Packers run D searches for answers
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First, Julius Peppers delivered a laugh. Then, a promise.
The Green Bay Packers veteran outside linebacker has seen a lot during his 13 NFL seasons, but he’s never seen numbers like the ones his defense has put up against the run in the first eight games of the season.
Entering Sunday night’s game against the Chicago Bears – a team that ran over, around and through them for 235 rushing yards in the first meeting Sept. 28 at Soldier Field – the Packers are dead last in the 32-team NFL in run defense, giving up 153.5 yards per game. After giving up 193 rushing yards against New Orleans before the bye week, they are 29th in yards allowed per carry, and 4.8.
And so, after the crowd dissipated around his locker Thursday afternoon, Peppers delivered the Packers’ cold reality – with a chuckle.
“We don’t have any choices now. It can’t get any worse. We’re already last in the league,” he said. “It can’t get any worse than that.”
But shortly after that came Peppers’ promise. For a man whose new teammates all say is a man of few words, he didn’t hold back with them.
“This is the second half of the season – we’re going to climb up the ranks,” Peppers said. “We’re going to get a lot better at run defense these last eight games.”
It’s not as though the defense hasn’t stopped the run at all this season. In Week 3, the Detroit Lions ran it 38 times and netted only 115 yards. In Week 5, Minnesota managed only 111 yards on 25 carries. In Week 6 at Miami, quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s 40-yard run on an unexpected read-option play accounted for 40 of the Dolphins’ 112 rushing yards. And in Week 7, the Carolina Panthers ran it 25 times for 108 yards.
It also wouldn’t be unprecedented for a Dom Capers-coached Packers defense to improve against the run as the year went on. In 2009, in Capers’ first season as defensive coordinator, Green Bay led the NFL in run defense, allowing just 83.3 yards per game. At 3.6 yards per carry, they were second in the NFL.
But the Packers’ run defense wasn’t a dominant outfit from start to finish. After giving up 151 yards to the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 2, 149 yards to the St. Louis Rams, the Packers were 23rd against the run. At the midpoint of the season, they were ninth. By year’s end, there was nobody better.
“I don’t know if it’ll be that dramatic,” Capers said Thursday, “but I’m confident we can improve.”
But how? That was the question posed Thursday to a variety of people who’d know: Head coach Mike McCarthy, Capers, each of the four defensive position coaches and several defensive players, including Peppers.
The question was a simple one. The answers, not as much.
What can the Packers do to fix your run defense?
Here’s what they said:
MIKE McCARTHY, head coach:
“It’s a combination of things – and it usually is when you have one glaring area. If you’re able to just take the one part that you felt you needed to change, trust me, it would have been changed a long time ago. Run defense or even run offense, it comes down to trusting the guy next to you. Everybody doing their job, and then really, once you do your job, that’s really where the play starts. You talk about run defense, everybody talks about the ‘fit.’ Playing it and making sure you’re fitting in the right place. Well, once you fit, you need to whoop the blocker, whoop the man over you and make the tackle. So I think sometimes we try to do things a little bit too right, and they make a few plays, confidence is affected, some guys try to make plays, to me, it’s a combination of those things. We just have to get back to the basics.”
DOM CAPERS, defensive coordinator:
“Obviously the goal is to win the game but the bottom line is yes, we’ve got to really work to improve our run defense. I would think if you look at us [as an offensive coordinator], you’d say, ‘Let’s run it until they stop us.’ But again, I’ve got confidence, and I don’t worry about the stats and where they are. I’m worried about, what can we do from this point forward, the second half of the season? I’ve seen us during the first half of the season play pretty good run defense. Where I’ve said, ‘Hey, their two running backs got 60 yards.’ So when we were ascending and doing that, we had two or three of those games in there. Now, you never want to have a game like we had in the first Bears game, where we didn’t play very good run defense, or the Saints game. Those are the things we’ve got to iron out to where we become a more consistent team in the second half.
MIKE TRGOVAC, defensive line coach:
“We’ve proven in some games that at times we can play the run. I think it’s just a combination of everybody being on the same page. I don’t think it’s a toughness issue, I don’t think it’s a size issue. I think it’s all of us getting on the same page, making plays when they’re supposed to be made. I think we as a front have had some missed tackles, and other positions have had some missed tackles. It’s trusting the guy next to you, it’s a combination of things. Run defense is not just one guy breaking down all the time or one position breaking down all the time. I mean, we studied it hard over the bye week, but there were really no surprises. As players and coaches, we’ve got to get it right.”
WINSTON MOSS, linebackers coach:
“Do their job. Do your job. It’s your profession. Do your job. You’ve got a job, you’ve got to do it. There’s different skill levels and ability levels where some guys are incapable of doing more, but at the end of the day, if everybody was consistently and effectively doing their job, we wouldn’t have this conversation. We’d be talking about something else.”
DARREN PERRY, safeties coach
“We can all do more, and we have to. If you’re the guy who’s supposed to make the tackle – whether it’s an unblocked tackle or a guy that gets through – you have to take care of it on the back end. Because long runs can be eliminated by play entry and proper pursuit and good tackling. And that’s really what we can do more than anything else. If we’re in the box and we’re the unblocked guy, we have to make the tackle – period. But it’s a collective effort. We’re not good enough. We’ve got to coach better, we’ve got to put our guys in better position, we’ve all got to give a little more. There’s no question, we’ve got to hold guys accountable, but as coaches, we’ve got to make sure we’re putting our guys in the best position to give them a chance. And then the players have to do their part – they have to execute, they have to tackle, they have to play with good gap discipline, gap control and pursuit and leverage, and then they’ve got to tackle. I mean, it’s a simple game. It really comes down to fundamentals.”
JOE WHITT, cornerbacks coach
“We have to tackle better as a [cornerback] group. Our missed tackles, I think we’ve done a nice job of tackling receivers. We’ve missed two on receivers. The rest have been on running backs and tight ends. So we have to do a better job of tackling big guys. They’re willing, but you have to correlate it to when a linebacker covers a receiver – there’s going to be some losses there. We’re not going to make every tackle on running backs. But we’ve got to be better than what we’ve been. That’s my concern is making sure that we’re better at that than where we’ve been.”
B.J. RAJI, injured nose tackle
“In my estimation, being on the sidelines and being in the film room, it’s a collective thing. It’s not just, ‘Oh, they don’t have me.’ The term ‘team defense’ is thrown around so much, I feel like this is the essence of that. Sometimes, you’re not going to be perfect, and that’s when you require your buddies to [help]. Sometimes, you’re going to get out of your gap. That’s when you’re going to need somebody to make a play. Or sometimes, you’re going to get maybe some movement on the line of scrimmage, but you need somebody to help. I think when we get to that level, where we can make up for each other’s problems, we’ll be better. I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault, particularly. It’s a collective. Sometimes, it’s up front, we don’t do our job. Sometimes, we’ll have an unblocked hitter in the hole and he’ll miss a tackle. It’s not just one area. It’s a collective thing. We’ll see how it goes.”
CLAY MATTHEWS, four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker
“We need to do a better job. That’s ultimately the realization. We can’t sit here and talk about scheme and say we need to put ourselves in better position, it just comes down to executing. Sometimes we have to take responsibility as players and as athletes being out there getting the job done. That’s ultimately where the shortcomings are. The scheme puts us in the right position. There may be times where it may not be the right call for the right down, but that’s not 99 percent of the game. The other 99 percent is us playing football. It just comes down to executing. As a man, putting it upon yourself to stop the run, stop the pass, whatever it may be; but in this case, the run game. A lot of run-stopping and having a great run defense is attitude. Making big hits, talking a little bit and just kind of having a little swagger about yourself on defense. … It’s a wake-up call and it’s a reality check. We have a great opportunity this week with a team that did a great job rushing against us last time, so we’re going to have our hands full just like we did last time. But we expect to fix all the shortcomings we had, as well as just as an overall defense.”
JULIUS PEPPERS, most experienced defensive player on the team
“Run defense is tough. It’s the toughest thing we do. It’s tough. We’re a little inexperienced – which is not an excuse. A lot of these guys haven’t played a lot of football, they haven’t seen a lot of these schemes and a lot of these blocks that they’re getting hit with. Scheme wise, teams have been trying to get us in certain defenses where they can expose some of the defenses we play. [It’s also] a little bit of attitude that we’re still developing. And that’s everybody – myself included, Clay, everybody who’s on the field. We need to be a little tougher and have a little more attitude. A combination of all those things could help us out on defense.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.
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