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Despite being awful in garbage time, Packers’ defense is playing well early in games

Their Achilles heel isn’t quite as bad as it looks at first glance.

Atlanta Falcons v Green Bay Packers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The Green Bay Packers have sprinted out to an emphatic 4-0 start. There is very little to complain about in Titletown, but that does not stop the forces of #PackersTwitter. Despite the offense being the best in the NFL, the defense has been less-than-stellar. Hating the defense is hardly a new phenomenon for #PackersTwitter. It’s a tradition in the Rodgers-era that dates back to 2011, where a historic offense was undone by a brutal defense. Defensive issues continued to be a problem throughout the post-Super Bowl Rodgers-era and 2020 appears to be starting off with a similar narrative: The Packers rank 26th in defensive DVOA.

Unlike other people who cover the team, I like DVOA a lot, but like any statistic, it has shortcomings. My big issue with defensive DVOA is how it calculates “garbage time.” I believe DVOA includes plays where the defense isn’t necessarily trying to stop the offense, but rather just slow it down. Normally, this isn’t an issue. Most games are spent with both teams having a reasonable chance to win the game. The Packers have been so dominant in 2020, however, that they’ve spent a good chunk of their season as overwhelming favorites to win the game.

Green Bay spent the entire fourth quarter against Minnesota with a win-probability over 90% and nearly all of it at greater than 95%. They spent the entire second half against Detroit at over 90%, and the last quarter-and-a-half at over 97%. The entire second half of the Falcons game as also over 90%, much of which was over 95%. The final Saints drive was also entirely garbage time. Add it all up and Green Bay has spent about 5.5 quarters of their season in garbage time. That’s over 25% of their season in garbage time. When the numbers get so high, they start to have a real impact on the data.

You can see the difference pretty clearly in how Green Bay’s defense has performed when the games are more in doubt versus pure garbage time. The Packers rank 23rd in EPA/play on defense when you count all plays. While not as bad as they rank in DVOA, that’s still a decidedly below-average defense. However, once you eliminate plays that took place when Green Bay had at least a 95% of winning the game, they soar up to 7th.

When games have been closer, Green Bay’s pass defense has been legitimately good. They rank 5th in EPA/play at -.015. It actually is bad for the offense to pass against Green Bay’s defense in these instances. Their run defense ranks 22nd, which is below-average, but perfectly acceptable, as it is only costing them .023 EPA/play. Compare that -.015 pass defense to their overall EPA/play on pass defense of .139. Yes, Green Bay’s garbage-time pass defense has been a train wreck, but it’s unclear if that actually matters or not.

The Packers play an annoying brand of prevent defense. To describe the coverage as soft is an insult to Charmin. But does it matter if your garbage-time defense slowly leaks points? Probably not. The real question here is what does it mean since Green Bay has spent so much time playing garbage-time defense? Which Green Bay defense is real? Is it the one that has been objectively good for 72% of snaps, or the one that has been leaky for 28% of snaps?

At this point it is impossible to say, but the fact that Green Bay has been good on defense when it matters, despite missing its best player for nearly the entire season, is a good omen. They haven’t played a series of terrible offenses to boost efficiency, something that league leaders Indianapolis and Tampa Bay have been able to take advantage of. The Packers have played the 11th, 14th, 21st, and 23rd offenses. They haven’t played a great offense yet, but they also have not played any of the league’s disasters such as the New York teams, Denver, Chicago, Philadelphia, or Washington.

What does all this mean? It’s unclear. Priority one will be the health of Kenny Clark, Chandon Sullivan, and Rashan Gary. The Packers will get a bit of a test following the bye week with Tampa Bay’s weapons and the nightmare that is Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers, but the only top 10 teams in EPA/play that the Packers will play this season are Tennessee and Jacksonville. It’s quite possible that offenses that we had higher expectations for, such as Tampa Bay, San Francisco, and Houston, will provide sterner tests. At this point though, Green Bay’s defense seems good enough to support the elite offense. I don’t trust Mike Pettine as far as I can throw him, but the talent appears to be doing enough.