“If I only had a defense” has been a mantra of many an elite NFL quarterback. It’s a mantra Green Bay Packers fans have been repeating ever since 2010. That is, until now.
Against the likes of Kyler Murray, Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson the past three weeks, the Green Bay defense has allowed a total of 34 points. You’d have to travel back to 2015 to find a three-game stretch where they allowed 34 or fewer points — and that particular stretch came against the San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Chargers, who finished the season 32nd, 29th and 26th in scoring, respectively.
It is safe to say that this recent defensive surge is unprecedented for the post-Super Bowl Packers. And it shouldn't be the case, at least on paper.
This is a team that has lost arguably its best two defenders in Za’Darius Smith and Jaire Alexander, two players who dramatically impact opposing passing attacks. Yet, the Packers have allowed all of 593 passing yards and a 61.9 passer rating the past three games.
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So how have they done it? By becoming a pass-first defense. Or, more accurately, by becoming a downfield-pass-first defense.
Former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was already a pass-first coach, and he built a defense hell-bent on stopping quick passes and RPOs. A year ago, the Packers allowed only 89 passing yards on RPOs all season long, but they also got routinely gashed down the football field and struggled to tackle underneath.
It was a defense that was trending in the right direction, with Pettine transitioning away from his patented single-high looks, but it didn’t go far enough in its approach.
Green Bay Packers defense: statistics in 2020 and 2021
|EPA per pass play||0.050 (9th)||0.045 (7th)|
|Yards allowed per pass play||6.2 (10th)||5.7 (3rd)|
|EPA per play on RPOs||-0.201 (2nd)||0.022 (9th)|
|EPA per play on short passes (1-9 yards)||0.150 (6th)||0.168 (18th)|
|EPA per play on passes thrown 10+ yards||0.362 (8th)||0.172 (4th)|
You see, the strength of this Packers defense lies directly up the middle of the field. Nose tackle Kenny Clark, safeties Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage and linebacker De’Vondre Campbell have been the Packers' four best defenders this season. And what new defensive coordinator Joe Barry has done is develop a defense that features all four.
For Campbell, that means giving him the freedom to be “the man” in the defense.
De'Vondre Campbell offered great insight after Sunday's win on his success this year and also his gratitude to the organization for giving him a long-awaited "opportunity to be the man" in the heart of the #Packers' defense. pic.twitter.com/mgDtsEO2Sg
— Wes Hodkiewicz (@WesHod) October 24, 2021