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Run Defense Becoming Major Strength


DE Cullen Jenkins (77) and LB A.J. Hawk (50) combine to stop Dallas RB Marion Barber in last Sunday's game at Lambeau Field.

When Head Coach Mike McCarthy decided to make the switch to a 3-4 defensive scheme and hire Dom Capers to coordinate it, his No. 1 priority in doing so was to be able to stop the run better.

Look no further than the two matchups with the Dallas Cowboys each of the last two seasons to illustrate the difference.

In Week 3 of 2008, Dallas came into Lambeau Field and ran roughshod over the Packers and their 4-3 front. The Cowboys rushed for 217 yards, including 142 from Marion Barber and a 60-yard touchdown dash by Felix Jones.

That game was part of a damaging stretch last season during which the Packers surrendered at least 175 yards rushing in six of the first nine games.

But fast forward to this year's Dallas matchup, and this season's first nine games, and the turnaround is startling.

Last Sunday the Cowboys, featuring essentially the same offensive personnel plus 'Wildcat' back Tashard Choice, rushed for a season-low 61 yards, 156 fewer than last season against many of the same Green Bay defenders. It also marked the sixth time in nine games this season the Packers haven't allowed the opponent to reach even 90 rushing yards.

"Going into the season, Mike asked me many times, 'Can we stop the run?'" Capers said. "Based off of last year, we didn't always stop the run, but I felt we would because of our people.

"I think our guys know that's where everything starts with us. That's the emphasis."

That emphasis has made the Packers one of the better run-stopping defenses in the league. Green Bay currently ranks fourth in rushing yards allowed (93.1), third in yards per rush (3.52), tied for third in fewest rushing touchdowns allowed (3), and tied for sixth in fewest runs of 20-plus yards allowed (four).

For comparison's sake, last year the Packers ranked 26th in the league in rushing yards allowed, and gave up 15 runs of 20-plus.

The transformation of the run defense wasn't immediate, however. In Week 2 this season, Cincinnati came into Lambeau Field and used its power game to put up 151 rushing yards, including 141 on 29 carries (4.9 avg.) from Cedric Benson.

Then the following week at St. Louis, the Rams' Steven Jackson gained 117 yards on 27 rushes. But Capers was seeing progress, because Jackson's average (4.3) was considerably less than Benson's, and the defense had stopped him for one, zero or negative yardage on 11 of his carries.

Since then, which has included two games against Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, the Packers' run defense has been downright impressive.

Beginning with Week 4, Green Bay has allowed just 452 rushing yards (75.3 per game), best in the NFC and third in the league behind only Houston and Pittsburgh. The opponents' average of 3.2 yards per rush is tied for tops in the league over that span, with Pittsburgh.

"I think we've been heading in the right direction," Capers said. "As I look back, that was my biggest concern coming out of that Cincinnati game. Cincinnati did a nice job coming in here and running the ball, and obviously you look at them now they're a physical run team.

"But I think since that point in time, we've made strides. Normally (what matters most is) yards per rush against you, and I think we've been fairly consistent with that."

Capers credits the interior linemen up front - which has been any combination of Cullen Jenkins, Johnny Jolly, Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji - for the development of that consistency, which is paying particular dividends on first down. The Packers have posted 22 tackles for loss on first-down rushes, tops in the league.

Capers said his down linemen have gained an understanding of their priorities on different defensive calls, some which require them to play run first, control their gaps, and react if it's a pass, whereas on others they play pass first and react if it's a run.

"Where you run into problems is if those things all get muddled together and you aren't sure," Capers said. "Our guys know if we make these certain calls, you're playing run first and then adjusting to rush the passer off of that. And if we're in third down, and we want you to jet up the field, we'll call that.

"As a front guy you have to be an unselfish guy to play run defense. You just can't get in a three-point stance and jet up the field and rush the passer every down or you aren't going to stop the run. You just aren't. There's going to be more seams, there's going to be more gaps open."

The Packers allowed a few early gaps against the Cowboys last Sunday but then clamped down. Barber gained 13, seven and five yards on his first three attempts in the first quarter, but the rest of the half Green Bay didn't budge.

The Cowboys' remaining five rushes in the first half went for just 6 net yards. Choice was stopped for minus-1 out of the 'Wildcat', Barber gained two, Jones gained two and zero, and Choice again out of the 'Wildcat' got just three on a key third-and-four, forcing a punt.

By the time Barber was stuffed by Jolly for minus-1 on the opening snap of the second half, the Cowboys' frustration led them to abandon the run even though the score was either 3-0 or 10-0 until around 11 minutes remained. They had only four more rushes the rest of the game, two by quarterback Tony Romo.

{sportsad300}"Most teams in this league, if you do a good job especially early in the game stopping the run, then they lose their patience," Capers said. "Their first three runs of the game were losses for us, and then we won the rest of the way out in the first half."

Controlling the Cowboys' ground attack had a positive impact elsewhere too. Capers said the favorable down-and-distance situations made Dallas' dangerous screen game, one of his concerns coming into the matchup, more predictable and therefore easier to defend.

Capers also attacked Romo with more frequent blitzes because Dallas, which came in ranked No. 3 in the league in total offense, clearly got pass-happy. The Packers' five sacks - one of which forced a fumble that led to a touchdown - tied a season high for the defense.

"I really liked the way Dom just kept his foot on the gas and kept coming," McCarthy said.

But it all starts with stopping the run and, as Capers emphasizes, keeping that the priority for his down linemen on many of the defensive calls. Not all 3-4 schemes operate that way, but it certainly worked against one of the league's top offenses in a game the Packers absolutely had to have.

"There are different philosophies," Capers said. "Some places, they're going to play the run on the way to the passer.

"But normally, when you look at the end of the year, every year there's certain teams that are going to be up there in the top five or six in run defense, and it's their style of play."

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