Limiting Big Plays Helping Packers Defense in 2020

The Green Bay Packers defense is far from dominant, but their play has been part of the team’s successful 7-2 start this season even though they are not creating as many turnovers as they did a season ago.

In 2019, the Packers finished the season ranked 18th overall in yards allowed per game, 23rd against the run and 14th against the pass. The team’s saving grace was turnovers. Green Bay’s defense intercepted 17 passes and recovered eight fumbles for a total of 25 turnovers. This year, through nine games, the Packers have only seven turnovers, four interceptions and three fumble recoveries.

One reason for the Packers better numbers on defense this season despite a decrease in turnovers and a decrease in sacks is that the Packers have reduced the number of big plays they are giving up on defense.

Through nine games, the Packers have given up fewer big plays than they did a year ago. The result is that Mike Pettine’s defensive strategy of making opposing offenses move the ball slowly down the field is working more effectively. The theory behind Pettine’s “bend but don’t break” philosophy is that most offenses will make mistakes before they can march 80 yards down the field in 10 plays. Whether that mistake is a sack or some other loss on a play, a penalty that sets up a long yardage situation or a turnover, most teams will not be able to score frequently enough on these long drives to outscore Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay’s potent offense.

This season, the strategy seems to be working better than it did a year ago because the defense is allowing fewer splash plays than it did in 2019. We are defining splash plays as runs of 20 yards or more and pass completions that gain 25 yards or more.

Last season, through nine games, the Packers permitted opponents to create 28 splash plays in total. This season, the number is down to 20, a decrease of nearly 29 percent. The biggest improvement has come in the pass defense which last year allowed 24 passes of 25 yards or more. This season, that number has been reduced to 14, a decrease of nearly 42 percent.

Keep in mind that the Packers have already faced some quarterbacks who are more than capable of creating big plays through the air in Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan and Deshaun Watson. In fact, the quarterbacks the Packers faced this season are arguably more dangerous than the group they went up against a year ago which included Mitch Trubisky, Matt Moore and Joe Flacco.

One reason for the improvement is that many of the players are more familiar with Pettine’s system and what he expects of them. Last season, free agent acquisitions Adrian Amos, Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith were in their first year in Green Bay. So was rookie safety Darnell Savage, starting inside linebacker B.J. Goodson and dime back Chandon Sullivan.

This year, most of the players on the roster are familiar with what their roles are in the Green Bay defense. “I think with us, being in the second year, all together in the secondary, us knowing the defense better, us practicing in different coverages, who’s responsible for what, we can be aggressive but also limit big plays,” Amos said after the Packers win over the Falcons earlier this season.

The Packers defense has cut down on splash plays despite suffering more significant injuries this season than last. Kenny Clark, Green Bay’s best defensive lineman, has missed three and a half games this year and has been slowed in other games due to a groin injury. Clark played in all 16 games in 2019 and went to the Pro Bowl.

Starting cornerback Kevin King, who led the team with five interceptions last season while playing in 15 games, has already missed five games this year due an assortment of injuries and has yet to intercept a pass in 2020.

Top cornerback Jaire Alexander has already missed a game and a half due to a concussion while linebacker Christian Kirksey, the team’s most experienced ILB, has missed five games as well. Last year, Blake Martinez, the player Kirksey was signed to replace, played in all 16 games for the Packers.

The defense is still far from outstanding and they need to make more big plays in the final seven games of the season. But they aren’t giving up as many big plays and that means the opposition is not getting those quick scores that change the momentum of a game and deflate and demoralize your team.

By making opponents earn their scores, the Packers have been able to win a lot of games without a dominant defense. They will need to play better down the stretch if they hope to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this season. Ideally, they could combine the sacks and turnovers they got last year with the ability to limit big plays that they’ve shown this season. But right now, the Packers are playing defense the way their defensive coordinator wants them to and more often than not, the results are effective if not spectacular.

 

You can follow Gil Martin on Twitter @GilPackers

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Comments (53)

Fan-Friendly This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.
Ferrari-Driver's picture

November 21, 2020 at 12:12 pm

Good points, Gil.
You give us a reason for optimism this week.

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GilMartin's picture

November 22, 2020 at 11:17 am

Thanks, Ferrari-Driver. I hope the team performs well this week in Indy. Won't be easy. Thanks for commenting.

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splitpea1's picture

November 21, 2020 at 12:26 pm

Oh, I don't know about all of this....The passive philosophy, the dreaded three-man rush, the soft coverage, the poor tackling (all of which contribute to the paucity of turnovers)....We need a schematic and attitudinal adjustment here. I'd be shocked if we kept the defensive coaching staff intact beyond this season.

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Thegreatreynoldo's picture

November 21, 2020 at 02:52 pm

I agree about the poor tackling. I don't think poor tackling is a disease that teams which play "bend but don't break" get. Poor tackling is poor tackling regardless of philosophy.

Good tackling might be even more important to a bend but don't break team. If the defense isn't going to contest the three yard reception it has to make sure the gain stays 3 to 5 yards so it isn't 2nd and two all the time. GB has trouble with that too often.

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GilMartin's picture

November 22, 2020 at 11:19 am

Agreed, Thegreatreynoldo. The tackling does need to improve and we've seen some real problems in this area even this season when the team is giving up fewer splash plays. Thanks for commenting.

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GilMartin's picture

November 22, 2020 at 11:18 am

I'm not disputing the poor tackling and the problems the defense has had. But this is one area that had been hurting the team for several years and now appears to be improving, so I thought I'd point it out. Thanks for commenting, splitpea1, always good to hear from you.

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Tarynfor12's picture

November 21, 2020 at 12:26 pm

"The result is that Mike Pettine’s defensive strategy of making opposing offenses move the ball slowly down the field is working more effectively. The theory behind Pettine’s “bend but don’t break” philosophy is that most offenses will make mistakes before they can march 80 yards down the field in 10 plays."

This sounds like it came straight out the Bears' mentality about defense. The problem is it hasn't worked against the better offenses to the level needed. Sure, being 7-2 can make it appear that this defensive mindset of Pettine is working, but we have one win over a team with a winning record and a horrible loss to the only other team with a winning record, and one RB hammered us all day long for a lost against a losing record team, and nearly another with a two game starter at QB just a week ago.

The 'bend don't break' defense is a step above the 'prevent defense', which only prevents you from winning often, but will appear as a winning concept as long as the opponent is a more losing team than a talented winning one.

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Fabio's picture

November 21, 2020 at 04:01 pm

I think it is clear that Green Bay has a good offense and a modest defense. The point is that the ways of defending (3-4 or 4-3) are used according to the players you have. If you had a stallion besides Clark then you could use the current method. But Clark is alone. Pettine must change

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Tarynfor12's picture

November 21, 2020 at 05:19 pm

GB can call their defense whatever they want, 3-4, 4-3, or any other configuration that suits their narrative at the end of each game played, but one thing is for sure about this defense, they continually try to bang square pegs into round holes or believe every player is equally adept in any.

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GilMartin's picture

November 22, 2020 at 11:22 am

There is no doubt the bend but don't break defensive philosophy works better against weaker teams. It's far from perfect and it's an issue. But this year, the team is giving up fewer splash plays on defense and that is at least a positive. No doubt there is more improvement needed in many areas but this is at least a positive for the defense. Thanks for commenting, Tarynfor12.

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Fabio's picture

November 21, 2020 at 12:42 pm

The fundamental problem is that when we are down in the score the defense must be able to limit the opposing team and keep us in the game, but it almost never succeeds in doing so.
Greetings from Italy
GPG

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GilMartin's picture

November 22, 2020 at 11:22 am

Good point, Fabio and yes, it has been a problem. Hopefully it improves, we shall see. Thanks for commenting.

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Fabio's picture

November 22, 2020 at 01:21 pm

Thank you so much Gil and always come Packers

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PatrickGB's picture

November 21, 2020 at 01:48 pm

My major complaint about Pettine’s defense is that I don’t think that Clark is a true NT. Also, the play of Lowery and Lancaster doesn’t help Clark. If this team had a true and disruptive NT then Pettine’s plan might work better. We have good DB’s and maybe even Middle linebackers so, in theory, it should work better than it has.

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GilMartin's picture

November 22, 2020 at 11:24 am

I think Clark is a darn good interior lineman. The problem is there is average talent at best on the line around him. I hope players like Keke can step up and show more improvement. The front office doesn't emphasize this position but the Packers certainly can use an upgrade. Thanks for commenting, PatrickGB.

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13TimeChamps's picture

November 21, 2020 at 04:18 pm

So what I've surmised from this article is.....we're still a "bend but don't break" defense. But we've traded creating turnovers to giving up less splash plays.

So this is a net gain defensively....a net loss...a wash?

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GilMartin's picture

November 22, 2020 at 11:26 am

I think it's a slight gain but the season is just a little more than half over and we have to see how it plays out in the remaining seven games plus playoffs. Thanks for the comment, 13TimeChamps.

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jannes bjornson's picture

November 22, 2020 at 01:43 pm

Helps keep Rodgers off the field, if that's what you mean.

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Lphill's picture

November 21, 2020 at 04:30 pm

I agree with patrickGB I don’t feel Clark is a true nose tackle , Lancaster did pretty good when Clark was out, I like Lancaster in the middle of Clark and Adams , rotate Winn and Keke, and let the Smiths play closer in with their hand in the dirt. Keep Lowery on special teams.

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Tarynfor12's picture

November 21, 2020 at 05:25 pm

I think there are a few not true players on defense. Clark wasn't one, but he does seem to have somewhat quit since getting paid.

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GilMartin's picture

November 22, 2020 at 11:29 am

I hope his slow start to the season is due to his injury and him not being in true football shape after no preseason, a reduced offseason and getting hurt in Week 1. We shall see.

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GilMartin's picture

November 22, 2020 at 11:28 am

Clark can play anywhere along the line. They can move players around and they do especially as they rotate players in and out of the lineup. The Packers should be able to pick up a nose tackle in the mid-to-late rounds of the draft if they choose to go that route. We'll see. The D-line does need more depth and talent around Clark. Thanks for commenting, Lphill.

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packer132's picture

November 21, 2020 at 08:28 pm

Everyone has an opinion and its now a league of parity which is nice. Packer Dave says
Green Bay 27- Indy 24

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GilMartin's picture

November 22, 2020 at 11:30 am

I'm right with that pick. It sounds about right. Thanks for commenting, packer132.

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Myst999's picture

November 21, 2020 at 09:46 pm

Interesting all three Colts writers are picking the Packers to win.

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GilMartin's picture

November 22, 2020 at 11:30 am

Hope they're right. Thanks for commenting, Myst999

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PhantomII's picture

November 21, 2020 at 07:40 pm

Ryans Julio was not even 50% and played maybe a half and #2 WR was injured also. Brees #1 WR was out. The #1 reason is after SF running game last year teams are running at us more, thus limiting our INT's. Look at the Vikings game w/ Thielen and Jefferson, Cook ran us to death, literally. Jaire Alexander is a good CB but is not good at undercutting WR's and anticipating/ catching INT's. King is better but has missed most of the games this season. When our offense starts slowly or shaky like the Bucs game our defense is on the field too long and has a poor showing. Honestly I don't know if Pettine is the worst DC the packers have had in recent memory or he has the wrong defensive talent on this team that does not properly fit/ work in his system. The fact that he does not put enough big bodies to stop the run up front skews my bias to him. I don't think Lowery/ Adams/ Lancaster strike fear into anyone though. Less pass rush equals less sacks and pressure on QB's to make poor throws. Pressures are way down this year. We have who we have now. We will have to get incrementally better as we move thru the season. It can be done, God willing.

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Bearmeat's picture

November 21, 2020 at 07:42 pm

You forget how bad Capers was post 2013...

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PhantomII's picture

November 21, 2020 at 08:08 pm

maybe so. LOL

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Tarynfor12's picture

November 21, 2020 at 09:10 pm

"When our offense starts slowly or shaky like the Bucs game our defense is on the field too long and has a poor showing."

GB was up 10 nothing before TB punched them in the mouth.

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PhantomII's picture

November 21, 2020 at 10:22 pm

. We were up 10 pts. and didn't look good getting them (shaky). Our offense is prone to 3 and outs especially after the bye week and this last 10 days off. Adams/ Rodgers timing was off. The Bucs hadn't done anything either until they did and after the punch in the chops we didn't recover offensively nor defensively. Our defense only works w/ a lead since we have multiple db's in the secondary and other teams offense feel need to throw to get back into it. After (2) INT it doesn't take long for decent team to right itself and bring the heat down on our QB and run the ball on our D.

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GilMartin's picture

November 22, 2020 at 11:32 am

I also hope for improvement as the season goes on. Clark's health will hopefully help. No doubt the talent level on the d-line needs to be upgraded going forward but it doesn't tend to be a priority for Pettine and Gute. Thanks for the comment, PhantomII.

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Bearmeat's picture

November 21, 2020 at 07:46 pm

Has GB hemorrhaghed less big plays this year? Yes. Has the pass rush regressed? Yes. Has turnover luck regressed? Yes. All in all, this defense is giving up more PPG than in 2019. Regardless of the difficulty of schedule, that's what matters.

The 2020 Packer defense has been less effective than the 2019 Packer defense. Period.

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murf7777's picture

November 21, 2020 at 08:41 pm

Points are up this year league wide. By year end we were 12th last year and this year we are 15th. By year end it might end up similar as they have an easier schedule. I think they are pretty much the same, very average.

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GilMartin's picture

November 22, 2020 at 11:35 am

Points and wins are the bottom line, Bearmeat, no way around that. I think the defense needs improvement in many areas, I was just pointing out one area that has improved this season. Thanks as always for commenting.

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GregC's picture

November 21, 2020 at 07:52 pm

Like most people here, I don't love the defense either, but the author makes a good point. It made me think that maybe our safeties are doing a pretty good job, as safeties are often responsible for preventing big plays. We all wish we had hard-hitting safeties that created a lot of turnovers, and considering that one of them was a fairly high-priced free agent and the other was a first round draft pick, maybe that's what we should have. But there is something to be said for the fact that they have kept things in front of them for the most part. And I still have hope that Savage will be a special player. Sometimes it takes a few years.

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GilMartin's picture

November 22, 2020 at 11:38 am

Thanks for the comment, GregC. I think Savage got off to a bit of a slow start but he's played better the last 2-3 games. Long term, I think he'll continue to develop and hopefully be a darn good safety. Amos is more steady than spectacular. Having a healthy Raven Greene also helps.

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CoachDino's picture

November 21, 2020 at 07:58 pm

Gil you never fail to impress. I think you nailed it. Theydrove me nuts over the last few years or more, giving up big plays. So many were just long completions with a tackle after catch plus the usual yak and run plays. I can't be sure but intuitively it seems many of the big plays were due to poor technique by an individual or execution/communication in scheme. I've been preaching player discipline and development was the way to improvement more than IMO rash FA mid season signing/trades or rookie draft picks. It's not me coming up with that model but the League. Teams like dallas/washington/browns lately, heck throw in Minn.. etc,,, for example that always try to make the splash with big moves inevitably crash and burn. Baseball has much of that as well.

Thank goodness they have improved and like it or not it's a testament to the DC when this happens. (Plus having players that are willing to be coached always helps...TEAM PLAYERS). If they hadn't and to your point haven't been a turnover machine things would be much worse.

To me the Packers success is doing what they are very capable of doing no more no less against the best teams in the biggest games. They have talent enough to beat anyone. Biggest part of that is Arod playing BY FAR most impactful position, as he goes the Packers go.

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GilMartin's picture

November 22, 2020 at 11:39 am

Thanks as always for the kind words, CoachDino. It's always appreciated. The defense can certainly improve, but this is one area they have done better at this season than last. Thanks for commenting.

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stockholder's picture

November 21, 2020 at 09:32 pm

No Grave Digger. The run won't be stopped. This defense right now is no better then what Capers had. And The secondary is on a down ward spiral. For 3 drafts I campaigned for a DL. BG went elsewhere. WE have a GM who just avoids the DL. The ingredient for every Super Bowl champion. A-Rod is done in GB. The only way to save the packer franchise is to get a new GM. Look whats happened since the Smiths and Amos were signed. Title Town is in Trouble. The Honey moon is over guys. We don't have the talent to be champions. LeFluer knows it. Rodgers now will pass. The season is on his shoulders. Mentally this team gives up to easy. It's obvious how they come out flat. LeFluer shouldn't take the heat. It started at the TOP.

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fastmoving's picture

November 22, 2020 at 03:11 am

nothing to save here. orange dumb drama queen stuff. You just dont know what football is all about.
besides that, MM is the best we ever had and Gute is not bad either.
Sell your stocks man, they not meant for this............

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stockholder's picture

November 22, 2020 at 01:07 pm

Priority one- Win! So many here have complained about Pettine and the drafting of Gute. You saw the difference when the Smiths and Amos were signed. The fearsome foursome, The Steel Curtain. The No name defense. Every great football dynasty had it. It's called A DL.

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packerbackerjim's picture

November 22, 2020 at 08:02 am

There seems to be a systemic flaw in evaluating defensive players on the roster (s) and those who are executing the draft. The ROI is pathetic.

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PhantomII's picture

November 22, 2020 at 02:30 pm

I will tell you what's pathetic, spending a few afternoons pre-draft as a fan and looking up tape on prospects. Knowing what pieces our O/D needs to take a next level step and solidify a needed upgrade. Choosing who would best fit that need and watch our GM choose someone else who never ascends and seeing the player You/I would pick kick ass in the league day 1. That is the reason we rant so. It is not rocket science.

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GilMartin's picture

November 22, 2020 at 11:42 am

Wow, stockholder, really down on Gute I see. I agree the DL needs upgrading and management doesn't place a very high emphasis on it. I'd love to see a Gilbert Brown type run stuffer added to the lineup, but I'm not holding my breath. I am not as pessimistic about the team's prospects as you seem to be, but there are still definitely issues that need to be resolved on this team and run defense it clearly one of them. Thanks for commenting.

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stockholder's picture

November 22, 2020 at 01:30 pm

I feel Gute should be fired. No doubt about that. Too much has been written about his continued denial with the ILBs and DL. The heart and soul of any defense. We don't have Any thing close to the secondary of 2010 either. Just compare any championship teams, to whats missing. Baby steps won't work in Green Bay. We need a Nick Collins. And Alexander is no where near as good as Woodson. The major issue with this team will be the cap. IMO- Bg is Sherman. And this team is in trouble.

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ImaPayne's picture

November 22, 2020 at 04:40 pm

You mean like Guttt saying ' Gary was my guy' before the combine. Wow the real talent on the d side and we waste a 12 pick on him. 3 sacks in three years and limited play because he has shown nothing. King missed parts of two seasons with major injuries and yet, what a find for us. Alexander who lacks cover speed and we're so lucky to get him end of round 1.
Piss poor plyer eval and unwilling to spend a buck on defensive talent.

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SugarCain's picture

November 22, 2020 at 08:54 am

Yes the Packers need a dominating defense just like the Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs who has so many great defensive players and just shuts out everybody and holds every team they play to 6 pts every game! Cuz the NFL is about 3 yards and a “cloud of dust”.

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GilMartin's picture

November 22, 2020 at 11:44 am

The defense isn't dominant, but it is improving in some areas while struggling in some others. I hope they can pick things up a bit in the second half. Thanks for commenting, SugarCain.

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rstain99's picture

November 22, 2020 at 09:42 am

It sucks that my whole week revolves around how they do each week, this is a week that I project to be a downer, great defense for Colts, suspect play calling and just getting belted in the mouth and never responding. Year in and year out teams with above average defense go on nice run, Pats for 20 years. I know everyone says TB12 "Goat" makes me sick, but if his defense was like GB he would not have had 6 SBs. Thought Pettine had the Rex Ryan philosophy punch in the mouth control ball on offense. This defense plays hoping the offense makes a mistake sorry not buying it. Diehard here in Boston area that for 55 plus years has been following the Packers, certainly a lousy year 2020, would be nice if GB defense would force a few punts we seem to make all pros out of some of these backs and QBs. Rivers no pushover.

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GilMartin's picture

November 22, 2020 at 11:47 am

No doubt the Colts will be a big challenge. I hope the defense does what it needs to do and that the offense can move the ball enough on a very strong Indy D. Keep the faith, rstain99 and thanks for commenting.

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ImaPayne's picture

November 22, 2020 at 05:02 pm

My disgust with the d is, where are the playmakers?. I know gb doesn't like def linemen types they prefer drafting people who can play multiple positions which is stupid. Jack of all trades master at none as they say.......
I mean there are no,none, zero defensive stars on this team.
You don't find these types at the end of round one or without moving around the draft to get the guts you need. We sit around and take what's there as if the d is fat with talent. Oh we did move down for some qb no one else cared about.

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