It didn't happen overnight, but the Green Bay Packers defense is finally playing like coach Mike McCarthy envisioned it would following an overhaul last offseason.
The numbers aren't awe-inspiring - the Packers finished 15th in total defense, 23rd against the run and 10th against the pass - but it's a significant jump from where the defense was following a 44-23 loss in New Orleans before the bye week.
After ranking as low as 25th in total defense and dead-last against the run in Week 9, the midseason alterations McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers made have triggered in vast improvements in the second half of the season.
The biggest catalyst has been run defense. After allowing 1,228 rushing yards in the first half of the season (153.5 yards per game), the Packers' defensive front halved that number to 691 in the final eight games (86.4) following Clay Matthews' shift to inside linebacker.
Coming into the season, McCarthy made it clear the defense would be better after last year's lackluster showing. It wasn't always pretty, but the in-season adjustments ultimately got the unit to where it needed to be.
"I think we've clearly reached that target the last eight weeks of the season," McCarthy said. "What gave me the confidence to say it back then was clearly the players and really the path. We felt that we had the right plan for using our players: Being a little more creative, playing more personnel packages, not trying to lock into 11, 12 or 13 players."
That rejuvenated run defense will have its hands full in Sunday's divisional-round playoff game against Dallas. The Cowboys finished the regular season second in the category behind rushing champion DeMarco Murray and arguably the NFL's most formidable offensive line.
Dallas has selected offensive linemen in the first round of three of their last four drafts. All three – left tackle Tyron Smith (2011), center Travis Frederick and rookie guard Zack Martin – were named to this year's Pro Bowl team.
Murray has catapulted himself to stardom after amassing a league-high 2,261 total yards this season. Despite touching the ball nearly 450 times and breaking his hand last month against Philadelphia, Capers doesn't believe the fourth-year back has lost a step.
"Well, this is will be best test that we've had," Capers said. "I think this offensive line is as good as there is in the league. Obviously by this running back's statistics, he can run and does a nice job receiving the ball out of the backfield. So this will be a challenge."
It comes as no surprise the production of Murray and the offensive line has coincided with the best season of quarterback Tony Romo's career. He led the NFL with a 113.2 passer rating and had the best touchdown-to-interception ratio (34-9) of his nine years as a starter.
If the defense is going to stop Romo, the Packers know it starts with containing the run.
"We've been working hard at it, run fits, stuff like that," defensive back Micah Hyde said. "The guys up front have been doing good, and the guys in the back end have just been working off of them, try to get better each game. I feel like some games we took a step back but it's a long NFL season and we feel like we can keep improving and hopefully going into this game we can do well."
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