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Dougherty: Packers' defense getting better at doing what it takes to win

Pete Dougherty   | Packers News
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GREEN BAY - Watching the Chicago Bears dink, dunk and plod their way down the field on the game’s first possession last week had to be excruciating for coach Matt LaFleur and his Green Bay Packers.

The Bears chewed up 7½ minutes to go only 60 yards on their way to a 7-0 lead. Their longest play was only eight yards. Watching half a quarter disappear on a methodical drive had to feel like a slow and painful death to coordinator Mike Pettine and his defense.

But watching long drives like that, LaFleur and Pettine just as surely had to keep the bigger picture in mind, because regardless of the outcome on that one, long drives are hard to sustain. Any little mistake can derail a grind-it-out drive – a dropped pass, a sack, a penalty, a negative run. The Bears put up only nine points, all field goals, the rest of the game.

Really, that’s what playing winning defense is like for most teams in today’s NFL. Every new rule favors the passing game, and now the old ones – we’re looking at you, offensive holding – aren’t being called. The league set a record for points this season, and if you watched games from around the league, you saw teams going up and down the field, often in only a handful of plays.

The point is that, for as shaky as Pettine’s defense looked in the first half of the season, it finished the regular season in the middle of the pack. The most telling conventional stats for measuring defenses is points allowed and defensive passer rating, and in both those categories the Packers ranked No. 13 in the league.

And if you look at only the final eight games, that improves to No. 9 in points and No. 5 in passer rating.

Equally telling is that the Packers gave up the fourth-fewest completions of 20-plus yards (39) in the league this season. Last year they were tied for 21st (56).

“One of the things that we're most proud of this year, and I think is a big reason for our success,” Pettine said this week, “is we've done a much better job in not allowing explosive plays.”

Now, it’s also true that if your run defense is a disaster, it doesn’t matter how well you defend the pass. The Packers lived that in the NFC championship game last year when San Francisco won in a blowout while attempting only eight passes. Eight.

Watching Dalvin Cook beat the Packers in Week 7 with 163 yards rushing and another 50 on a screen pass made it impossible not to wonder if anything had changed from 2019.

But in a passing-dominated league, you only have to be just good enough stopping the run, and it’s looking like the Packers are at that threshold now. In the last two weeks they’ve rendered the NFL’s rushing champion (Tennessee’s Derrick Henry) and late-season hot hand (Chicago’s David Montgomery) to being non-factors. Henry’s longest run was for only 10 yards, and Montgomery’s eight.

“In this league you respond to what’s worked against you, and if you don’t, you continue to see it every week,” a longtime defensive coach in the league told me this week. “I think (the Packers) have done a nice job of getting that (run defense) shored up. Getting (Snacks) Harrison (on waivers last week) too will probably help.”

It’s also true that the Packers probably won’t be seeing the likes of Mitch Trubisky, Jalen Hurts, Teddy Bridgewater or even Ryan Tannehill at quarterbacks in the playoffs. There’s a good chance the likes of Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Russell Wilson, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen await as long as the Packers are alive in the postseason. That makes playing defense a lot tougher.

But looked at from the bigger picture, the 2020 Packers still stack up well overall. Former Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers used to always say that when he was evaluating teams comprehensively, the first thing he’d do is calculate their passer rating differential – that is, how much better (or worse) its starting quarterback’s passer rating is relative to its defensive passer rating.

It’s hardly a foolproof stat, but it’s a pretty good gauge for a team’s strength. It’s worth noting, for instance, that starting with the Packers in 2010, the Super Bowl champion over the last 10 seasons has averaged plus-17.5. The 2010 Packers, by the way, were plus-34.

Going into this year’s playoffs, the Packers have the best differential in the league – Aaron Rodgers finished with the league’s highest rating (121.5), and Pettine’s defense is at 91.1. So the Packers are plus-30.4.

New Orleans is next at plus-23.1, followed by Buffalo (plus-20.3), Kansas City (plus-19.1), Pittsburgh (plus-17.4), Seattle (plus-14.9), Baltimore (plus-12.1), the Los Angeles Rams (plus-9.6), Tennessee (plus-9), Tampa Bay (plus-7.9), Indianapolis (plus-6.5) and Cleveland (plus-1.1).

The only teams in the minus are Washington (minus-2.9) and Chicago (minus-1.4).

Now, ranking first going into the playoffs guarantees the Packers exactly nothing. But it suggests that on top of Rodgers’ MVP-caliber season, their defense isn’t any worse than most in the league. And their recent play suggests that stopping the run won’t be the deal-breaking liability it was in 2019.

“One thing that we have right now that I don’t think you can put a price on is, we’re confident,” Pettine said this week.

The proof, as always, will unfold on the field. But the goal for NFL defenses these days is what it used to be only when facing the most explosive teams: Think points, not yards. Think field goals, not touchdowns.

That’s today’s NFL.

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