Run defense controlling tempo again
Three months ago, it seemed like only a miracle could rescue the Green Bay Packers' run defense, which ranked last in the 32-team NFL.
It turns out all it needed was a little recalibration.
The first domino was Packers coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers giving the green light to shifting Clay Matthews to inside linebacker following the Packers' 44-23 loss to New Orleans on Oct. 26.
The next move was to promote second-year linebacker Sam Barrington, moving him next to Matthews in the nickel subpackage, while keeping their faith in the defensive line. What's resulted is a jump from last to 22nd in the span of seven weeks.
Success against the run has had a residual effect on the entire defense, which now enters Sunday's regular-season finale against Detroit a respectable 13th in total yards allowed.
"There comes a point to where you see the bigger picture," cornerback Tramon Williams said this week. "The bigger picture was, if we didn't stop the run, then we wouldn't make it to where we want to go. At the end of the day, that's what it was about. We all came to the realization that that was a part of the game that we needed to get better on. We did that."
It's the kind of second-half upswing the Packers were looking for after last year's defensive front wore down late in the season. That defense allowed nearly 400 yards and 27.5 points during the final eight regular-season games.
This year's start wasn't much to brag about, either. The Packers were ranked 26th in total yards through the first month of the season, but have allowed 313.6 yards and 17.3 points per game since the bye week.
If the latter averages were for the entire season, the Packers would be fourth in fewest yards allowed and third in scoring defense. Defensive lineman Mike Daniels believes it comes down to renewed physicality and aggression, a mandate he called for earlier this offseason.
"I made some comments in the offseason and the guys, I feel as though it's been answered," said Daniels, who has 38 tackles and 4½ sacks this season. "Sam Barrington, Ha Ha (Clinton-Dix, Letroy (Guion) — those guys, they're not the nicest guys on the field and they're definitely laying the wood when they get a chance to do so. Putting Clay on the inside, he's a playmaker.
"We've got the right guys and everybody has the right mentality."
A crackdown on explosive plays has helped, too. The Packers' run defense hasn't allowed a carry for more than 15 yards since the loss to the Saints. It had a near-historic performance last week against Tampa Bay in containing the Buccaneers to 16 yards on 14 carries.
The odds seem favorable for that trend to continue this weekend against the Lions, who are 27th in rushing offense (87.4 yards per game). Even if they're successful, that momentum must be carried over into the postseason where Seattle's Marshawn Lynch, Dallas' DeMarco Murray and Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy could await them.
If they've learned anything over the past year, it's those battles that often times translate to victory.
"I think we're the best that we've been," Capers said. "I don't know if you ever think it's right where we want it to be but I think we've made improvement – obvious improvement – in that area. We've got to continue to do that. If not, then your opponent controls the tempo of the game. If you can stop the run, then you can control the tempo of the game."
-- firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod