Pickett Fortifies Run Defense For Playoffs

To some, the Packers raised a few red flags with the way their run defense performed towards the end of the season in road games at St. Louis and Chicago. But the Packers themselves are not alarmed about the state of their run defense heading into the playoffs, and for three reasons. - More Audio | Video | Playoff Game Center


To some, the Packers raised a few red flags with the way their run defense performed towards the end of the season in road games at St. Louis and Chicago.

But the Packers themselves are not alarmed about the state of their run defense heading into the playoffs, and for three reasons.

First, the performances in those two road games weren't as bad as some of the statistics would make them appear. Second, whatever deficiencies may have shown up appeared to get shored up in the regular-season finale last week against Detroit. And third, run-stuffer extraordinaire Ryan Pickett, who missed the final two games of the regular season with a groin injury, was back to 100 percent on the practice field this week and will be full speed for the playoffs.

"The run defense is sound," Pickett said. "I think we're going to be good in the playoffs."

Let's examine each of the three reasons for that vote of confidence.

For starters, the evaluation of the St. Louis and Chicago games depends on who's doing the evaluating. Some would say giving up 312 rushing yards in those two games exposed a significant late-season weakness, and the number itself is certainly too high.

But a closer look reveals the only glaring struggles came in one half of play, the first in St. Louis. Steven Jackson gashed the Packers for 103 yards on 13 carries (7.9 avg.), including a 46-yard touchdown, in the first half at the Edward Jones Dome but gained just 40 yards on nine carries in the second half.

Then in Chicago, three Bears running backs racked up 136 yards rushing in the wind and cold at Soldier Field, but it took them 44 carries, an average of just 3.1 yards per carry. That's a number the Packers, who have allowed a respectable 3.9 yards per carry to opponents on the season, or any team for that matter would take anytime.

The Bears' Adrian Peterson did break one 21-yard run, but aside from that Chicago's backs did not have a run longer than 8 yards on their other 43 attempts.

So while Jackson (143 yards) and Peterson (102 yards) both cracked that 100-yard milestone, becoming only the second and third individuals to do so against the Packers in 2007, the defense didn't feel as though it was dominated for four quarters by either back.

"Were we as effective as we wanted to be? No," defensive coordinator Bob Sanders. "But I thought we made some strides getting back to where we want to be. We certainly don't want to give up a 100-yard rusher, which we did a few times there at the end of the season, with some explosive gains.

"What caused us some problems there in a couple of those games were explosive runs, and we need to eliminate those to have a chance to be the kind of defense we want to here in the playoffs."

The Packers showed more consistency in that regard last Sunday against Detroit in their playoff tune-up. The Lions did not have leading rusher Kevin Jones, who was injured, but backup T.J. Duckett had topped 100 yards the previous week against Kansas City. Green Bay held him to just 29 yards on 13 carries, a paltry 2.2 average, with a long of just 5.

As a team, Detroit had 17 rushes for 47 yards (2.8 avg.) against a Pickett-less interior line that got improved play from rookies Justin Harrell and Daniel Muir, as well as the usual steady play from Corey Williams and Cullen Jenkins, who moved inside from defensive end on occasion.

"When we're playing solid up there, that allows our linebackers to run and play fast, and that means everything to us," defensive tackles coach Robert Nunn said. "When those guys can fly around and do what they do best, then our whole defense changes."

With Pickett sitting out the last two games, the experience gained by Harrell could prove especially valuable in the playoffs when he'll be asked to be the No. 3 tackle behind Pickett and Williams. Limited by injuries for much of the first three-fourths of the season, Harrell simply needs "every rep he can get," according to Nunn.

"With Justin, when he played well, he played really well," Nunn said of the Detroit game. "It's just going to take a while for him to get all the kinks ironed out, and he's doing a good job.

"I've told him, we don't have time. You're no longer a rookie. You've got to go. It's all for real now."

Which makes it all the more important for Pickett to be back at full strength. While he and the coaches said he could have played against Detroit last week, there was no need to risk aggravating the groin injury, and Pickett could feel the benefits of the rest as soon as he returned to the practice field on Friday this week.

"Now I feel like I'm 100 percent," Pickett said. "Before when I was out there, I was good, but now I feel completely rested, fresh. I feel great. I can feel it in practice. The days (off) did well for us."

{sportsad300}Pickett's effectiveness in the middle of the defensive line cannot be overstated. It may go unrecognized by fans watching from the stands or on television, but Pickett occupies multiple blockers to prevent them from getting to the linebackers, allowing Nick Barnett, A.J. Hawk and Brady Poppinga to amass their impressive tackle totals, all while tallying 63 total tackles (38 solo) of his own.

"He does not get moved around in there a lot, and in our defense you have to have people who can anchor inside and not get washed around, and that's what he does best," Nunn said. "A lot of times in our scheme, the defensive tackle may not show up on the stat sheet and could have a great game. The thing Ryan does is he not only helps to protect those (linebackers), but if they leave him singled up, he'll come off and make the play."

During games, Pickett also takes on a leadership role amongst the defensive tackles on the sideline between series. Nunn said that Pickett will help make the in-game adjustments with other linemen, and with his even-keel demeanor, he'll be a calming influence for some of his more emotional teammates.

With emotions guaranteed to be at their highest level in the playoffs, he'll be good to have around in that respect, too.

"He's a steady hand out there," Nunn said. "It means a great deal to us.

"He's had another solid season. He never had truly a bad game all year, and he hasn't for the last two years. That means a lot for us."

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