After Sunday's 33-25 victory against the Atlanta Falcons, Packers Head Coach Mike Sherman complimented defensive coordinator Jim Bates for his unit's performance.
"It's always good when your head coach praises the way the unit played," Bates said. "That's very gratifying."
Sherman praised Bates' efforts for good reason.
Under Bates' watch the Packers have improved in total defense from 25th overall last year to 10th overall this season and from 25th to 11th against the pass.
Bates, however, does not pride himself on statistics as much as the defense becoming a cohesive unit.
"The biggest thing we've gotten is the players have bought into the scheme," Bates said. "They've practiced extremely hard and studied hard."
The Packers' defenders have taken to the 4-3 alignment where the interior tackles occupy blockers and the linebackers flow from sideline to sideline to make plays. The secondary plays an aggressive bump-and-run style.
"It's a credit to Jim and his staff together. They've done a very good job of putting those pieces to the forefront," Sherman said. "We're playing fundamentally sound football."
The unit has displayed those fundamentals with its sure tackling. With a few exceptions, teams have not gashed the Packers' defense for long receptions after the catch or long runs. They have surrendered 3.7 yards per rush after allowing 4.3 last year, and the players' ability to wrap up helps account for that improvement.
"We have tackled well throughout the season, which has really kept a lot of big plays to a minimum," Bates said. "It's just been emphasized since Day 1. We work on it every week. It's something that has to be. We can't ever lose sight of tackling."
Perhaps the defense's crowning achievement came during Week 10 when they limited a Michael Vick-led offense to 325 total yards. Vick only gained 24 yards rushing with a seven-yard scamper serving as his longest from scrimmage.
The players practiced an unselfish containment scheme where they filled rush lanes and relied on teammates to make plays. The way each defender stayed in his lane against Vick resembled how a coverage unit works together to corral an elusive punt returner.
"We had a very good scheme going into the ballgame in containing him and pressuring him," Sherman said.
Nick Barnett, who recorded 11 overall tackles, recovered two fumbles and sacked Vick once, played a major role in harassing Vick.
"Barnett does make a difference. His speed has been a factor this season not just in this ballgame," Sherman said. "He's making a jump this season to another level of linebacker."
Barnett has 120 tackles on the season, and his second fumble recovery led to a Samkon Gado touchdown on the next play. The Packers excelled at forcing those critical turnovers against the Falcons.
"You could see guys working the ball better, trying to get the ball out," Sherman said.
Turnovers remain a pillar of Bates' philosophy. They have come in bunches for the Packers. Green Bay has forced 13 on the season but eight came in its two victories, against the Falcons and New Orleans Saints.
"Turnovers are hard to dictate," Bates said. "I can't tell you how many tipped balls we've dropped, how many fumbles we've had an opportunity to get on and they took a wrong bounce. Hopefully this second half we can get on a consistent basis and create more turnovers ... We got off to a good start yesterday."
The Packers' turnover-forcing performance Sunday could serve as a launching pad for the rest of the season.
"We're always looking to get better," Bates said. "We're always looking for improvement."