Packers LB Clay Matthews chases down Lions QB Matthew Stafford for one of the team's two sacks during last Thursday's win in Detroit.
Head Coach Mike McCarthy has preached that the Green Bay Packers' identity needs to start with defense for the team to be successful.
So it's no surprise then that during the team's current three-game winning streak the defense has continued to climb in the league rankings, all the way to No. 1 as of Monday.
That's right, No. 1. The Packers rank first in the league in yards allowed per contest, surrendering just 281.5 on average. The last time the Packers ranked No. 1 in the league in total defense was following Week 3 of the 2001 season. The last time the team held the top spot this late in the season was at the end of 1996, a Super Bowl championship year.
No one is making any such bold predictions with five games remaining in 2009 and a wild-card playoff fight on Green Bay's hands the rest of the way. But if the defense continues to play at this level through December, the Packers like their chances of possibly making some noise.
"Being No. 1 in Week 12, 13, 14, really doesn't give you any merit," McCarthy said. "You want to be No. 1 at the end of the season. But I think our defense definitely is on the right pace to be the championship defense that we anticipate we'd have here."
It's been a gradual climb, beginning with the transition to the 3-4 scheme under defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
Following the first loss in Minnesota and the bye in Week 5, the Packers were 2-2 and ranked 18th in the league in yards allowed. Since then, the defense has held six of seven opponents under 300 yards (Minnesota again being the lone exception) and the team has gone 5-2 to thrust itself into playoff contention.
As McCarthy and Capers both often say, it starts with stopping the run. And since allowing back-to-back 100-yard rushers in Weeks 2-3 (Cincinnati's Cedric Benson and St. Louis' Steven Jackson), the Packers have allowed only one running back to gain more than 61 yards. That was Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, who had 97 in Week 8 after gaining only 55 against Green Bay in Week 4.
In that span the Packers have climbed from 23rd against the run to fourth, where they rank in both rushing yards allowed per game (89.1) and yards allowed per attempt (3.6).
"We're doing a very good job of stopping the run, and that will be a major focus as we go into this next game," McCarthy said. "I think Baltimore's running game, particularly their three running backs (Ray Rice, Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain) will be an excellent challenge for us."
Combine that run defense with an active blitz scheme and the superb play of cornerback Charles Woodson, and the Packers have a defense they hope will hold up even without stalwarts Aaron Kampman and Al Harris, who are out for the season with knee injuries.
During the last three games, the defense has produced 10 sacks and Woodson has been a big-play machine, with three interceptions (one returned for a score), two sacks, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
Woodson has been the key to the team's takeaway total of 27, which ranks second in the league to unbeaten New Orleans (29). With only 10 giveaways on offense, the Packers are a league-best plus-17 in turnovers.
"Our turnover ratio is something we spend a lot of time in, taking care of the football and taking it away," McCarthy said. "That has to be something that we win week in and week out."
McCarthy said several times on Monday he feels his team is a confident bunch, and it needs to be heading into these final five games - three of which are against teams that played in their respective conference championship games a year ago in Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Arizona.
But regardless of the opponent, it's also the time of year to be hitting stride. The Packers' three-game winning streak is their first of that length since concluding a six-game string at Detroit on Thanksgiving in 2007.
The extra rest prior to next Monday's game vs. Baltimore - the players got a four-day weekend following the Detroit win and will return to the practice field on Tuesday - is also coming at a good time to gear up for the stretch run.
"Our margin of error is going to need to be a lot less than it has been in the first 11 games because it's December football now," McCarthy said. "This is the most important football that we'll play all season.
"Now with the time off, we feel like we have a chance to regroup and take a run at these last final games. We really like where we are as a football team."
OTHER NEWS & NOTES...
Special teams struggles
After two solid games against Dallas and San Francisco, the Packers' special teams units took another step back at Detroit last week.
A fumble on the opening kickoff by Jordy Nelson, a missed field goal by Mason Crosby, three combative penalties and a pair of 34-yard kickoff returns helped to undo some of the progress made by the units in the previous two games.
Against the Cowboys and 49ers, Crosby made four straight field goals after an early miss from 52 in the Dallas game, Tramon Williams had a 27-yard punt return to set up a field goal against San Francisco, and the coverage units allowed only one of 15 total punt or kickoff returns to go for longer than 25 yards, though that was a key 76-yarder by San Francisco's Josh Morgan that swung the momentum late in the game.
"I thought as a whole in the game against Detroit, our special teams needs to play with a little more confidence," McCarthy said. "We had the opening kickoff that we fumbled, and I felt from that point on we were playing a little cautious. We just need to clean up some fundamentals and play with the confidence we were playing with against Dallas and San Francisco.
"I thought the Dallas game we played extremely well. I thought San Francisco we played very well, except for the one that came out. Then we did some things in the Detroit game that you cannot do."
Left tackle Chad Clifton's hamstring injury could force him to miss some practice time this week, but that was the only injury McCarthy was concerned about.
Four other players could also miss practice time, though McCarthy sounded optimistic about their potential availability. Tackle Allen Barbre (ankle) and running back Ahman Green (groin) have each missed the last two games but could return to practice this week. Also, receiver Jordy Nelson (shoulder) and cornerback Brandon Underwood (hamstring) were hurt in the Detroit game but should be OK.
McCarthy said the medical staff would make decisions on practice availability on Tuesday morning.