Defense Dominating Down The Stretch

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Ask around for an explanation of the Green Bay Packers' defensive turnaround over the past two games, and you'll get a variety of answers.

Head Coach Mike McCarthy points to continuity, consistency and energy he sees when reviewing film. Defensive coordinator Bob Sanders cites the passion and fundamentals the players are showcasing. The players themselves attribute it to simply playing together more and believing in their system.

So which is it? To be truthful, it's all of the above.

As McCarthy is fond of saying, if it were just one thing, it would have been fixed long ago. So it has taken all of those elements for the Packers to turn in dominating back-to-back defensive performances in victories over the Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings that have kept the team in the NFC playoff hunt heading into the final weekend.

"The defense we had coming out of the preseason and training camp, I definitely thought that was going to be the strength of our football team," McCarthy said. "Now we're at crunch time, and they have stepped to the forefront."

The Packers have needed the defense to do so, with the offense struggling to maximize on its opportunities in the red zone.

Over the past two games, Green Bay has surrendered a total of just 246 yards (142 vs. Det., 104 vs. Minn.) and 13 first downs (10 vs. Det., 3 vs. Minn.). To put that in perspective this year, that's fewer yards than the Packers have given up in 11 individual games, and fewer first downs than in 12.

The only other games that compare statistically were at Buffalo on Nov. 5 (184 yards, 11 first downs) and vs. Arizona on Oct. 29 (218 yards).

Also, the defense has recorded nine sacks in the last two games, tying the best two-game stretch of the season (Nov. 5-12, at Buffalo, at Minn.)

The efforts have helped the Packers climb from near the bottom in the league rankings to 13th overall in total defense (14th vs. the run, 17th vs. the pass).

"Everybody stuck together," cornerback Al Harris said. "We believe in each other. That's really all that matters."

The players have believed in each other while they've continued to believe in Sanders' scheme. Meanwhile Sanders has stayed the course with the system and maintained faith in his players as well, which he said wasn't as difficult as some might think after frustrating defensive performances during the team's three-game losing streak to New England, Seattle, and the New York Jets.

"It's a good scheme and it works, and it's just sticking with what you believe in and working at that," Sanders said. "That's what you build on.

"It's guys playing fundamentally sound, playing with passion, the gang-tackle pursuit, just doing the things that we can do. Staying the course and believing in what we've got going and working at it."

{sportsad300}Health has certainly helped a little. Defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins finally recovered enough from a nagging ankle injury to begin playing defensive end on running downs at San Francisco, allowing pass rusher Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila to rest up for passing situations. Jenkins then started at defensive end against the Lions and Vikings and has moved to the inside on pass-rushing downs when KGB comes in.

Also, linebacker Nick Barnett's broken hand continues to improve, allowing him to shrink the size of his club cast with each passing week. Barnett turned in arguably his best game of the season against the Lions on Dec. 17, recording 15 total tackles, including 12 solo.

Pride has played a part, too. The Packers were as aware as anyone that the player-for-player talent on defense was capable of performing better than its previous low league ranking.

"We have a lot of great character guys on this defense and on this team," linebacker A.J. Hawk said. "We wanted to show we weren't playing up to our potential. We really weren't doing things right. It was never anything huge, it was little things here and there, and I think we finally cleaned up most of those these last couple weeks."

As McCarthy has noted, it's been exciting to watch them play with the attitude and energy they've displayed lately.

"That's the way they're supposed to play," McCarthy said. "That's the defense we viewed as we came out of training camp. Sometimes it takes some groups a little longer to hit their stride. The most important football that is played is in December, and they're definitely playing very well."

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