GREEN BAY – The buzzwords heard in the Packers’ locker room this week are pretty typical anytime a defense is struggling.
Assignments, consistency, discipline.
Those have all been trending the wrong direction in recent weeks for Green Bay’s defense after a really strong start to the season, and the goal is to get things turned back around Sunday against Carolina before heading into the bye week.
After the latest breakdowns from last week’s loss to the Chargers, when the Packers gave up several big plays and couldn’t stop the run in the second half, the self-reflection has picked up in intensity.
Defensive lineman Kenny Clark confirmed the group conducted a very thorough film review session. Cornerback Jaire Alexander said he watched the film three times. Outside linebacker Preston Smith said the players are being critical of themselves, and there can be no hard feelings when those criticisms are communicated.
The difference in the Packers’ defense the past month compared to the first month of the season is stark, and it seems the struggles were brought into sharper focus with last Sunday’s defeat, which snapped a four-game winning streak.
“I think it hit home for a lot of people on defense, because that’s not our standard of football, not our level of football,” Alexander said. “I think this week, you can tell people are more focused.”
Whether or not the Packers have straightened things out, Panthers star Christian McCaffrey will let everyone know. The NFL’s leader in rushing yards, yards from scrimmage and touchdowns is the centerpiece of a Carolina offense that has helped win five of six games with backup quarterback Kyle Allen.
The Packers have been relatively healthy on defense of late, with a couple of exceptions. The unit never really adequately replaced hybrid safety/linebacker Raven Greene when he was put on injured reserve (ankle) after Week 2, but the activation this week of Ibraheim Campbell could settle that role as well as responsibilities for others.
Also, inside linebacker Blake Martinez has been playing with a club or wrap to protect his broken hand the past two games. Martinez injured the hand in practice leading up to the Kansas City game, and he admits he’s “basically playing linebacker with one hand,” but he’s not sure when he’ll get back to normal.
Still, the overall performance has to improve, and the players say their mentality is where it needs to be.
“Knowing the character of our guys, we’re going to respond well,” Clark said. “Nobody’s down about it. We know what it takes to play really good ball.”
Martinez pointed to gap fits and physicality as the issues against the run. Miscommunications in coverage have led to some big plays, while other times it’s lack of pressure up front. Sacks have piled up at a slower pace, with just four over the last three games versus 18 through the first six contests.
Turnovers have trended the wrong way, too, as the defense was shut out for the second time in the last four games against the Chargers. Sometimes all it can take is one for suddenly a bunch to come, but Smith noted players who “want to make a play so much” can do more harm than good.
It’s a fine line, and an aggressive ball hawk like Alexander walks it as tight as anyone. He’s responsible for two of the biggest takeaways of the season – ripping the ball away from Denver tight end Noah Fant and picking off Dallas QB Dak Prescott – but he’s been victimized for his share of big plays, too, including early against the Chargers when he tried to undercut receiver Mike Williams over the middle and a short pass went for 56 yards.
“That’s all we need. We just need one,” Alexander said of a turnover. “That’ll spark everything we need.”
Once the basics get squared away. That’s where the buzzwords come from.
“I just want to see consistent play, down in and down out,” Head Coach Matt LaFleur said after Thursday’s practice. “We can’t have…there’s been glimpses of really good play, but then there’s been spells of guys…all it takes is one guy to bust an assignment to make everything look really bad.
“Again, it probably sounds boring to you guys, but it takes all 11, and it’s not just all 11 on every other play, it’s every play. Everybody’s got an assignment. We’ve got to be disciplined. We’ve got to be much better at our tackling and our finishing. That’s what we’re looking for.”