Every week, defensive coordinator Bob Sanders would say that his defense's goal is to limit the opponent's explosive plays to five or less.
That seemed unrealistic when the defense was struggling earlier in the season, particularly when the Packers surrendered a total of 24 explosive plays (defined as a run of 12 yards or more, or a pass of 16 yards or more) in a span of just two games, against Detroit and Philadelphia.
But the mission was finally accomplished.
Sanders' unit gave up just two explosive gains last Sunday against Arizona, by far a season-low and a big reason the defense also surrendered a season-low 218 total yards.
The Cardinals' two explosive plays both came on their third-quarter scoring drive -- a 22-yard pass to tight end Leonard Pope and a 17-yard TD pass to Troy Walters. That was it, on a total of 64 offensive plays for Arizona.
"We've been aiming to knock those down," Sanders said. "The guys have worked extremely hard and did a nice job doing that. Certainly two will help us win games. That was a move forward right there."
That's for sure. To illustrate just how significant a step forward, consider that the defense's previous single-game best was seven explosive gains (vs. both Chicago and New Orleans). As far as the yardage allowed on such plays, the 39 on Arizona's two was a drop of better than 75 percent from the defense's previous best (170 yards, vs. St. Louis, on eight plays).
The game against the Rams in Week 5 was the first sign the defense was starting to clamp down, because it allowed only one explosive gain in the first half a week after the defense's worst performance in that area. Against Philadelphia in Week 4, the Packers allowed 13 explosive plays for a whopping 300 yards, or 75 percent of the Eagles' 398 total yards in the game.
Arizona's explosive gains accounted for just 18 percent of their total yards, not only a season-best but the first time this year that statistic has been under 50 percent for an entire game. Head Coach Mike McCarthy said after the season's first two games, when explosive plays accounted for 55 percent of the yardage allowed to the Bears and Saints, that the Packers had to cut that number down considerably.
"I told you we had to fix that and I think we're doing a good job of fixing that," defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said. "Eliminate the big play and it's hard to score on us when you have to drive."
Several factors contributed to the defense's ability to limit the big plays on Sunday.
For one, Sanders said the team's tackling was much more sound and sure than it had been. In other games, often one missed tackle was turning a short pass into a long gain, but the Cardinals rarely got away from the defensive pursuit.
"We eliminated the run after the catch when they made a catch, so that was much, much better than it had been," Sanders said.
Also, the secondary has reduced many of the communication problems that resulted in some missed assignments and big plays earlier in the season. Newcomers Charles Woodson at cornerback and Marquand Manuel at safety joined Al Harris and Nick Collins in this year's starting secondary, and the unit keeps playing better the longer it plays together.
"I just think they're playing better technique, they're seeing it more, and you're just seeing a group come together," McCarthy said. "As long as we can stay injury-free back there, it will continue to improve, because we are talented back there. I just think the group is getting more coordinated and more comfortable with each other."
The same probably can be said for the defense as a whole, which has had essentially the same starters in 10 of 11 positions in every game, with one defensive tackle spot rotating between Corey Williams, Colin Cole and Cullen Jenkins.
It would be difficult to ask the defense to improve on the two explosive plays for 39 yards it gave up Sunday, but similar efforts are not out of the question. At the very least, a performance like the one against Arizona helps to put the more frustrating outings further in the past.
"That's the key, we're building," defensive end Aaron Kampman said. "We in no way shape or form have plateaued yet. It's exciting right now because we're making those strides.
"In the bye week, we really honed down on some fundamentals, and I think you're seeing the fruits of that."