Surprising Run Game, Defense Keep Green Bay Packers as NFC North Front Runners

Zach Kruse@@zachkruse2Senior Analyst IOctober 16, 2013

Three rather simple factors separate the 3-2 Green Bay Packers from the 4-2 Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions and 1-4 Minnesota Vikings in the rough and tough NFC North.

Aaron Rodgers, the only elite quarterback in the division and an annual reason for the Packers being among the NFC contenders, is an obvious one. But a toughened defense that can step to the plate and deliver a legitimate running game that is producing at levels never seen in the Mike McCarthy era also ensure the NFC North will run through Green Bay in 2013. 

No other team in the division can match Green Bay's trio of championship factors. 

The Bears, Lions and Vikings each have individual parts of the formula, but none of the three has put together the entire package so far. 

Quarterbacks Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford, while not on Rodgers' level of efficiency and craftsmanship, are each capable of beating any NFL team on any given Sunday. 

If the season ended today, Cutler would finish 2013 with new career highs in completion percentage (65.9) and passer rating (95.2). He's still turning over the football (nine in six games), but Marc Trestman's guidance and offensive philosophy are clearly changing Cutler for the better. 

Stafford is also having a bounce-back year. After regressing to a 79.8 passer rating in 2012, Stafford is back up to 95.0 this season, and his completion percentage of 62.8 and yards per attempt of 7.4 has come despite the fact that All-Pro receiver Calvin Johnson has been hobbled by injury for stretches this season. Like Cutler, he's on pace to throw for 32 scores. 

At this moment, the Vikings—despite carrying two first-round picks and a former Pro Bowler at the position—do not have a quarterback comparable to the other three starters in the division. 

Rodgers obviously hasn't been lights out this season, and his last three games of just three touchdown passes and three interceptions marked only the third time in his career that he has matched touchdowns and interceptions over a three-game stretch. 

Still, Rodgers leads all NFC North quarterbacks in passer rating (101.9), yards per attempt (8.9) and yards per game (329.9) after six weeks.

He remains one of the few passers in the game who can transcend situation. Regardless of any other shortcomings, the Packers can win, and win big, as long as Rodgers is healthy and on the field. 

While effective quarterback play hasn't been difficult to find in the NFC North—at least east of the Mississippi River—strong defense has been noticeably absent. 

Detroit and Minnesota are both in the bottom six of yards allowed per game (Lions 393.2, 26th; Vikings 418.0, 31st). Chicago is giving up 26.8 points per game, good for 26th in the NFL, while Minnesota sits at 30th with a 31.6 average. 

In terms of sacks, Detroit ranks 26th with 12, Minnesota 28th with 10 and Chicago 30th with eight. 

With little pass rush, a struggling set of linebackers and arguably the poorest trio of cornerbacks in football, the Vikings have a strong case for possessing one of the three worst defenses in the NFL. There doesn't appear to be an easy fix to that side of the ball, either. 

Chicago isn't in Minnesota's category by any means, but this is still an aging defense that has been decimated by injury. The front four has struggled to provide pressure, the tackling at every level has been atrocious and only a handful of teams have a worse combination of safeties. Only a continued reliance on takeaways (17) has masked how poor the Bears have played on defense this season. 

The situation is slightly better in Detroit, where the interior of the defensive line—namely Ndamukong Suh—has caused havoc. An improving secondary has allowed an opposing passer rating of just 75.4. Still, the Lions are allowing 5.4 yards per carry (last in the NFL). And in terms of total yards, Detroit also ranks in the bottom third of the NFL against both the pass and run. 

The Packers are far from the league's best defense, but there have been obvious bright spots. 

Green Bay is currently third in the NFL against the run, thanks to a beefed up defensive line that features 300-pound behemoths in B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly. Four of the five teams to play the Packers this season have finished under 100 yards rushing, and the 3.4-yard per carry average against Green Bay is third best. 

For several years, this had been a defense accused of being soft. Now, Dom Capers' unit is starting to throw some punches back. A defense that can land haymakers against the run is one that can thrive in December and January, especially after already doing so against the likes of San Francisco, Cincinnati and Baltimore—all on the road. 

The majority of the remaining defensive numbers are middle of the pack or better. 

Despite a rash of injuries to every level of the defense, the Packers are 16th in points (22.8) and 18th in yards (371.8). Their 17 sacks and 36.2 percent third down conversion rate are both ninth. 

Turnovers (six forced, 25th) and opposing passer rating (108.2, 32nd) are Green Bay's two problem areas. 

Wins in back-to-back weeks over the Lions and Ravens were each fueled by a valiant defensive effort that held up a struggling and sometimes stagnant offense. In fact, Green Bay has allowed just 26 points since the bye, with 20 of those coming in the fourth quarter.  

Through six weeks, the Packers have provided adequate evidence for being the best and most physical defense in the division. Detroit is a close second, with struggling units from Chicago and Minnesota filling out the bottom two slots. 

Green Bay's offense has also proven plenty capable of running the football consistently, regardless of competition. 

While it would have been borderline crazy to predict before this season, the Packers will now enter Week 7 ranked fifth in rushing yards per game (141.8) and third in yards per carry (5.2).

After calling just 17 running plays in Week 1, Green Bay has averaged 30 rushes and 160 yards over the last four games. During that stretch, James Starks (132 yards), Johnathan Franklin (103) and Eddie Lacy (99, 120) have provided big individual rushing days for a team that once went over 40 straight games without a 100-yard rusher. And those numbers came against the hefty defensive fronts of Cincinnati, Detroit and Baltimore. 

This season's success running the football is unprecedented in Green Bay since McCarthy arrived as the head coach and primary play caller in 2006. Over that span, the Packers have finished 23rd, 21st, 17th, 14th, 24th, 27th and 20th in total rushing yards (in order since '06), and 21st, 12th, 18th, 13th, 25th, 26th and 22nd in yards per attempt. 

Sunday's win in Baltimore provided more evidence that the Packers are a legitimate running offense in 2013. 

Not only did Lacy run for 57 yards in the first quarter—when defenses typically make a concerted effort to put a lid on the running game—but the rookie running back also closed with 44 of his 120 rushing yards in the fourth. His most important fourth quarter runs came on the final two drives, when Green Bay drove for a field goal to extend the lead to nine and then ran out the clock in the four-minute drill. 

Lacy's final run, a four-yard jaunt off left tackle, came on 3rd-and-2, allowing Rodgers to kneel down twice for the win. 

Was it a statement finish? You bet. 

On the road, and facing a defense with All-Pros in Haloti Ngata up the middle and Terrell Suggs off the edge, the Packers ran the football down Baltimore's throats when the Ravens absolutely needed to stop the run. It was a telling moment for an offense that is now on pace to post the most rushing yards in a single season (2,269) since the 2003 Packers ran for 2,558. 

And despite Adrian Peterson, Matt Forte and Reggie Bush occupying starting running back spots inside the division, Green Bay is the NFC North's clear leader in terms of rushing production. 

Peterson and the Vikings obviously have the ability to be one of the game's better running teams, but, so far, Minnesota ranks just 11th in rushing yards per game. Chicago comes in at 16th and Detroit 21st.

Winning games inside the division and in inclement weather often times comes down to controlling the line of scrimmage via the run, and it appears through six weeks that the Packers are better prepared to do both than any of the other three teams in the NFC North. 

Combine Green Bay's surprising running game with a tougher defense up front and the right arm of Rodgers, and the Packers are still the front runners to win a division that looks to be one of the best in football early this season. 

The Bears and Lions, and to a lesser degree the Vikings, possess some pieces of the puzzle necessary for winning the NFC North. Chicago and Detroit have the quarterbacks and each should challenge Green Bay throughout the final 11 weeks. 

But with all the pieces currently in place, the Packers should be considered the early favorite to win the division for a third straight season. 


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