Run Defense Holds Top Spot, Earns Team Record

GLENDALE, Ariz. - The No. 26 hung over the Green Bay Packers’ defense all offseason. That was their league ranking against the run in 2008, the primary deficiency that led to the overhaul of the defensive coaching staff for 2009. - More Packers-Cardinals Game Center

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GLENDALE, Ariz. - The No. 26 hung over the Green Bay Packers' defense all offseason.

That was their league ranking against the run in 2008, the primary deficiency that led to the overhaul of the defensive coaching staff for 2009.

Now the Packers have a different number to think about. No. 1.

By holding the Arizona Cardinals to just 48 yards rushing in a 33-7 victory on Sunday in the regular-season finale, the Packers put themselves first in two significant places.

First, they finished No. 1 in the league in run defense, allowing 1,333 yards on the season, an average of 83.3 per game.

Second, that per-game average set a new franchise record, besting the 85.2 allowed (1,363 yards) in 1994.

"This means a lot," said nose tackle Ryan Pickett, who sat out for the third time in the last four games with a hamstring injury, but says he'll be ready to resume his run-stuffing duties in the playoffs next week. "Last year we couldn't stop the run for anything. So to go from 26 to 1, it says a lot about our team and our character."

For the top league ranking, the Packers came into Sunday with a 31-yard lead on Cincinnati and a 54-yard advantage on Pittsburgh. They extended both of those, as the Bengals allowed 257 rushing yards to the Jets and the Steelers surrendered 99 yards on the ground to the Dolphins. The Vikings, by only allowing 35 rushing yards to the New York Giants, actually moved up to No. 2 on the season at 1,394 yards.

As for the franchise record, the defensive players knew 77 was their magic number - they had to hold Arizona to 77 rushing yards or less to beat the '94 team's mark.

Pickett said the players were all keeping track of Arizona's rushing numbers throughout the game because they "wanted the record bad." As it turned out, the Cardinals never got very close to jeopardizing the history in the making.

Because the Cardinals fell behind big early and the Packers controlled the time of possession (37:27 to 22:33), Arizona attempted just 14 rushes, and one of those was on a fumbled snap.

Running backs Chris "Beanie" Wells and Tim Hightower had just six carries apiece, and they were held to one, zero or negative yards on half of those. They combined for just 16 yards rushing in the first half and finished with 43 between them.

The only time it appeared the franchise record might be in jeopardy was in the third quarter, when Hightower burst through for an 8-yard gain and three plays later Wells broke free for a game-long 17-yard run.

But the Cardinals added just seven rushing yards in the fourth quarter, including three from LaRod Stephens-Howling and two on that fumbled snap, and the new franchise record was secure.

"I'm happy for the guys," said defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who was hired following the '08 season. "The very first time I met with Mike (McCarthy) he said, 'Can we stop the run?' So we feel good about that.

"We've asked some of those front guys to play a little differently than they've played, and they've done an outstanding job of being unselfish. If we've got one guy that's using up two blocks, he knows we've got another guy free and that's what team defense is all about."

Some of the names familiar to Packers fans from that front seven in 1994 include Reggie White, John Jurkovic and Sean Jones on the line and Bryce Paup and George Koonce at linebacker. But not only was that group topped, this year's Packers also held their opponent under 90 yards rushing a franchise-best 12 times, one better than the 1996 Super Bowl championship squad.

"It feels great, knowing the great defensive linemen that have played before us, the names we're talking about," rookie lineman B.J. Raji said. "To do it as a group, it feels great.

"It's just a symbol of how hard we've worked as a group, and how much time we put in."

{sportsad300}Those efforts against the run helped the Packers finish with the No. 2 overall defense in yards allowed. The down-and-distance situations created for opposing offenses by the run defense also contributed to a league-leading total of 40 takeaways, including a league-best 30 interceptions.

"That's something we can hang our hats on," rookie linebacker Clay Matthews said of the run defense. "Obviously our game plan coming into every week is shutting down the run, and then we can open up our defense as far as getting after the quarterback, running a few games and stunts and what not.

"It's very important and something we're extremely proud of, and we have to keep it up, shutting down the run game. That way our guys can get to work and create turnovers."

Going from No. 26 to No. 1, in the league and in team history, is a pretty big jump, but the players bought into the new scheme from the beginning and stayed the course. They believed they could make an off-the-charts improvement, because they needed to.

"If you don't believe anything, it's not going to happen," Raji said. "You have to believe it first before you can go out and execute it. (Hall of Fame basketball coach) Pat Riley had a famous quote I'll never forget. He said, 'Greatness is a vision before it's a reality. If you don't believe it within yourself, there's no way you can accomplish it.'

"That pretty much goes without saying."

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