At the end of the 2008 season, the Green Bay Packers rushing defense was ranked No. 26 in the league in yards allowed (2,105). The Packers had finished the year—Aaron Rodgers' first as a starter—with a disappointing 6-10 record.
The run defense under Bob Sanders, which allowed the sixth-most rushing touchdowns (20) and more than 130 yards on the ground per game, was a clear culprit for the losing season.
That shift has been developing since the groundwork was laid in 2009, and the credit for the recent success goes to the aggressive rebuilding of the unit Ted Thompson, Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers began five years ago.
After being courted by multiple teams, including the New York Giants, Dom Capers, who had been serving as the secondary coach in New England, was hired by the Packers in January 2009. The team subsequently announced it would transition to Capers' specialty, a 3-4 defense, after running a 4-3 since 1992.
Though Capers' expertise from his college coaching days was as a defensive backs coach, the Packers weren't looking to dramatically improve their secondary. In contrast to its 2008 rushing defense, Green Bay's passing defense held opposing quarterbacks to the fourth-lowest passer rating in the league and a cumulative completion percentage of just over 55 percent.
Though many Packers fans think that the switch in schemes was a result of Capers' hiring, McCarthy had wanted to make the transition. One of his top priorities was to hire someone with knowledge of the scheme.
The move to a 3-4 scheme was directly geared toward rebuilding the run defense.
McCarthy acknowledged that the Packers would occasionally still line up in a four-man front. "But it's an excellent run defense [and it] creates pass rush on the quarterback," he said at the time of Capers' hiring, via ESPN's Chris Mortensen. "From an offensive standpoint ... it really cuts the menu of the offense probably in half of what you would normally do [against] a four-man front."
As Capers explains in the above video from 2009, the Packers' transition from a 4-3 scheme to a hybrid defense and then to a pure 3-4 scheme would be dictated by personnel. Thus, it was time for Thompson to go about getting some players to plug into it.
In 2009, Thompson had, arguably, the most aggressive and the most successful draft of his tenure as Green Bay's general manager, second possibly only to his decision to take Rodgers in 2005. It was heavily focused on defense.
Thompson used three of the Packers' seven picks to acquire players who would become three of the 2013 team's starting front seven (injuries notwithstanding): B.J. Raji went seventh overall, followed by Clay Matthews with the 26th pick in Round 1 and then Brad Jones in Round 7.
The well-documented move for Matthews was especially aggressive. The Packers traded their second-round pick (41st) and two third-round picks (73rd and 83rd) to the New England Patriots to get back into Round 1 to take Matthews at 26th overall. (They also got a fifth-round pick.)
With the switch to the 3-4 scheme came the need for a pass-rushing linebacker, and for Thompson and Capers, Matthews was that guy. It was a bonus that he would prove to be just as effective at stopping the run.
The moves—the hiring of Capers, the transition to a 3-4 defense and the defensive draft—paid off almost immediately. At the end of the 2009 season, Green Bay's run defense was No. 1 in rushing yards allowed (1,333) and rushing touchdowns allowed—just five, down from 20 the season before. The unit had cut its rushing yards allowed nearly in half from 2008.
The table below shows the dramatic increase in rushing defense success the Packers had after they switched to the 3-4 scheme in 2009, as compared to the lackluster 2008 season.
Capers' aggression in the new scheme began right away in Week 1 of the 2009 season.
At home, against the Chicago Bears, in Jay Cutler's first game against his new archrival, Capers brought both outside linebackers (here, Aaron Kampman on the left and Brady Poppinga on the right) down to the line to blitz on the Packers' very first regular-season defensive play under his tenure.
In that game, the Packers held the Bears to just 76 rushing yards, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com.
Matthews had made an impact immediately as a rookie in 2009, playing in all 16 games at the right outside linebacker position and notching 10 sacks and 36 tackles, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. Raji, too, played most of the games his rookie year as a defensive tackle and had 19 tackles.
Jones was on the second-team defense at outside linebacker—on the right side, at first, and then on the left in 2010—and it wasn't until he was made a starting middle linebacker in 2012 that his talents fully emerged.
His success surged as a result of the position change; he had 52 tackles and 21 assists last season, stepping up for the injured Matthews, who only played 12 games. He finished the season ranked 10th against the run among all inside linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), with a score of 8.6.
Raji, who started at nose tackle rather than defensive end in 2012, also had a breakout season last year. His 19 quarterback hurries and 19 tackles were good enough for him to end the season sixth in Pro Football Focus (subscription required) rankings among all nose tackles against the run.
With all the personnel in place by 2012, the Packers, as Capers had said, were running a pure 3-4 defense. In 2011, the unit's production dipped slightly, which may have been due to the fact that the Packers were running sub-packages, like the nickel, more often than a true 3-4 scheme with three defensive linemen on the field.
McCarthy noted at the end of the 2011 season that the Packers would use more of the base defense the team had hired Capers to run and had drafted for going forward into 2012. "We’d like to get back to playing more base and doing some of the things this defense was built on,” he told Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette (paid subscription required).
Two things became clear about the Packers rushing defense in 2012 that still resonate in the current 2013 unit.
The first was moving Brad Jones from outside linebacker to the inside in the offseason proved invaluable. Starting inside linebacker Desmond Bishop was placed on injured reserve after the Packers' first preseason game in 2012. D.J. Smith moved up to fill in for him, but he, too, was placed on IR after Week 6.
Jones started at inside linebacker in Week 7 and went on to start every remaining game last season. He was tremendously productive, posting career highs in tackles (102), solo tackles (75) and forced fumbles (one). He had the third-highest tackle total on the team.
Jones' productivity continued through the first three games of this season, until he injured his hamstring against Detroit. He continues to be ranked the seventh-best inside linebacker against the run this season by Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
As of Wednesday, Jones had not been ruled out for Week 7 against Cleveland, but he also did not practice, according to Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com. He has been a leader of the run defense since Week 7 of 2012, and the Packers may not continue to hold their No. 3 spot in rushing defense if he remains out for a significant portion of time.
It also became clear in 2012 that Clay Matthews was just as important to the run defense as he was a pass-rusher.
The table below shows how many rushing yards the Packers allowed with Clay Matthews in 2012 and how many they allowed without him. The difference in the effectiveness of the rushing defense is shocking as a result of losing an outside linebacker, rather than a defensive end or inside linebacker.
|Packers 2012 Run Defense With and Without Clay Matthews|
|Rushing Yards Per Game Allowed||Rushing TDs Allowed|
|With Matthews (10 games)||96.8||6|
|Without Matthews (4 games)||158||5|
Though Matthews and Jones have certainly helped the Packers rise to third-overall in rushing defense, all hope is not lost for Capers' unit while they sit out with injuries.
Defensive end Mike Daniels, who got off to a strong start as a rookie last season, is now ranked by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) as the fifth-best defensive end against the rush.
That's up from No. 7 before the Packers faced the Baltimore Ravens in Week 6. His elevated play, good enough to move him up in the rankings, certainly helped the Packers do so, as well—the team, too, moved up two spots, from the fifth-best run defense before Week 6 to the third-best.
Additionally, Ryan Pickett, starting at nose tackle and flanked on both sides by defensive ends Raji and Johnny Jolly—the three of whom, combined, weigh literally a half ton—has the strength and the girth to easily double-block run gaps.
Thompson and Capers get their share of criticism.
Thompson is accused of being too conservative in his hesitancy to make moves in free agency or through trades, while Capers has been lambasted for what some see as a lack of preparation, such as after the Packers' loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the 2012 playoffs when his unit was unable to defend against Colin Kaepernick's skill set.
These claims, levied over and over, may have some occasional merit. Remember that this examination has been focused solely on the results that Thompson and Capers have been able to achieve with Green Bay's run defense, not its secondary.
That being said, there is no possible way to look at how ineffective the Packers rushing defense was in 2008 compared to the complete turnaround to No. 1 in 2009, and its current position at No. 3 in the league, and not give credit to Capers, for running the scheme, and Thompson, for acquiring the players.