With Aaron Rodgers under center, the Green Bay Packers’ defense simply had to be passable. For too many seasons over the last decade, it simply hasn’t been, leading to calls for Dom Capers’ job that grew so loud they became almost a parody of themselves.
Mike Pettine’s arrival came with expectations muted. He didn’t have to make this Green Bay group the 2009 Jets, just make sure they weren’t the 2011 or 2016 Packers. Play-to-play the defense wasn’t actually that bad in 2017, but when they needed to get stops — on third down and in the red zone — this was the worst situational group in the league.
Despite first-half failings against Washington and second-half issues in losing the lead to Minnesota, this Green Bay defense looks significantly improved.
They’re the No. 1 blitz defense by opponent passer rating, a welcome change from the late Capers era where teams readily identified and blocked up pressure packages from the Packers. Pettine creates more confusion and will attack differently from the same look, confusing quarterbacks and offensive linemen with protection calls.
But they’re not among league leaders in blitzes, which means they will have to find ways to create pressure with just four or five guys when they’re not blitzing. This, in particular, has been why teams have chosen to attack on first and second down to avoid the third-and-obvious situations.
As Jason Hirschhorn pointed out earlier this week, the Packers have eaten on third-and-long all season and sit third in the league in third-down completion percentage defense by allowing just 51.3% of throws. That’s an enormous jump from last season when Green Bay gave up 64.8% of throws on third down, 31st in the league.
In terms of total third down defenses, the Packers are just a touch below average, yet swung vertiginously in the rankings. Through four weeks, the defense ranks 18th in conversion percentage after finishing 30th a year ago. Going from “horrible” to “ehhh, we could be better” represents a critical shift and a positive trend. On the other hand, Pettine’s group leads the NFL in three-and-out percentage, meaning they get them at a higher rate than any team in the league. This keeps the defense fresh and gives the ball back to Aaron Rodgers. As you can probably guess, the Capers defense last season was one of the worst in football at forcing three-and-outs.
This situational defensive improvements extends to the red zone as well, where the Packers got their first turnover in over a calendar year against the Bills on Sunday. Last season, Green Bay finished dead last in points allowed per red zone trip and second-last in touchdowns per trip.
In 2018, the numbers won’t wow anyone, but they’re not horrible. That’s how low the bar is and luckily the Packers are clearing it. Through a quarter of the season, Green Bay ranks 17th in points per trip and 15th in touchdowns.
This is the formula. Give Rodgers even just an average defense, get him the ball back after short offensive drives by the opponents, and run the opposing defense ragged with drives of your own. The defense’s success compounds when Rodgers is able to score, forcing teams to throw more often and allowing Pettine to whip up his exotic blitz schemes. Incomplete on first down. Incomplete on second down. Now, it’s third-and-long and this defense is going hunting, where they’ve been the best team in the league.
The coaching staff shouldn’t receive all of the credit for this change. New GM Brian Gutekunst went out and signed Tramon Williams to provide some stability at cornerback before drafting Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson. The pair of rookies have played important roles already for this defense, and Alexander should really have two interceptions if not for the stupendously awful Clay Matthews roughing call.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix shook off a bad start to become a playmaker in the back end, and Kenny Clark took the step we thought he could make to being a full on, every down terror.
For whatever concerns there are about this Packers offense, if the defense continues to play like this, Rodgers and Co. will get many more chances to get going, and history suggests eventually they will. When they do, this defense could get even better, which likewise boosts the offense. For the first time in what feels like forever, the Packers may be able to play complementary football.