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The 2018 Packers by the numbers, part 2: The Defense

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Although the raw numbers suggest that the Packers were around league average on defense, advanced stats tell a very different story.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Green Bay Packers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

After looking at the Green Bay Packers’ offensive statistics in 2018, it’s time to take a look at their numbers on defense — which were pretty offensive in their own right. Green Bay’s defense looks like a league-average unit on paper, but when you examine the numbers on a per-play basis, things start to break down.

It was a tough first year for new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, particularly on the personnel front. Only three players who entered training camp as starters remained on the active roster by week 17: Blake Martinez, Clay Matthews, and Tramon Williams, who had switched positions. With his unit in a constant state of flux due to injury, Pettine had to cobble together game plans with waiver acquisitions and undrafted rookies playing significant roles for weeks at a time.

Pettine may or may not return for 2019, depending on the opinion of the team’s next head coach. If he does retain his job, one thing is certain — he’ll need to see the team’s numbers improve next season to remain for 2020 and beyond.

Conventional Stats

Overall

Mike Pettine’s unit finished 22nd in points allowed and 18th in total yards allowed. However, they forced just 15 total turnovers in 16 games, fourth-fewest in the NFL.

On third downs, the defense actually held up fairly well. Opponents converted 37.3% of their third down opportunities, the 13th-best mark in the league. However, they also converted two-thirds of fourth-down chances. In the red zone, the Packers allowed touchdowns on just over 60% of opportunities, ranking them 20th.

Passing

Green Bay’s revolving door of defensive backs managed to hold the opposition to the 12th-fewest total passing yards of any NFL team. That’s nice on its face, but that was helped out by a lower number of pass attempts, since the Packers found themselves trailing frequently. On a per-play basis, opponents’ 6.6 net yards per attempt number was a bit higher than the league average of 6.42 and ranked the team 21st in the league.

While the pass rush was able to generate a large number of sacks — 44, which ranked them tied for 8th in the league — turnovers did not follow. The Packers picked off just seven passes all season, tied with two other teams for the second-fewest number in the league. Only the San Francisco 49ers had fewer interceptions, as they recorded just two.

Rushing

Green Bay’s run defense was hammered much of the season, as teams ran the ball against them more than 26 other NFL teams. The injuries on the defensive line probably contributed to that, as did the fact that the Packers were often behind on the scoreboard and opponents tried to shorten the games. Green Bay allowed a yards-per-carry average of 4.3, around the league average of 4.4 and ranking 13th.

DVOA

Overall, Green Bay’s defense dropped nine spots in DVOA from 2017’s 20th-place finish, ranking 29th in 2018. That was largely due to the team’s awful pass defense ranking, which tends to be the biggest driver of overall rank; of the bottom ten overall defenses, only one — Kansas City — had a pass defense better than 20th in pass DVOA (they were 12th).

However, the Packers were near the bottom of the league against both the pass and the run, leading to their overall ranking. One other note is that the Packers faced the fourth-easiest schedule in the NFL by opponents’ offensive DVOA, which helps explain why their adjusted results were worse than their raw scores. Finally, the Packers ranked second-last in variance, meaning the team’s performance changed week-to-week more than all but one other team.

Passing

Despite that 21st ranking in NY/A referenced above, the Packers’ pass DVOA rating was +20.1%, ranking them 28th in the league.

Against wide receivers, the Packers were a bit better, ranking 22nd against #1s, 25th against #2s, and 16th against others. However, tight ends and running backs killed Green Bay’s pass defense, as they ranked 27th against the tight end position and dead last against running backs.

In terms of directional numbers, the Packers were at their best when defending passes to the right side of the defense (left side of the offense). Probably not coincidentally, that was the side where Jaire Alexander tended to line up most often. On passes in that direction, they actually were above-average in DVOA at -0.2%, but they were 29th on passes to the middle (31.5%) and 30th on passes to the left (12.6%). They were also equally bad on short and deep passes, ranking 29th against both; their +76.9% rating against deep left passes was the league’s worst.

Rushing

Green Bay’s rushing defense was 23rd in the NFL in DVOA this season, which shows a significant difference from their yards per attempt rank of 13th. It’s a bit difficult to pin down a firm reason for this difference, particularly because the Packers ranked 10th in success rate allowed in “power” situations (defined as third or fourth downs or goal-to-go rushes with two or fewer yards to convert).

Perhaps the issue lies in the fact that the Packers stuffed runs for no gain or losses at a rate well-below the league average of 19.3%. Green Bay ranked just 29th with a stuff rate of 14.6%. Furthermore, the Packers allowed big runs at a fairly low clip, ranking in the ten best teams in the league in the proportions of yards allowed on 5-plus and 10-plus-yard runs.

That suggests that the Packers allowed opponents to pick up 4-5 yards consistently rather than being a boom-or-bust type of rushing defense where the offense would either be stuffed or pick up big gains.

Conclusions

Much of the struggles of the Packers’ defense can again be attributed to a lack of turnovers. Mike Pettine’s group seemed to operate much in the same way that Dom Capers’ units did in that they allowed fairly large yardage totals while failing to take the football away with regularity. For example, the Packers forced just six turnovers over the season’s final ten games. The Packers also won every game in which the defense forced more than one turnover; that happened four times, against the Bills, 49ers, Dolphins, and Falcons.

Sure, a healthier secondary can probably help with that. However, despite the Packers finishing as a top-ten unit in sacks, they forced just 15 turnovers all season long. Some of that may simply be bad luck — quarterbacks able to hold on to the football when being sacked better than average, for example — but next year’s defensive coordinator must find a way to generate more takeaways for this unit to be successful.

The other way to help the defense will be for the offense to be more effective, both in sustaining drives to keep the defense off the field and in scoring early and giving the team a lead. The latter would help put opposing teams in more passing situations, where a creative coordinator like Pettine can dial up blitzes and hopefully force more turnovers.