GREEN BAY, Wis. – Playing winning defense starts with stopping the run.
Some version of that adage has been spoken through most of the NFL’s 101 years. Stopping the run makes the opponent one-dimensional, and then the defense can take advantage of that predictability.
So goes that old-school thinking, anyway.
When the Green Bay Packers visit the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday, there will be two schools of thoughts calling the defensive shots.
Green Bay’s Mike Pettine has more a new-school thinking.
“A wise coach told me a long time ago you can fly to Miami a lot faster than you can walk there,” Pettine said last year about prioritizing pass defense over run defense. “You’re going to get beat through the air. That’s the bottom line.”
Indianapolis defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus has more of an old-school mind-set. The Colts are third in the NFL with 3.53 rushing yards allowed per attempt. The payoff shows on the scoreboard, with Indianapolis fourth in the NFL with 19.7 points allowed per game. On first-and-10, the Colts are allowing 2.96 yards per try. That has put opponents consistently behind the sticks. Forced to throw, Indy is second in interception percentage and ninth in sack percentage.
It’s been a winning formula.
“We do have really good players. Household names or not, these are top-notch players,” Colts coach Frank Reich said during his conference call with Packers beat reporters on Wednesday. “Darius Leonard, one of the best in the league. DeForest Buckner, great player. Som we feel really good about our unit. It starts up front with the D-line with them stopping the run. You get into this league, you win by throwing but you’ve still got to stop the run. Our defense has been doing a really good job of that.”
Pettine hasn’t been nearly as concerned about stopping the run. Green Bay is 22nd with 4.55 yards allowed per carry. It rises to an appalling 5.02 yards per carry on first down.
Last season, Green Bay allowed 4.67 yards per carry overall and 4.98 on first down. It didn’t matter, though. Pettine’s crew was third in interception percentage and 13th in sack percentage en route to a No. 9 finish with 19.6 points allowed per game. This year, the Packers are 26th in interception percentage and 10th in sack percentage en route to a No. 15 ranking with 24.9 points allowed per game.
“I do think NFL offenses nowadays, a lot of the RPOs and the quick game and the short passing attack, I think that’s kind of become some teams’ run game,” Pettine said on Thursday. “I do think playing defense comes down to, ‘Can we get this team to third down?’ and then what is the quality of third down from our part? If you just look at the numbers, the odds of converting a third down that’s 7-plus [yards] vs. a team that’s constantly in third-and-1, third-and-2, third-and-3, they’re going to convert it at a much higher rate. You don’t want to necessarily just focus in on ‘Hey, we’ve got to stop the run.’ It’s ‘Hey, we’ve got to win on first down. We’ve got to get them behind the sticks.’ If you can’t get them behind the sticks, obviously, you’re going to be in for a long day.”
Sunday’s matchup, more than anything, shows there’s more than no sure-fire formula. Of the top 10 defenses in terms of yards allowed per carry, five are in the top 10 in points allowed but two are in the bottom 10. The last two Super Bowl champions, Kansas City in 2019 and New England in 2018, were 29th in yards allowed per carry.
Green Bay scored on each of its eight opening drives to start the season, a streak that ended in last week’s victory over Jacksonville.
Nonetheless, the Packers have come out firing with a league-best 40 first-possession points.
“You’re planning through the course of the week,” coach Matt LaFleur said, “and then you get to the end of the week and you kind of get a feel for what plays you might like more than others and how they package together, and just maybe what your initial gut is on how a defense might attack you. It’s part of the process that, by the end of the week, we have a better idea of what direction we want to go.”
Scripting those opening plays – the first play of the game, the first third-and-short, the first third-and-long – is a group effort that includes quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
“Certainly, when we’re scripting the openers,” LaFleur said, “you always want to pick plays that the quarterback is really confident and comfortable with because if he’s confident in it, the other 10 guys in the huddle feel that and then you have a better chance for success. So, it is a collaborative effort and one that will continue to work that way.”
While the goal is to score on every drive, some of the first-drive success is a happy accident. Much like a boxing match between two tacticians, Round 1 is a feeling-out process. To be sure, just like every punch is meant to deliver pain, every play is called with the intention of getting first downs and scoring points. However, those early plays are also meant to gather intelligence to inform the calls made later in the game.
“You’re always trying to look at so many different things, whether you want to see how they’re going to line up to a formation, how they’re going to adjust to a personnel or motion,” offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. “You’re trying to gather information as much as trying obviously to score. So, there’s a lot that goes into it and every week there’s a different approach.”
On the first defensive possession of their nine games, the Colts have forced four punts and two turnovers and allowed 17 points on two touchdowns and one field goal. However, the Colts have gotten off to two horrendous starts. In a 32-23 loss to Cleveland in Week 5, the Browns scored 24 points on their first four possessions. The following week against Cincinnati, they allowed three consecutive touchdowns to start the game but won 31-27.
Both teams are in the thick of top-heavy playoff races. Green Bay owns the No. 1 spot in the NFC with a 7-2 record. It’s one of four teams in the conference with seven wins. Indianapolis leads the AFC South with a 6-3 record. The Colts are one of nine teams with records of 6-3 or better in the conference.
“It would be disingenuous to say that you don’t look at the standings and see how crowded it is up there in the AFC and see what’s going on,” Reich said. “I just can’t allow that, and we just can’t allow that to dictate us or get you in a certain kind of mind-set. I don’t think there is any productivity to playing that game as far as looking at the schedule, who plays who, trying to project out. That’s all a waste of emotional energy.
“Now it’s great if you’re a fan. It’s great if you’re in the media. I’d be spending all my time doing that if I was in your position. That’s the fun part of it, right? That’s a blast. I can just tell you from a coaching and a playing perspective, it has zero productivity to it. All that matters is the Green Bay Packers and we have to win the next game.”
Stats That Aren’t for Losers
– Earlier this season, he passed Hall of Fame offensive lineman Bruce Matthews (229 consecutive games) for the fourth-longest streak in NFL history. Up next is former Vikings center Mick Tingelhoff, who started 240 consecutive games.
Brett Favre, of course, holds the record with 297 consecutive regular-season starts.
“I think there are a lot of things that go into that, right? I have been blessed enough to be healthy enough to be out there,” Rivers said in June. “There is an element of toughness to it. Also, it means your guys are protecting you. There are so many things involved that allow you to be able to suit up each and every week, but that’s always been important to me to be available and to be out there every Sunday that I could be.”
– Those 234 starts will tie Eli Manning for the 10th-most starts in NFL history. Also, Rivers has 107 games with 100-plus passer ratings in his career. That’s one shy of Favre for fourth-most in NFL history.
– The Colts lead the regular-season series 22-20-1, making them one of only eight current franchises with a winning record against Green Bay. The Packers are 0-4 all-time in Indianapolis. Not that it matters, but the Colts have averaged 38.3 points in those games and never have scored less than 30. Green Bay’s last road win in the series came at Baltimore in 1974. Jerry Tagge was Green Bay’s quarterback.
– LaFleur is 20-5 as Green Bay’s coach. Only George Seifert (23) and Hall of Famers Paul Brown (22) and Guy Chamberlin (22) have more wins in their first 25 games.
– According to Stathead.com, there have been four seasons in NFL history in which a player has 25-plus touchdowns and three-or-fewer interceptions in the first nine games of a season. Rodgers has authored three of those seasons, with 26 touchdowns vs. three interceptions this season and his MVP seasons of 2014 (25 touchdowns, three interceptions) and 2011 (28 touchdowns, three interceptions). The other instance is the Chiefs Patrick Mahomes, who has 25 touchdowns vs. one interception this season.
– Neither team has done much turning something into something more. According to Pro Football Focus, the Packers have forced 56 missed tackles. That’s tied for 24th in the NFL. The Colts have forced only 59, which ranks 21st.
The difference is on defense. According to Pro Football Reference, Indianapolis has missed 35 tackles. That’s by far the fewest in the NFL. Green Bay, on the other hand, has missed 72 tackles. That’s the ninth-most in the league.
“We have to run to the ball,” safety Adrian Amos said. “Just imagine you with 10 yards of space and it’s just you and the ball-carrier. It’s a lot harder to bring him down than when there’s a man to the left and right of you. To dumb it down as simple as possible, that’s something that will help. Just something that we’ve been emphasizing, getting to the ball, running to the ball, never assuming that somebody else is going to make the play, and want to be that guy who makes the play.”
The Last Word Goes To …
Is Rodgers happy to play an indoor game after a pair of blustery games at Lambeau Field?
“I really am. At the same time, I went outside the last couple of nights, it was beautiful. There was like no clouds in the sky. The stars were out. I was like, man, why can’t we play in this weather? It was like 20 degrees, just beautiful. We have five cold-weather games down the stretch: four at home and then, obviously, Chicago will be cold down there, so I look forward to those games. We always play good in that type of weather. We’ve had some good ones inside a dome, as well. It will be nice to have some fans there. I’m sure there will be a lot of Packer fans in the stands, which is exciting. It brings just a little bit of that atmosphere to the game that we miss not having people around. As much as I don’t mind a controlled environment, I do enjoy those nice 20-degree-weather games with maybe a little bit of snow in the winter time. We win a lot of those games.”