The Green Bay Packers have the best run defense in the NFL.
They have- wait, what? Are we talking about the same unit that ranked 19th in run defense in 2015? And didn’t add anyone to address this obvious need outside of fourth-round pick Blake Martinez?
Yes, yes we are. Footballoutsiders.com has a well-respected metric known as DVOA, which according to the website, “is a method of evaluating teams, units, or players. It takes every single play during the NFL season and compares each one to a league-average baseline based on situation. DVOA measures not just yardage, but yardage towards a first down: Five yards on third-and-4 are worth more than five yards on first-and-10 and much more than five yards on third-and-12. Red zone plays are worth more than other plays. Performance is also adjusted for the quality of the opponent.” It is essentially a much more comprehensive metric than simple measures like yards or points because it takes into account other important factors that often go ignored by surface-level statistics. Mentioned above, last year Green Bay ranked 19th in situation-adjusted DVOA run defense. This year? They rank first.
The primary numbers are equally as friendly to the Green and Gold. Through three games, the Packers are first in rushing yards allowed per game, giving up a paltry 42.7 yards/game on the ground. The New York Jets, who boast known world beaters Sheldon Richardson, Leonard Williams and Muhammed Wilkerson up front, are in second in the league at 70.3 yards per game. For comparison, the Jets are closer in rushing yardage allowed per game to 14th-ranked Cincinnati than they are to the first-ranked Packers. Green Bay also ranks first in rushing yards allowed, yards per carry allowed, rushing yards before contact and in tackles for loss (per game).
It’s reasonable to poke holes in the argument that this is the best run defense in football. For one, any statistician will tell you that 71 rushing attempts (roughly 24 per game) isn’t a large enough sample size, but part of the reason the Packers have seen so few rushing attempts is simply because they’ve conceded so little on the ground. Teams will stop running the ball when it gets them less than two yards per play. Some will point to Green Bay’s first three opponents, the Jaguars, Vikings and Lions, who haven’t exactly been setting the world on fire while running the ball. Still, the Jags ran wild over the Colts yesterday (29 carries for 126 yards), and both the Lions and Vikings were severely under their yards per carry averages when facing Green Bay. There’s no doubt about how good this run defense has been so far.
The front seven’s elevated play is that much more impressive when looking at the surrounding personnel context. Last week against Detroit, Dom Capers’ defense was without run-stuffing lineman Letroy Guion, safety Morgan Burnett, outside linebacker Datone Jones and defensive star Clay Matthews. Defensive tackle Mike Pennel is yet to come back from a four-game suspension, and nose tackle and fan favorite BJ Raji “stepped away from football” in the offseason. It gets better: 13 of Green Bay’s 20 defensive players used against Detroit were rookies or second-year players, with Julius Peppers the only player over 27 years old to log a snap. So why the sudden resurgence?
It all starts with nose tackle Mike Daniels, who continues to be one of the most underrated players in the NFL. Profootballfocus.com has given Daniels a grade of at least 80 every week so far this season, which is generally the threshold for an ‘elite’ grade. The 310 lb. Daniels uses his brute strength to win at the point of attack, constantly pushing opposing guards and centers into the backfield. His numbers never jump off the page, but this is often because he creates the havoc that allows complementary players to actually finish the play with a tackle. This was especially apparent against Minnesota, where Daniels logged four tackles and a sack and forced the Vikings to double team him for the entire second half. It’s somehow only his third year as a full-time starter, and it’s reasonable to believe his continued ascension is having positive rippling effects across the front seven.
Daniels is undoubtedly the star, but the young linemen around him are starting to follow his lead. Rookie first-round pick Kenny Clark had four tackles against the Lions, stepping in nicely for the loss of Guion’s big body. When Guion’s been in, he’s been typically effective against the run. Unheralded nose tackles Christian Ringo and Brian Price aren’t considered much more than practice squad players, yet they were the ones who got snaps when Daniels needed a break and they managed to hold their own. Rookie fourth-round pick Dean Lowry started for the injured Jones and recorded two tackles, one of which went for a loss. But outside of Daniels, it’s been the linebackers who have truly stepped up.
The man who deserves the most praise is outside linebacker Nick Perry. Perry, a first-round draft pick in 2012, has had an up-and-down first four years in Green Bay. For every athletic sack he records, he often counters with a lapse in technique or concentration that results in him getting burned. With Clay Matthews rushing opposite him, there haven’t been many opportunities for excuses, and he’s missed games every season due to injury. Prior to 2016, Perry has never recorded more than four sacks or 31 combined tackles in a season.
It seems that Perry is finally putting it all together, and the results have been splendid. His 13 combined tackles through three games put him on pace to more than double his previous career high, and his 3.5 sacks rank 13th in the league despite playing one less game than just about everyone. Like Daniels, he has received an elite grade from Profootballfocus in every game. In fact, Profootballfocus actually credits Perry with the highest run stopping grade on the team (90.6) and notes that his secondary pass rushing metrics match what we’re seeing on the surface. When Matthews is back, it seems the Packers may finally have that tenacious outside rushing duo they’ve been dreaming of since drafting Perry.
Julius Peppers has also earned positive grades in the last two games, playing like his usual effective self. As an aside, Peppers is two sacks away from being in sole possession of seventh place on the all-time sack list, which is pretty neat. The rest of the outside linebackers have rotated in and been effective as well, as the youth the Packers have is giving the defense a speed dimension that simply hasn’t been there for years. Rookie third-round pick Kyler Fackrell played 37 snaps against Detroit, rotating in behind Peppers and Perry with Jayrone Elliott. Fackrell recorded two tackles, one of which was a sack, and was inches away from a second sack, while Elliott managed three tackles himself.
I’ve managed to write over 1000 words without mentioning the inside linebackers, so thanks for sticking with me. The unheralded trio of Jake Ryan (a second-year fourth-round pick who only played meaningful snaps in 8 games as a rookie), Blake Martinez (a fourth-round rookie) and Joe Thomas (a second-year undrafted player) was considered the weakness of the entire roster heading into the season. Through three games, it might be the strength.
Ryan leads the team with 22 tackles (three for loss) and has now recorded at least five tackles in every game he’s started as a pro. He looks like a legitimate run-stopping linebacker who has natural instincts and gets to the ball quicker than his speed indicates, essentially a better version of AJ Hawk. He too has received elite grades from Profootballfocus in every game this year. Martinez, drafted to be the rangy coverage complement to Ryan’s up-the-gut prowess, has already impressed in his limited professional career. He’s second on the team with 18 tackles (one for loss), and played well against Detroit despite a scar opening up that meant he had to get his nose re-stitched during the game. Martinez is already tasked with the crucial defensive signal-caller role that places him in direct communication with Dom Capers throughout the game, an impressive ask for a rookie.
While “Shake ‘n’ Bake” (or “Blake and Jake”, we’re not sure yet) hold it down on base and nickel packages, Joe Thomas has played extensively with the dime package defense. Thomas is eighth on the team in tackles, and has made the most of his playing time by recording one tackle for loss, one pass deflection, one interception and a game-sealing tackle so far on the season. Not only is it reassuring to have young players playing well up the middle, it importantly allows Clay the opportunity to play outside on every snap, where he is the most effective.
There are still obvious holes on this defense, namely in the passing game as the Packers’ young corners have struggled without veteran Sam Shields. Still, as Green Bay looks to continue its winning ways at home against the New York Giants in week five, the team can count on at least one thing: nothing comes easy against this run defense in 2016.
Photo courtesy of packerstalk.com