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Dougherty: Packers' defense showing signs of taking step forward

Pete Dougherty   | Packers News

GREEN BAY - The Green Bay Packers did fine slowing Miles Sanders on Sunday, something they didn’t do last year against the Philadelphia Eagles.

The real question, though, is after holding Sanders to 31 yards on 10 carries is can they do OK against the better running backs still on their schedule? Can they keep Detroit’s ascending D’Andre Swift and Carolina’s Christan McCaffrey, the highest-paid back in the game, from beating them in the next two weeks?

And more difficult than that, can they keep the NFL’s leading rusher, Derrick Henry, from running all over them in a big matchup against Tennessee two days after Christmas?

Because that ultimately could determine one, whether the Packers gain home-field advantage for the NFC playoffs, and two, how deep they go in the postseason against offenses a lot better than the one they faced Sunday at Lambeau Field.

Because the Packers in fact find themselves well positioned to get the NFC’s top seeding after their 30-16 win on Sunday. The home field for the Packers means a little something extra for them because the road to the Super Bowl would include a trip to Lambeau Field in January, which nobody in the league would look forward to. It’s also no small matter that with the playoffs expanded to seven teams in each conference this year, only the top seed gets a wild-card bye that allows for an extra week to get healthy.

The numbers:

Box score | NFL scoreboard | Standings

The Packers caught a break Sunday with the Seattle Seahawks’ loss to the New York Giants, which leaves coach Matt LaFleur’s 9-3 team alone with the second-best record in the NFC, behind only New Orleans (10-2). On top of that, the Saints face the league’s best team (Kansas City) in two weeks and almost surely will play that game without injured Drew Brees (broken ribs). New Orleans figures to be a solid underdog in that game, and if the Packers and New Orleans tie in the standings, the Packers get the tie-breaker by virtue of their win over the Saints in Week 3.

The Packers’ offense is humming right now — they lead the league in scoring and put up 437 yards and 30 points against the Eagles on Sunday. I’m not sure there’s anything more to say about it after this game that couldn’t have been said before it. When Aaron Rodgers, Aaron Jones and Davante Adams are on the field together, this team is formidable.

But the Packers’ wild card in the stretch run is coordinator Mike Pettine’s defense, which has had a rough season despite being armed with several expensive free agents and first-round picks from recent drafts.

Sunday was one of its better performances this season (278 yards, 10 points allowed — the Eagles’ other touchdown was on a punt return), even if it came against the 3-8-1 Eagles.

The stat that jumps out is the seven sacks of Carson Wentz and Jalen Hurts, but let’s acknowledge something here and now: Wentz, who only two years ago was an MVP candidate before blowing out his knee late in the season, is a mess. He looks unsure of himself and holds the ball and holds the ball and holds the ball. No wonder he came into this game (and leaves it) as the most-sacked quarterback in the league.

The Packers put Wentz on the ground four times, and he was responsible for at least three. And while Hurts flashed the ability to make plays outside the pocket, he is a rookie who’d thrown all of three passes coming into Sunday. It’s no surprise the Packers got to him three times while playing from a multiple-score deficit. A rookie quarterback who has to throw. Is there anything more enticing for a pass rush?

What warrants watching in the coming weeks is whether Pettine’s more liberal use of a true nickel defense (i.e., using Christian Kirksey and Kamal Martin at the same) early in this game was just the function of this game plan and the Eagles’ personnel (lots of two tight ends), or has Pettine finally tweaked his approach to stopping the run?

We’ll find out in the coming weeks whether Pettine is developing more confidence in playing those two together, rather than almost always going with an extra (sixth) defensive back in place of Martin. In 2018 and ’19, Pettine could rightly say the Packers’ were too weak at inside linebacker to play two at a time. But now with Martin, there’s a good argument there’s enough talent to play two at a time, even if Martin surely will make the occasional rookie mistake.

After the game, LaFleur wouldn’t say whether he’s talked with Pettine about playing more true nickel, as Pettine did in this game before the Eagles fell behind and had to throw.

“You’ve got to trust your preparation, trust your planning, just like I trust Pett,” LaFleur said. “We’ll take a good, hard look at it, just like we always do.”

There was a short stretch early Sunday that figures to at least get Pettine’s attention. It came late in the Eagles’ first possession after they’d driven to the Packers’ 34. On first down, Martin shot a gap and dropped Sanders for a two-yard loss. Two plays later, on third and 10, Kirksey had tight coverage on Sanders on a circle route, and Wentz overshot the back on a play that had little chance of being completed.

Pettine’s defense was a lot better against the Eagles than last season when Sanders (11-for-72) and Jordan Howard (15-for-87) combined for 159 yards rushing as Philadelphia rammed the ball down the Packers’ throat in a 34-27 Eagles win. That counts for progress.

But it’s going to get a lot tougher in the final quarter of the season and the playoffs, especially when Henry comes to town in a few weeks.

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