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No. 1 Ranking, Team Record At Stake For Run Defense In Finale


There may be nothing more satisfying to a defensive coordinator when he watches film of his own defense than seeing an opponent fail, time and again, to run the ball with any success.

Because all it takes is one defender to give too much ground, one defender to get out of his gap, and a defense can get gashed by the run. Stopping it consistently requires healthy doses of teamwork and accountability, traits that defensive coaches preach until they're blue in the face.

"To me, your run defense is more indicative of team defense than anything else, because it has to fit together like a glove," Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "Playing good run defense is the ultimate in playing team defense."

That said, the Packers are on the verge of accomplishing the ultimate in run defense heading into their regular-season finale on Sunday in Arizona.

Allowing just 85.7 yards per game on the ground this year, the Packers are ranked No. 1 in the NFL in run defense. If they can hold onto that spot, they will complete a season No. 1 for the first time in franchise history. Only once in team history has Green Bay ranked as high as No. 2 in run defense, and that was in 1972.

But that's not all. This year's unit also has a chance to set a franchise record for the lowest per-game rushing average by an opponent. The mark is 85.2, established in 1994, when the Packers allowed 1,363 rushing yards over the 16-game season.

This year's team has allowed 1,285, so if the Packers surrender 77 rushing yards or less to the Cardinals on Sunday, a new franchise mark will be established.

"That's been our main goal this whole year - we wanted to be the No. 1 rush defense," said nose tackle Ryan Pickett, one of the key cogs in the middle of the defensive line. "To do it, and to come up and get a record, that would be great. That would be the icing on the cake."

It's been no cake-walk, however, to get to this point. The change in defensive schemes this season required Capers and defensive line coach Mike Trgovac to re-train a bunch of 4-3 linemen - Pickett, Cullen Jenkins, Johnny Jolly and rookie B.J. Raji being the primary players up front - to become 3-4 guys, and to get them to believe that the new ways they were teaching them to do their jobs were going to work.

Beginning with the offseason program and spring workouts and continuing through the early stages of the regular season, Capers and Trgovac helped build the Packers' stoutness up front by focusing on three things.

First was not talking about last year.

One of the major reasons Head Coach Mike McCarthy made such sweeping changes with the defensive coaching staff in the offseason was the inability to stop the run in 2008. The Packers were an abysmal 26th in the league against the run. They allowed the opponent to rush for 175 yards or more in six of the season's first nine games, and the whole defense suffered as a result.

But the players didn't need to be reminded of that. Seeing new coaches in front of them on a daily basis was reminder enough, and rather than constantly harp on the failures of the previous year, Trgovac said he was focused on the talent, size and mobility he saw in a defensive-line group he knew he could work with.

"I didn't get into much about the previous year," Trgovac said. "If it was anything, it was more about guys not running around blocks, not trying to get upfield to get a sack when they're running the ball.

"That was more the stuff we had to talk to them about. We talked to them more about what we're going to do and what we expect from them and the techniques."

That became the second point of emphasis - drilling the new techniques required to take on blocks and hold gaps in the new scheme. The linebackers and linemen need to coordinate their efforts to stop the run, but it starts with the three-man front using the proper leverage and gap techniques to make the 3-4 work.

"It's more of a grind-it-out position up front," Jenkins said. "You have to take pride in it.

"I'd say the biggest thing with it is just staying consistent with it. You can't relax with it, because it's something new. Anything that's new, you have to keep working on it, working on it, keep drilling it into your head and into your body. It was a little tough in that aspect, but we definitely feel like we're good enough athletes to do it."

The coaching staff didn't have any doubts. Raji, a first-round draft pick, was brought in to contribute immediately and sixth-round pick Jarius Wynn added some depth, but otherwise the personnel up front didn't change.

"Once we got it, we got it," Pickett said. "We got the technique pretty fast. There wasn't a learning curve. We just picked it up and kept going."

From there, the third focus became the film room. With the scheme and techniques so new, players needed to see themselves on film performing well and stopping the run. But they also needed to get an explanation of the why's and how's when things weren't working so well.

After an impressive start to the season, when Chicago's Matt Forte was held to just 55 yards on 25 carries (2.2 avg.) in the opener, it turned in Weeks 2 and 3. The Bengals came to Lambeau Field and had their way, as Cedric Benson rushed 29 times for 141 yards (4.9 avg.). Then the Rams' Steven Jackson posted 27 carries for 117 yards the next game.

The defensive coaching staff used those two games to illustrate the difference between how the scheme is supposed to work and how it failed. And when it did fail, why. The St. Louis film was particularly helpful in that area, because on 11 of Jackson's carries, he had one, zero or negative yardage. But he also had nine rushes for 7 or more yards, gaining 94 of his yards on one-third of his attempts.

"These guys are grown men - when you explain something to them and have an answer for what went wrong, then they trust you," Trgovac said. "If you tell them what they did wrong and what they need to do and how this run fits and why this run broke, they understand it. I think they believed in us."

{sportsad300}And they've been buying in ever since. Following the St. Louis game, the Packers held their opponent under 90 yards rushing in 10 of the next 11 contests, including a streak of seven in a row that was snapped last Sunday when Seattle put up 115 yards, including 61 after the Packers had taken a 38-3 lead in the third quarter when the Seahawks insisted on running the ball anyway.

"We've got a number of front guys that have been very unselfish, guys that have become very accountable for taking care of their role," Capers said. "And many times, it comes down to who's responsible for using up two blocks to keep a guy free to get to the ball. That might not be the most flattering job, but guys over a period of time can look at the tape and develop an appreciation for what guys are doing for team defense."

Those second-half runs by Seattle will make the No. 1 ranking and franchise record more difficult to achieve this weekend, but both are there for the taking.

As far as the league rankings, the Packers have a 31-yard lead on No. 2 Cincinnati and a 54-yard lead on No. 3 Pittsburgh. The Bengals face the NFL's No. 1 rushing offense in the New York Jets on Sunday, while the Steelers face the No. 4 rushing offense in Miami.

Arizona's rush offense is just No. 26 in the league, but the Cardinals do have a productive running back duo in Chris "Beanie" Wells, who leads all NFC rookies with 774 yards and seven TDs, and Tim Hightower (574 yards, eight TDs). Wells has 257 rushing yards in his last three games, his best three-game stretch of the season.

The Packers are determined to make team history, though, both with the league ranking and franchise record, no matter how the game plays out in terms of injuries, rest and/or playoff considerations. They've come too far in the new scheme to look back now.

"I'm sure in the back of their mind, guys that have been 4-3 defensive linemen their whole lives, all of a sudden to be thrown into a 3-4, I think their thought was, 'Let me give this a try,' and they saw that it worked," Trgovac said.

"They're holding themselves accountable to it right now. As a coaching staff, you can't ask for anything more when players might be (mad) at another for giving up three extra yards. They understand sometimes a guy slips or whatever, but it means something to them. They're talking about it and they want it."

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