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Health and development of Kevin King can make Packers’ defense a strength

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A look at the defense’s performance so far explains why the top rookie is the key to the unit being a net positive.

Green Bay Packers v Dallas Cowboy Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

A quick look back....

Remember in Week 1 when the Green Bay Packers’ defensive line obliterated the Seattle Seahawks offense and the Packers won convincingly, holding the Seahawks to nine points? That was a fun one. On defense that day, Davon House (100%), Quinten Rollins (94%) and Damarious Randall (84%) led the cornerbacks in snaps, with rookie Kevin King seeing the field just 12% of the time. You also may not have noticed it because the Seattle offense couldn’t get out of it’s own way, but Doug Baldwin, the number one Seattle receiver, caught all four of his targets for 63 yards. It’s not a mind-blowing number, but it’s typical of Baldwin’s efficiency, and in terms of pure efficiency, he was the best Seattle Receiver that day.

Points allowed by defense: 9

The next game was against the Atlanta Falcons. The points look ugly for the defense, but keep in mind that Aaron Rodgers coughed up a touchdown on a fumble, and essentially handed the Falcons another on an interception late in the first half. This was a weird game, and I don’t want to rehash the entire thing, but you may also remember this as Kevin King’s coming out party. After getting toasted by Julio Jones (the Falcons’ number one WR) to start the game, the Packers put King on him and essentially shut him down. He had 109 yards, but caught just five of nine balls, and none with King as primary defender.

Points allowed by defense: 20-24, depending on how you view the interception

Next up were the Cincinnati Bengals, who put up 24 points, but remember that Aaron got pick-sixed in this game and the defense allowed only 17. King played on 100% of snaps, mostly shadowing AJ Green (Cinci’s number one receiver). Green actually had a pretty great day against King, catching 10 of 13 targets for 111 yards and a touchdown and I certainly don’t want to oversell King’s work, but he was a sure tackler (mostly) and while Green was undeniably successful against him, his longest reception was just 20 yards. Furthermore, outside of the damage done by Green the rest of the defense played extremely well. Even if he is struggling, King can still help a defense by allowing it to function without offering him help on every play.

Points allowed by defense: 17

The Bears were next, and I’ll be honest, I have no idea who their number one receiver is or was, but Kendall Wright had the best day against Green Bay catching all four targets for 51 yards and a score, mostly against zone as far as I can tell. There’s not too much data to be gained here, but the Packer defense essentially held the Bears’ putrid offense to 7 points, allowing a 2nd touchdown only in garbage time when Brett Hundley was actually playing quarterback for the Packers.

Points allowed by defense: 7 really, but technically 14

King suffered his concussion against Dallas and suddenly things looked a lot like they did last year, with Cole Beasley getting open easily against Rollins. Dez Bryant (5 catches, 8 targets, 52 yards, 1 TD) was actually held mostly in check by a game Josh Hawkins, but Dak Prescott’s ability to scramble and issues in the secondary gave the Cowboy offense plenty of time the operate effectively. Fortunately, the Packer offense was even better.

Points allowed by the defense without King: 31

Finally we have the disaster against the Vikings. Minnesota frequently started in Packer territory due to a flurry of Hundley interceptions, and Adam Thielen's stat line of 9 catches on 13 targets for 97 yards is actually understated as he also drew a 42-yard pass interference penalty. The Vikings scored 23, but that total vastly undersells a defense that was put in bad spots on numerous occasions, and they frankly should have allowed a lot more.

Points allowed by the defense without King: something like 17-20.

What It All Means

Football Outsiders’ advanced stats (as well as conventional stats) don’t tell you much about football early in the season, but we’re finally reaching a point where they are in fact useful. Football is much harder to quantify than baseball, but DVOA isn’t so much the final word as it is a prompt to explore certain things more deeply. The Packers’ defensive DVOA is interesting because it’s starting the reflect some things I suspected were true, but could not prove.

For instance, Green Bay is roughly middle of the pack overall in terms of defense at 18th in DVOA, with a very balanced 19th against the pass and 18th against the run. Average isn’t bad at all, but what should get Packer fans excited (at least a little bit) is how they came about those numbers. If a team is made up of struggling players, that can be impossible to fix, but if you have one big hole to plug, a defense can turn around in an instant.

Pass Defense

I highlighted “number one” receivers above, because that is where the Packers have struggled the most, and that is reflected in their DVOA where they rank 22nd. 22nd isn’t even that terrible a rank, but when they’ve been torched, it’s usually the number one doing the torching (even against a healthy King, as was the case against the Bengals).

Against everyone else though? Not bad at all! They’re 10th against secondary receivers, 10th against slot receivers, and 12th against tight ends. Their only other huge weakness is against pass catching running backs where they rank 27th, but that is, in the grand scheme of things, not a terrible weakness to have.

If they can firm up the number one spot, everything else about this defense says it can be very good. Kevin King has hardly been perfect, but there’s enough potential there to believe this may be possible, and even if he does struggle with the NFL’s elite, his ability to not be completely destroyed makes covering everyone else easier. The fact is, if they can push that ranking vs. #1 WRs up to league average or better, they’ll quickly find themselves with a top-10 pass defense. But what about the run defense that I always claim is underrated?

Run Defense

Football Outsiders have a statistic called “Adjusted Line Yards” which attempts to give proper credit and blame to the line’s impact on the running game, both offensively and defensively. They have a treasure trove of additional stats measuring various situations and types of runs, and you can read about all of them here. What is important to know about the Packer run defense is that it’s generally pretty good, and that when it does fail, it fails in a very specific, and unsurprising way.

The Packer defense is light and fast, especially when making heavy use of the nickel/Nitro package, but that lightness does leave them vulnerable. The bigs up front and Blake Martinez in the middle are doing their job, with an Adjusted Line Yards ranking of 8th overall at 3.71. The Packers also get into the backfield and stuff runs at a well above average rate as they rank 9th overall in stuffs. Where they struggle is against power runs in power situations, where they are 23rd. Too often the Packers remain in Nitro when they should be in base or heavier, and they have paid for it. They’re also only average in run defense at the second level and in the open field, partially due to the injuries in the secondary, and partially due to a rough year from Ha Ha Clinton-Dix combined with an injury-plagued season from Morgan Burnett. They will probably struggle against power all season because this is how Dom Capers has decided to operate, but a healthy secondary should start to clean up some of the second level issues. Most importantly, stuffs are almost always huge plays, and help to put opposing offenses in difficult down and distance situations. If they can continue to be a top ten unit in stuffs, the run defense will be an asset.

This defense is not some disaster where nothing is working. It’s already been better than it gets credit for, and if the secondary gets healthy, with promising young players like Hawkins and Lenzy Pipkins replacing Randall and Rollins behind King and House, they can be very good, maybe even squeaking into the Top 10. They have one huge deficiency, and I believe Kevin King can erase it, and continue to get better at doing so every week.