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How Will The Packers Stop The Run?

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How Will The Packers Stop The Run?

There has been a lot of talk early on in camp about the depth on the offensive side of the ball, especially at the skill positions. One recurring theme when perusing coverage and talking to Packers fans has been the need to keep all these players "happy" with a sufficient number of touches.

What is of greater concern, at least to me, is how the Packers plan on improving their run defense, which took a precipitous fall in the rankings in 2010 after being the best in the league in 2009.

This is the one area of weakness I can really find when analyzing the Packers overall. After re-watching the 2010 season over the course of the lockout and looking at the roster as it currently stands, one still wonders how Dom Capers and company plan on improving in this area.

One thing Capers did a lot more of in 2010 was use his 2-4-5 Nickel defense on first downs against base formations. We can't be sure if this was due to the fact that he didn't have Johnny Jolly and didn't feel comfortable with the guys who would be stepping in for him, or if it was simply an ideological shift in his thinking. After all, in 2009 when installing the defense, Capers preached that stopping the run would be Job Number One, which makes sense when you remember how terrible the run defense was in 2008.

While the big bodies up front often get the scrutiny when it comes to defending the run, the area where the Packers can improve the most is the play of the linebackers and safeties.

One thing to remember is that Capers uses any number of different approaches when trying to stop the run, even within his different personnel alignments. I remember fans (and some media members) pointing to the play of Erik Walden in the run game as a reason why teams were able to run against the Packers, especially to the outside late last year.  First of all, its not like teams weren't able to run at Clay Matthews as well. They did, with regularity and some success. (Look no further than the Steelers in the Super Bowl)

Secondly, I think Walden gets a bit of a bum rap from plays like this:

It's easy to see Walden diving inside and think he's either given up the edge or just plain blown his assignment.

As we've previously discussed, Walden is actually doing his job above. Take a look at a version of this defense here:

Instead of the Will being a force player he is now a spill player.  The intent is to bounce the play one hole wider.

Obviously, defensive plays are often at the mercy of what the offense is running and the necessary reaction to it. In this instance, the corner is run off in man coverage, leaving Desmond Bishop to make this play. (It's obviously difficult to tell what Nick Collins is doing, but I suspect he is playing deep center field - you see him come into frame very late, apparently helping on a deep route by Knox) Unfortunately, Bishop gets caught up inside and can't get outside to make the tackle. But fans see Walden shooting inside and ending up on the ground and assume he's given up the edge, which is just not the case in this instance. Yet Bishop's overall play is lauded while Walden's is scrutinized.

That's not to say Walden didn't have issues against the run last year. But the point is there were breakdowns consistently throughout the defense, not just by one player at one position.

If Capers is intent on using his Nickel personnel against the offense's base personnel, he'll need improved play from everyone on the defensive side of the ball when facing the opponents running game.

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Ken's picture

Good points re: Walden. He's a fine player and I think the favorite for the starting job.

When you leave three corners on the field 60 percent of snaps and you're frequently playing from the lead, the run defense is going to suffer statistically.

We struggled containing scrambling QBs the first half of the year as well.

PackersRS's picture

While there was a decline in the run defense, a lot, if not most of it, had to do with formations being used (nickel most of the time) as well as quarterback runs (which was corrected when Capers changed to a less aggressive, gap penetration approach he took earlier the season. Such change was also a big reason Clay Matthews' numbers dropped later in the season).

Matter of fact, situational run, goalline defense and 3rd down defense, the Packers were very good. Don't have the exact stats, but one very telling is the Packers never allowed more than 1 rushing TD in any game.

So when they wanted to, they stopped the run.

Bearmeat's picture

I disagree RS - and we talked about this on draft day too. With the loss of Cullen and Jolly (from 09) the DL rotation is not Pickett, Raji, Neal with Wilson, Wynn and Guy backing them up.

Not much depth. We'll be fine when the top 3 are in, but the "bigs" get tired quickly and what if injury strikes like it did last year.

Nagler is right on - the run defense is the ONLY sizable hole on this team. I don't see how TT addressed it - someone unsung is going to have to step up or teams will be able to run on us.

ibleedgrnngold's picture

I think the Nickel usage was an evolution of his philosophy based both on personnel and the changing NFL. Alot of teams these days, most notably the contenders and good teams, are pass first offenses or at least are heavily centered around the passing game. Notable teams in 2010 with run first offenses and not much of a passing game: Vikings, Panthers, Redskins, Cardinals etc. Common theme? Last place in their divisions. Most big plays in general come from the passing game. Stopping the pass I think SHOULD be the number 1 priority in today's NFL.

Personnel wise, I think the shift came in part from losing Jolly but more because he could get away with it using the huge bodies we had on the line. Put jenkins and Raji down there, and they can very well eat up most of the line themselves. Woodson playing the slot acts as a 5th LB almost covering the edge. Linebackers are free to make plays. In short situations we trot out our beefcakes in raji, green, and pickett and the running games were all but abolished. I remember some ridiculous stat one of the announcers had one game I think in the playoffs how we hadn't given up a 3rd or 4th and 1 ever with that package.

CSS's picture

"Stopping the pass I think SHOULD be the number 1 priority in today’s NFL."

While it's important, there are very few QB's in the league capable of spreading out a defense with the pass, even fewer rosters capable of executing the philosophy.

Capers philosophy and subsequent game-plans need the run defense to be effective on early downs. The main goal is to create favorable down-n'-distance leading to low percentage plays, especially on 3rd down. Considering the ball-hawks in the back 7 of this defense it's imperative to limit effectiveness of the running game on early downs.

Long story short, this defense can be even better if they stop the run. The personnel are perfect for a big turnover differential all year if they stop the run.

Adam Czech's picture

I think run defense is an area that TT knows could use some improvement. But he also realizes that in today's salary-cap era, even the best of teams are going to have some flaws. I think TT trusts that the run defense will not be a major problem for a couple of reasons:

1. The offense is really good. TT is counting on playing with leads. If opposing teams want to run down by 10 points, TT is fine with that.

2. Dom Capers is really good. TT is confident that Capers is flexible and smart enough to somehow, someway make the run defense good (or at least good enough).

3. Player development. TT is counting on guys like Walden, Zombo, Jones, Burnett and Bishop to improve, especially their run defense.

4. Who cares if the other team runs the ball well? That's an overstatement, but there's some truth to it. You need to stop the pass in today's game. You don't get many big plays from the running game. If you sack the QB and stop the pass, being a little shaky against the run doesn't hurt you as much.

Nerd's phone's picture

I agree it's a pass first league. But I'm not worried about our pass defense. Although losing Clay against the Skins last year was pretty scary.
One thing i'd like to see them do to help out the defense is dominate time of possession more. Defense will not only be out there for fewer plays but fresher.
We got RBs who can run screens effectively now, so we can supplement our classical Oakland Raiders downfield passing game with some clock chewing WCO fundamental chain moving football.
Who's with me?

packeraaron's picture

"We got RBs who can run screens effectively now"


Majik Man's picture

I wonder if he's talking about Green. I think I remember hearing when we drafted him that one of his strengths at Hawaii being a good screen pass back. I could be wrong, but it's a thought.

Nerdmann's picture

Starks and Green. And Saine. Bjack was ok on screens, but I never really thought he looked natural.
LOL. Of all the stuff I said in that post, this wasn't a part that I thought I would get called out on. LOL.

CSS's picture

It's a league where the elite teams are trying to evolve that way, but outside of Manning, Brady, Rivers, Brees and Rodgers how many of the other QB's aren't completely dependend on the running game and play-action passing to allow for passing lane development and DB's to bite?

Everybody loves to throw the term 'elite' around, but look at how 'elite' Matt Ryan was last year when there was no running game and play action to set up his passing.

I could see Freeman, perhaps Bradford joining those ranks, but the quality of QB's and personnel just aren't there yet with the 'it's a passing league' philosophy.

For me, at least 26 NFL teams absolutely need an effective running game to pass.

CSS's picture

Left out Roethlisberger...still a very short list.

Jmac34's picture

You can leave Roethlisberger out of the elite category. Without a run game, he is not that good

PackersRS's picture

2008. 2009. They had nothing at RB and their offense was still very good.

You can say that he isn't good enough to win without their D (which I would agree to), but he has proven he can win without the running game.

CSS's picture

They also had little on the offensive line.

Nononsense's picture

I don't know about you but I would rather be 2nd in the league in points allowed then 1st in rushing defense anyday. Add a SB vistory to that as opposed to an early playoff exit and you get the gist.

After the Arizona playoff loss im sure Dom decided that he needed to emphasize the pass defense more, even if it meant giving up more rushing yards.

As easy as it is to look at the rush defense ranking and conclude we had trouble stopping the run, the more telling statistic to me is the fact that the team never once trailed by more than 7 points the entire season.

I am ok with allowing more rush yards as long as they can limit the explosive plays and limit scoring.

Hands's picture

In the SB, our D was in the prevent most of the game. Of course Pitt was going to be running against it and have some success moving the ball but not particually scoring points. This year will be some fine tuning by Capers. Stats concerning scoring are important, otherwise could care less. Just win baby!!!!

packeraaron's picture

Um, the defense used 4 and 5 man lines in the SB - and got run. over.

Tommyboy's picture

"our D was in the prevent most of the game."

Yeah they weren't. I don't know of any game I've ever watched where any team played a prevent D "most of the game." That'd be like going up by 6 points in the first quarter of a basketball game and then trying to stall.

ppabich's picture

A basic stat that has high correlation with offensive or defensive success is yards/attempt. In the NFL last year there were 172,039 offensive yards gained in 31,189 attempts. Teams threw the ball 55% of the time. Here is where it gets interesting, throwing the ball netted 64% of the total yards, 54,825 more yards than rushing.

It is perfectly clear that it is far more important to be able to stop the pass than it is to stop the run. The Packers were 5th in the NFL last year in passing yards per attempt with 6.5 and 28th in the NFL with 4.7 yards per attempt.

It would be really nice if the Packers got better against the run, (It might help the offense by decreasing the opposing teams TOP) but, it is not that important. The team with the fewest passing yards against last year, SD, still gave up more passing yards than the team with most rushing yards against, BUF, gave up rushing yards.

To me the running game is especially less important when you factor in the success of the Packers on third down, fourth down and goal like situations. When they needed to stop the run, they made plays. Combine that with the continuous success of the defense getting take-aways.

All these facts together, it is easy to understand why the Packers were #2 in the NFL last year in points against. Which is the only stat that really matters, anyway.

packeraaron's picture

"Packers were #2 in the NFL last year in points against. Which is the only stat that really matters"

This, of course, is true.

jeremy's picture

I have to agree with this post. Of course it would be nice to defend the run better but defending the pass is way more important. In 2010 the average yards per pass attempt by the top five qb's in yardage was 7.5 and the average yards per carry by the top five rb's in yardage was 4.8.

Of course there are other ways to think about this but that's a huge difference. At almost three yards more per play I think pass defense must be the top priority.

packeraaron's picture

Which would all be great...if the Packers were facing Top 5 QBs every week. As CSS pointed out - most teams NEED to try and establish the run. They will, even moreso, against the Packers in 2011.

Jeremy's picture

I only used the top 5 because I didn't want to add up pages of qb and rb stats. So for the top 30 qb's and rb's yards per attempt is 7.18 and yards per carry is 4.4

Pretty much the same thing...

PackersRS's picture

The Packers don't play most teams in the playoffs. They play the elite teams. Teams that can pass.

It's harder, much harder to stop the pass than stop the run.

And let's not pretend we're indianapolis in here, that can only rush the passer and is awful against the run.

packeraaron's picture

Should I pull out the "you have to make the playoffs first" card now or after a few preseason games? ;)

CSS's picture

I agree, you need to be a well balanced team to make a deep run in the playoffs, no objection there. I'm objecting to the notion that run defense isn't important because, 'it's a passing league'.

Passing numbers may be up, but the overwhelming number of passers in this league are completely dependent on the run to effectively pass.

That being said, the strength of the Packers 'D' where they have a significant advantage are the ball-hawks. Play-makers in the back seven can drive a serious turnover differential and give the rock back to an explosive offense. The best way to do that is stop the run and force teams to play to your strength (back 7).

PackersRS's picture

We're talking about the Packers' run D here, not a general run D.

The Packers run D is very good when they want to.

We're talking about whether they can win a SB again with the same run D of last year.

Have to make the playoffs first? I'm here saying if they perform like they did last year, only allowing 1 rushing TD in any single game, they win it again.

Nobody in here is dismissing the running game as you make it. Nobody is saying you don't need a good run D to win it. But a pass D is more important, because almost every single rule in the NFL favors the passing game, and teams with no passing game rarely make the playoffs.

packeraaron's picture

Of course RS, but the Packers ability or inability to stop the run is just one of a million things that play into whether the Packers make the playoffs or not.

My only point was the playoffs are not a "given"

packeraaron's picture

I also have to quibble with "The Packers run D is very good when they want to." - you mean like when they came out with 4 and even 5 men on the defensive line, specifically to stop the Steelers' running game...and still let Mendenhall rip off 10 and 12 yard runs?

CSS's picture

Well, I'm not dismissing it. I'm saying if they get more stout it plays to their true strength in the back 7 and become a turnover machine. Starts with improving the run D.

I don't think it's a liability, but I do believe they can have even more take-aways with an improved run D. That's all.

PackersRS's picture

How many TDs did the Steelers score through the run again? What was their 3rd and 4th down conversion rate again? You can't talk about ToP because of turnovers, but it wasn't skewed to their side.

In the end, those 10 yard runs didn't make the difference. They didn't control the game through the run, they didn't score enough through the run, and if not for Woodson and Shields going down, the game wouldn't be as close as it was (they had scored only 3 points in almost 2 quarters before they went down.)

So yeah, we did stop the run when we wanted.

BTW, 1 rushing TD, 53% 3rd down conversion and 0-1 in 4th down conversion. And only 2 of those 3rd down conversions where through the run.

packeraaron's picture

"So yeah, we did stop the run when we wanted."

I'm sorry, but that's absurd.

PackersRS's picture

You know? I though I was right, but now looking at it, you really convinced me. That last line sealed the deal.

Cole's picture

I'm glad we get Saints week 1 when offenses typically are slow because if they get the run going we're in trouble with Brees back there.

Cole's picture

And the same can be said for the Packers, from a Saints fans perspective. Starks looks great so far this camp. The Pack will be unstoppable if we can run the ball at will.

incognito_man's picture

An interesting study would be to look at how the run defense performed against predominantly run-oriented teams compared to pass-oriented teams. Like others have pointed out, the GB defense was ridiculously good at stopping the run when they wanted to (on 3rd and 4th and shorts, and in the red zone). I suspect they were more focused on stopping the run against weaker QBs as well and would guess they did even better there!

I might be wrong, but I, for one, am not the least bit concerned with the run defense moving forward. Not with Pickett, Raji, Green and Neal in the works. I'll bet Neal will be a significant improvement over Jenkins on run-defense anyway...

ppabich's picture

I’m bored here is the list you are looking for.

It goes: Rank in yards per att / rank in % of run plays / team / yards per carry first game against / second.

1 / 23 / Phili / 7.5 / 3.9
7 / 8 / NYG / 4.3
8 / 4 / NYJ / 4.1
9 / 11 / Min / 5.4 / 5.2
10 / 7 / NE / 7.1
13 / 20 / Buf / 3.4
15 / 22 / Dal / 2.8
18 / 5 / Pitt / 5.5
23 / 9 / Chi / 4.3 / 5.5 / 3.5
26 /16 Atl / 4.3 / 3.2

League average is 4.2 yards per carry.

Keith's picture

How will the Packers stop the run? The answer is simple: HOWARD. GREEN.


MarkinMadison's picture

Couple of comments and a question.

First, if I recall correctly the Packers were pretty much down to two D-lineman when they picked up Green for the Jets game - maybe even one. Jolly was lost for the season, and Neal and Jenkins were both out and eventually missed about half of the season each. Pickett has to be spelled at least occasionally at his age, and CJ Wilson was o.k., while Jarius Wynn just was not. So I think that you have to look at the personnel available first and foremost when you start talking about why they ran so much nickel. So for even being able to field a functional defense under the circumstances, I call Dom Capers a genius.

Second, even with Neal back, this defense feels like it's short one big-boy. I'm not saying they should have brought Jenkins back - he was injured too often. But I'd like to have seen them pick up another body. That said, Neal is a beast, and we have Green on the roster. I think more beef up front and better play from the middle line-backer duo has me thinking that the run D will be a bit better.

Question - When you are looking at a film, how do you know which defense they're running? Why this one, and not another one? Because you're right, when I look at this play I figure that Walden screwed up. And you're also right, the D can be screwed by the O play. In this case, when I watch the video and look at the diagram it looks like the Buck is getting blocked two-on-one, and that the Mike needs to come over and make the play, but he went too far up field and could not get over to do it.

packeraaron's picture

You can never truly know what defense is called, obviously. You have to make an educated guess. Then I look through diagrams to try and find a play that corresponds what I see on film. Doesn't always line up, precisely because the defense is reacting to what the offense is doing. It's an imperfect representation because I'm using someone else's diagram and not drawing my own to truly reflect what we see on the film.

As for the Mike needing to get over and make the play - yes, if it is the play as diagrammed, which it is not. Hawk runs up as though he's going to run blitz. This play is Bishop's to make, but his false-steps toward the line of scrimmage kill his chances.

MarkinMadison's picture

OK. I think I see what you're looking at now. Bishop takes about two steps straight towards the line from the Buck position instead of moving out to seal the edge. He has a one-on-one with a blocker who takes out his legs and he has zero impact on the ball carrier.

packeraaron's picture

Right. The worst thing a linebacker can do is take "false steps" - Bishop takes at least two there.

To be fair, that's what the counter action in the offensive backfield is designed to do, get the backer flowing the wrong way.

Satori's picture

How would you attack the Pack ?

Teams that face the Packers will want to run the ball as a strategy to keep Rodgers and the high-powered offense on the sidelines

That plan has been used by many OCs over the years with some success. Also, as noted above, the main reason for stopping the run is to force the opponents into unfavorable down and distance- then you can turn the dogs loose without having to be worried about playing the run.

Nothing tires out and demoralizes the defense more than getting run over repeatedly - do you remember how much fun that was in 2003, when Ahman Green and the OL just bludgeoned opponents into submission ?

Stopping the run saves your defense, gets them into favorable 3rd downs and keeps opponents from milking the clock with 12 play drives.

PackersRS's picture

Lemme just make this abundantly clear: This defense is not nor will be like the 2008 Packers, that were run over by everybody.

There's much, much, much more to running than total yards and yards per carry.

As I said, they never allowed more than 1 TD per game, and where #4 in the league in rushing TDs.

Again, the Packers were a good run D last year when they wanted to, and will be so again this year.

ppabich's picture

There are three statistical elements that prove that, if nothing else, the Packers were at least 'better' against the run when they needed to. I would also argue that not only were the Packers better in important situations, but were significantly better.

1) It has been stated previously, but the packers gave up 6 rushing TDs all year. That is less than half the league average.

2) The Packers ranked 28th in opponents YPC, but Football Outsiders had us at 16th in rush defensive DVOA. DVOA takes into account opponent adjustments an situation. That's a 12 spot difference!

3) 16/34. That's the ratio of success in stopping the offense in 3rd or 4th and 3 or less. Less than 50% seems bad, but considering that the average play is about 4.5 yards that is pretty good.

I wouldn't argue that the Packers were good against the run, but what i'll say that overall it is insignificant.

The Packers were 2nd in points against and overall defensive DVOA. In DVOA the Packers were BY FAR #1 in pass defense.

It's not just the best QBs in the NFL that sling the ball around, teams like the Broncos and Lions were two of the highest throwing teams in the NFL last year. And contrary to popular belief the Falcons run offense was significantly less effective than their pass offense. I doubt their pass offense is that dependent on their run game if their run efficiency was worse than the Packers.

I would love it if the Packers got better against the run next year, but I would take the poor performance from last year over a loss in productivity from the pass defense.

packeraaron's picture

Insignificant? I would disagree with that for one reason - all those numbers, while telling when it comes to the 2010 season, don't really tell you a whole lot about how the upcoming season will unfold. Teams will attack the Packers in a different manner, some out of adjustments out of what they've seen on film this offseason, some because they are simply different teams than what the Packers faced last year.

Look, I don't for a minute think the pass defense needs to suffer to improve the run defense - I'm not sure how that meme even got started here. But I AM concerned that the Packers need to be better at stopping the run, not just when they "need" to, but on every damn play where the opposition runs the ball. As Ted said in his press conference today - you're either getting better or you're getting worse.

I want the Packers to get better.

ppabich's picture

I want the Pack to get better too, but the fact is while the run defense got worse, the defense as a whole got better in 2010. Their points against dropped from 18.6 to 15.0.

And of course when I use stats from last season it doesn't tell how the upcoming season will unfold. But it's support for my argument, because that is the only evidence that i can get. I don't have film and i don't live in WI to see practice.

While the run defense was bad last year it clearly wasn't a big problem. And going forward I think the run defense will be better this year, based on guys growing and gaining more experience. The OLBs should be better, Bishop should be better, and the SS position should improve.

Lastly, I don't see teams running significantly more on the Packers unless the offense is worse. If things play out as they should, opposing teams will HAVE to throw the ball on the Packers to keep up.

PackersRS's picture

Okay, fair, but then I believe we're talking about the 2000 Ravens.

The point is, it is not easy in the NFL to have a dominant defense both against the run and against the pass. It's borderline impossible, you have to have personell geared towards one or another, you have to have the defensive philosophy and the playcalling geared towards one or another in order to dominate in each area.

While I do agree that we weren't great at run D, and we did not stop opponents at will (different from stopping when we wanted, when we HAD to), I'll gladly settle for an elite passing D with an "efficient" run D.

We can win with the D from last year. And I don't believe that will change this year.

You want perfection, and absolutely nothing wrong with that, it should be the goal in the NFL. I just don't think it's attainable, not nowadays.

Ruppert's picture

Do the Packers even need to improve their run defense? It's a passing league, and I'm a lot more worried about whether they can rush the passer and stop opponents' passing games.

Put it this way--stopping the run hasn't done the Vikings D much good the last few years, has it?

packeraaron's picture

You mean like in 2009 when they went to the NFC Championship? Man, I know the Packers won the Super Bowl, but folks have some real short memories...

Ruppert's picture

Favre and the offense took that team to the NFCC game and you know it. Where were the Vikings the other 3 or 4 years when they stuffed the run? Watching like everybody else. Why? Because they can't stop the pass.

What's the big stat these days? Defensive passer rating against, where we are just fine. I'll repeat my first sentence--Do the Packers even need to improve their run defense? I don't think that they do. I think a performance equal to last year's in run defense will work.

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