The run defense for the Green Bay Packers has made a drastic turnaround over the last two games.
Against the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, the Packers held ball carriers to only 2.6 yards per rush, and even that figure was bolstered by quarterback Brett Rypien scrambling for 19 yards on three attempts. The week prior, the Minnesota Vikings averaged only 2.0 yards per carry as a team. Between the two games, the Packers allowed just one explosive run of 10 or more yards.
Prior to these two game, the Packers ranked 25th in run defense, allowing 4.5 yards per carry, including two games with over 200 rush yards allowed. In total against Minnesota and Los Angeles, however, they surrendered only 2.3 yards per rush attempt.
By no means are the Rams or Vikings among the top rushing teams in the NFL. The Rams entered Week 9 ranked 17th in yards per carry at 4.0 and Minnesota 27th at 3.7. But nonetheless, credit where credit is due. The Packers defense did its job and held both opponents well below their season averages—something that hasn’t often happened against the run.
“At the end of the day,” said Kenny Clark after the Rams game, “it’s just a mentality and everybody knowing exactly what run gap they’ve got and understanding that’s what teams are going to want to do. When it’s a close game and it’s back and forth, all teams are going to try to do is continue to run the ball on us and try to shorten the game. We’ve got to understand that as a defense and keep playing to that style and fit the run. We’ve been doing a really good job.”
Overall, there haven’t been any drastic changes made by Joe Barry to help facilitate the Packers’ current level of play. There may be times where depending on the situation, they have more defenders closer to the line of scrimmage, and the defense still continues to use pre and post-snap movement, something they’ve done for much of the season.
However, what we have seen is improved play from those on the field. TJ Slaton has been a force inside the last few weeks, generating consistent push and eating up space. The edge defenders were particularly good against the Rams, not letting the ball carrier get outside and funneling everything back towards the middle. The return of De’Vondre Campbell at linebacker has certainly been a factor, and the elevated play of Isaiah McDuffie on Sunday in place on Quay Walker was a contributor as well.
“We’ve been doing a lot of movement up front, but that’s the same thing we’ve been doing all year, honestly,” Clark said. “It was good to have DC [De’Vondre Campbell] back. [Isaiah] McDuffie played a hell of a game with his [two] TFLs, with his [seven] tackles.
When a defense can slow the opponents’ run game, it makes the jobs of everyone on that unit easier to do—an important aspect with the Green Bay defense featuring two seventh round rookies in the secondary on Sunday. In second and third-and-long situations, the pass rush can pin its ears back and get after the quarterback without having to worry about defending the run. The defense as a whole is able to do the dictating by getting into favorable matchups, and the secondary is able to play more aggressively as well.
Against Minnesota, the Packers defense really struggled to get off the field on third downs, but it wasn’t because of their run defense. The Green Bay defense forced the Minnesota offense into third and eight or more yards on 12 occasions but the pass defense allowed seven first downs in those situations. This week against the Rams, however, the defense was able to come up with those stops, holding LA to just 5-of-16 on third or fourth down attempts.
As the Packers’ offense continues to try to find some sort of consistent footing, the defense is going to have to shoulder a lot of the burden and keep opponents off the scoreboard. Step one to doing that is to continue holding up well against the run. As we’ve seen, when that is accomplished, there is a positive trickle-down effect to the rest of the defense.
However, we’ve also seen the flip side – the Atlanta and Detroit games – which results in the defense playing on its heels for much of the game, dulling the pass rush and putting the secondary in difficult situations.