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Analyzing The Run Defense, Part 1

My apologies to everyone for being incommunicado for the past two weeks. After the semester ended, I journeyed back to Milwaukee for the holiday, then returned to New Jersey for the New Year celebration (which consisted of two mimosas and going to bed at 12:30. I am an old man.) But, then again, it hasn't been very busy for the Packers lately, so that's how I rationalize my absence. Take that, guilty conscience!

In all seriousness, this time of year is always the toughest for teams who underachieved their way out of the playoff hunt. For some, it is chock-full of news-worthy events, be it the firing of a coach who deserved it, canning one who probably didn't, or the Fifth Annual Brett Favre Retirement Talk Merry-Go-Round (insert "I told you so" comment here).

But for us Packer fans, the news front is pretty quiet. Yes, Mike Stock retired, but is anyone surprised by that move? The special teams were as inconsistent as the team as a whole, ranging from dynamic one week to putrid the next. It had to happen, and everyone knew it, but now that it's done, what else is there really to talk about? We could dive into the biggest problem needing attention in the offseason: the run defense.

The special teams may have failed more spectacularly this season, but it was the defense that regularly allowed opposing offenses into game-winning scoring position. At the end of the season, Green Bay's defensive ranks ranked from mediocre to bad: 20th in yards allowed (334.3 ypg), 22nd in points allowed (23.8 ppg), and 26th in rush defense (131.6 rush ypg). The only good ranking was the Packers' pass defense at 12th (202.8 ypg), but that ranking is admittedly left over from the top ranking the team enjoyed mid-season.

It's hard to fixate the blame for the defensive shortcomings on one single individual or event here. On offense, it's more clear cut because you can analyze the playcalling and the personnel. On defense, the actual playcalling is more nebulous, because defenses are constantly reacting to the opposing offense. All that's left for scrutinization is the defensive scheme and the personnel.

Green Bay's defensive scheme was effective last season and at times this season, and they have had the players to execute it. The strong outside press coverage provided by Charles Woodson and Al Harris (and Tramon Williams in Harris' absence) allowed Bob Sanders to keep one safety over the top and the other safety in the box. Combined with the stout run defense of Ryan Pickett, Cullen Jenkins, and Aaron Kampman, the coverage abilities of LB's Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk (and this year, Brady Poppinga), and Atari Bigby's evolution into the poor man's Troy Polamalu, Green Bay boasted a defense that could effectively cover all eligible recievers on any given play while keeping enough defenders in position to neutralize the run.

However, the only place where Green Bay's defense succeeded consistently was on paper. Since the start of the season, the defense was consistently marred with minor injuries, prompting Brandon to question whether the team was injury prone or just brutally honest. While injuries are an inherent part of the game, this season saw a significantly longer injury report each week than the average NFL team, and I firmly believe that injuries were a primary cause of the defensive failures.

Don't believe me? Let's look at the games where a) Green Bay lost, b) opposing running backs performed well, and c) significant Green Bay defenders were dealing with injury.

  • Week 3 vs. Dallas: Atari Bigby was out, and Nick Barnett, Nick Collins, and Al Harris all were injured over the course of the game. Marion Barber III and Felix Jones rushed for 142 and 76 yards, respectively.
  • Week 4 vs. Tampa Bay: Atari Bigby was doubtful and didn't play, and Nick Collins, Aaron Rouse, A.J. Hawk, and Cullen Jenkins were injured over the course of the game. Hawk suffered the groin injury that plagued him all year, and Jenkins ended up being put on I.R. with a torn pectoral muscle. Earnest Graham and Warrick Dunn rushed for 111 and 63 yards respectively, including a 10-play drive of 10 consecutive run plays that put Tampa inside the Packers' 10-yard line, took 6:04 off the clock,and resulted in a field goal giving Tampa Bay a 23-21 lead. On Tampa's next drive, Graham broke off a 47-yard run to the Green Bay 1-yard line, followed by a 1-yard TD dive.
  • Week 5 vs. Atlanta: Atari Bigby and Aaron Rouse were doubtful, A.J. Hawk was questionable, and Nick Collins and Ryan Pickett were banged up going into the game. Mike Montgomery, Jenkins' replacement at DE, left the game with an ankle injury. Michael Turner rushed for 121 yards, and Atlanta's last two drives consisted mainly of running plays that gave the Falcons good position for a field goal (making the score 27-17) and converted a third down, preventing Green Bay from getting the ball back after closing the gap to 27-24.
  • Week 9 vs. Tennessee: Green Bay actually didn't have too many injuries this week, and avoided major injury during the game. However, this game was after KGB was released, forcing Mike Montgomery and Jason Hunter into more prominent roles. Also, Justin Harrell was returning from injury and wasn't back to form yet. Chris Johnson and LenDale White rushed for 89 and 77 yards respectively, including a 54-yard run where Harrell missed his assignment and resulted in the first major indictment against the run defense.
  • Week 10 vs. Minnesota: Before the game, Brandon said "If the Packers lose on Sunday, it won't be due to injuries." And he was right; Green Bay had no significant injuries going into the game. Sure, Nick Barnett and Brandon Chillar suffered injuries during the game, but that doesn't fully explain Adrian Peterson going...well, Adrian Peterson all over us to the tune of 192 yards. After seeing AP's fourth quarter performance, I'm not sure anyone could have stopped him.
  • Week 13 vs. Carolina: Nick Barnett had been placed on I.R (moving A.J. Hawk out of position), and Atari Bigby (who ended up leaving the game), Nick Collins, Johnny Jolly, Mike Montgomery, and Jeremy Thompson were all banged up going into the game. DeAngelo Williams and Johnathan Stewart rushed for 72 and 56 yards respecively, but the real story was Williams' four TD runs, all of which from one yard out.
  • Week 14 vs. Houston: Atari Bigby was out again, Nick Barnett had been added to the I.R. list, Charles Woodson was still adjusting to playing safety, and Brandon Chillar, Mike Montgomery, and Jeremy Thompson were iffy as well. Steve Slaton scorched the Packers for 120 yards, which paled in comparison to Matt Schaub's 414 yard output. The run defense did play awful, but Houston put themselves in scoring position at the end of the game through the air.

So there you have it; seven games where injury contributed to the run defense's transformation into a sieve. I know that it seems like a tired old excuse, blaming injuries for poor performance, but I really can't see how the injury bug didn't affect the defense. Considering three crucial starters (Cullen Jenkins, Nick Barnett, and Atari Bigby) ended up on I.R, several other starters (including A.J. Hawk, Ryan Pickett, and Nick Collins) were consistently debilitated by injury, and other contributors (Mike Montgomery, Jeremy Thompson, Brandon Chillar) were also consistently banged up, it's amazing that Green Bay didn't have a worse run defense.

Coming soon...part 2: how to fix it.