Players taking 'ownership' turned around Packers' defense, again

Film review after San Francisco loss proved to be another turning point

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GREEN BAY – The Packers' defense in 2019 has shown a penchant for taking matters into its own hands.

Off the field, specifically. The most recent example has without a doubt helped Green Bay reach Sunday's NFC Championship Game.

Recapping for a moment, there was the pre-dawn pow-wow back in August, when the first-team defense made a rather inauspicious preseason debut at Baltimore against dynamic QB Lamar Jackson and Co.

Unhappy with its brief showing, the unit agreed on the flight home to go straight to the film room to review what had transpired, and figure out what to change moving forward. Players credited that get-together with assisting the group's strong start to the regular season in September.

It turns out a similar meeting took place the day after Green Bay's blowout loss at San Francisco back in late November. The defense didn't go straight to Lambeau Field from the airport in the wee hours of the morning this time, but they came in on Monday, an hour before the full team's scheduled film review of the game.

They didn't just watch the previous night's horrors, though. The group had asked the team's video department to put together all the clips of the explosive plays the team had allowed in the first 11 games of the season. They had added about a half-dozen to the rather unsightly total in losing to the 49ers.

"It was all of us kind of saying, hey, we need to fix this," inside linebacker Blake Martinez said. "If we want to do what we've been saying we want to do, if we want to get where we want to be, let's come together and figure out why these plays have been happening."

The session wasn't fun, watching what Martinez estimated were about 50 ugly plays showing major defensive breakdowns. The crux of the players' discovery, though, was assumptions were being made about assignments and responsibilities that were getting them gashed.

Certain players, or position groups, thought they knew what they were supposed to do, or what their teammates were supposed to do, but they were only partially right. Or they were right in some situations but not others. Either way, when they got caught in a bad spot, bad things happened.

The solution, as defensive coordinator Mike Pettine likes to say, was to become a "noisy defense." Holler out everything – every call, every check, every adjustment – every time. And if the ball still hasn't been snapped, holler it again.

Veteran cornerback Tramon Williams called it going "back to the drawing board" from a communication standpoint.

"We were giving up too many big plays, and it wasn't because we weren't capable of covering it, it was because the communication wasn't that great," Williams said. "We made that a focal point of communicating better, making sure we over-communicated, instead of assuming that guys knew what to do."

The right results have followed. From the start of October through the San Francisco game, the defense gave up roughly five plays of 20-plus yards per game, with an average of one of those big plays finding the end zone. The Packers allowed seven touchdowns of 20-plus yards in a seven-game span.

Over the last five regular-season games, the defense reduced its 20-plus plays to three per game, and only one was a touchdown the entire month of December. Against Seattle in the playoffs last week, the Packers allowed four plays of 20-plus, one of them a Russell Wilson scramble, and no TDs.

It's been a group effort, and Pettine said the entire process was "a big part of the growth of the room … we were all accountable." Head Coach Matt LaFleur credited the initiative of the players for getting the turnaround started.

"I think anytime the players take ownership," he said, "you've got a much better chance at changing something."

Big plays haven't been eliminated, of course. Offenses are going to make plays. It's part of the game. But the Packers realized in some instances how easy they were making it on opponents to take large chunks of yardage at a time by thinking, or hoping, everyone was on the same page when it wasn't true.

"Moving from that game, it's OK, now we're going to make sure," Martinez said. "I'm turning around saying, 'Hey, what check are we making?' Or, 'Hey, what are we doing here?' Certain things that now have solidified.

"It's understanding of certain coverages, certain checks, how we're going to play it."

This noisy defense is the one the Packers are taking to San Francisco for this Sunday's rematch, though it's fair to ask why it took so long to get things squared away, and why did they wait until after the first 49ers game to really focus on it.

For one, despite the defensive issues cropping up here and there, the team was still winning. Also, plenty of big plays had only led to field goals because the defense has been so strong in the red zone all year.

But the San Francisco game signaled loud and clear where the defense was headed wasn't good enough. The 49ers only ran 45 offensive plays that night but still rolled up 30 points even after Green Bay's early fumble gave them an easy 2-yard TD to start the game.

"It wasn't meshing together," Martinez said of the defense as a whole. "From that game, it helped us propel ourselves to what we were able to do the rest of the season, and I think we're excited to go out and show that product this time."

It was an important hour in the film room that just might lead to the unit's finest hour on the field.

"Without that game, the way that game unfolded, we don't know if we'd be the team we are right now," Williams said. "Because of that game, we're a better team."

The Green Bay Packers practiced inside the Don Hutson Center to prepare for Sunday's matchup in Santa Clara.

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