys have bought into it and worked hard at it."
The Patriots traditionally have used a by-committee approach with their backfield. Since Steven Ridley was lost for the season the newest incarnation has revolved around Shane Vereen, Jonas Gray and LeGarrette Blount, who rushed for 78 yards and two touchdowns last week following his release from Pittsburgh.
The Patriots' offense runs through future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady, but Bill Belichick isn't afraid to deploy an extra offensive lineman or tight end and tilt the offense towards a smash-mouth style of play, either.
They've carried the ball more than 40 times in two games during their seven-game winning streak. New England rushed 46 times in a 43-17 win over Cincinnati earlier this season and then another 44 in a 42-20 win over Indianapolis two weeks ago.
The Packers can't afford a repeat of New Orleans where Ingram finished with a career-high 172 rushing yards. Not if they hope to continue their rise from third-to-last in total rushing yards (136.7) and tied for 26th in average (4.5 per carry).
If they can take that option away from the Patriots Sunday at Lambeau Field, it could go a long way in reestablishing the momentum going into the final month of the regular season.
"We go into every game feeling confident as I'm sure they do," Trgovac said. "We're going to try to bring our best game and they're going to try to bring their best game. That's what it's all about. We always go into a game confident we're going to be able to stop the other team.
"They got good players and we got good players, but it's going to be a great game."