Thanks to players like Casey Hayward and Tramon Williams, the Green Bay Packers are among the NFL's leaders in broken up passes, a continuing trend under defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
Currently, the Packers rank second in the NFL with 74 with passes defended with three games left to go. And under Capers they've always been near the top of the league, finishing first in 2009 with 96, sixth in 2010 with 86 and third last season with 98.
Denying passes to be completed has been one of the Packers' keys to success on defense this season and no where was that more evident than on Sunday when facing a Pro Bowl caliber wide receiver like Calvin Johnson.
It shouldn't surprise anyone that Johnson had 10 catches for more than 100 yards on Sunday. That's par for the course with Megatron.
What the Packers did accomplish, however, was keeping Johnson from scoring and not allow him to take any pass for more than 20 yards. Williams went one-on-one with Johnson for most of the evening and deserves the bulk of the credit.
"I was definitely ready to go and do my part out there today," Williams said following the game. "We kind of held him in check and didn't give him anything big. He got his catches, but they didn't hurt us at all."
Among the seven passes targeted for Johnson while Williams was in coverage, only four were completed for a mostly harmless 54 yards, according to ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required). Williams got his hands on two of those passes, knocking them away.
On the season Williams has broken up 15 passes, tied for eighth in the NFL.
Hayward also broke up two passes on Sunday, which added to his total of 18 on the season, ranking fourth in the NFL. For a rookie, that's pretty impressive.
Then consider that Hayward has only started six of 13 games this season. He's been a part-time player for most of the season, primarily a contributor on the Packers' subpackage nickel and dime units.
Just image if Hayward had been a starter all season long and how many passes he could have gotten his hands on.
The Packers are starting to realize just how much of a weapon Hayward can be. After electing to play Davon House in the base defense for much of the game against the New York Giants three weeks ago when he allowed two touchdowns, the Packers have made Hayward the starter ever since.
In his first game back since Week 6 when he injured his calf and ankle, Sam Shields made an instant impact on the Packers defense on Sunday by intercepting a Matthew Stafford throw and deflecting two passes as well.
"Sam showed what he can do (Sunday) and showed what he can bring to this team, so I hope continues playing like he did," said Williams.
The speed Shields displayed on Sunday is a big-time benefit to the Packers secondary, and if he can maintain that high level of play, the defense as a whole will be in good shape as it enters the stretch run of the season and the push for the playoffs.
One season ago when the Packers gave up the most passing yards in the history of the NFL, breaking up passes was one way for them to keep their head above water. Minus any semblance of a pass rush, the defense relied upon the secondary to bat away passes and intercept a league-leading 31 of them.
This year, breaking up passes is just part of the recipe for defensive improvement, one that has a lot more ingredients. Things haven't been perfect, but they've gone from ranking dead last in total defense last season by giving up 411.6 yards per game to 17th in the NFL this season, allowing 351.8 yards per game, about 60 less yards.
"I think our secondary, I think our defense is doing a very good job," said head coach Mike McCarthy on Sunday. "It's all about points, keeping them out of the end zone."
The Packers also have more sacks this year than they had all of last season, 35 compared to 29, and there's that's with three more games still to go.
With Clay Matthews expected to return from a hamstring injury soon, the pass rush is only going to get better. When combining an effective pass rush with a secondary that has a knack of knocking down passes, the Packers are in a much better position than they were just a season ago, perhaps in position to make a longer run in the postseason.
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