Flawed Defense Finding Winning Formula

If the Green Bay Packers are going to win in January, how they won against the Chicago Bears on Sunday will be the winning recipe.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – Through 11 games, the Green Bay Packers aren’t going to suddenly develop into what’s traditionally considered a “championship-caliber defense.”

While there’s always room for improvement, Mike Pettine’s crew is at the moment what it’s going to be headed into December and beyond. It’s not going to pose as a brick wall for opposing running attacks. It’s not going to routinely fluster opposing quarterbacks. It’s not going to dominate the trenches. It’s not going to be a smothering unit that grudgingly yields yards, first downs and points.

The best it can hope to be is what it delivered in a 41-25 smackdown of the Chicago Bears on Sunday night.

Never mind the 25 points and 26 first downs. A lot of that was rubbish. Chicago gained 138 yards and scored 15 points long after the game had been decided. It’s an annoying habit, to be sure, but who cares when the score is 41-10?

The winning recipe essentially is what it’s been for most of Aaron Rodgers’ prolific run at quarterback. Get a couple early stops. Rise up in the red zone. Deliver a couple takeaways.

That’s how Green Bay routed the Bears for victory No. 100 in the series.

After Green Bay’s opening-drive touchdown, a 57-yard run by David Montgomery through an alley wider than Interstate 94 put Chicago in position to take a 7-6 lead. Instead, on first-and-goal at the 8, Christian Kirksey and Kingsley Keke stuffed Montgomery. On second down from the 9, Kirksey broke up a pass. On third down, Kevin King and Raven Greene tenaciously broke up a pass in the end zone to Allen Robinson. Chicago had to settle for a field goal.

The Packers scored again to make it 13-3. With Chicago driving into scoring position, second-year safety Darnell Savage made one of the most impressive coverage plays of his career. He ranged deep into the end zone for a superb interception.

Rodgers turned that takeaway into another touchdown. Suddenly, it was 20-3.

If the Packers are going to have postseason success, this will be the formula. Of course, it’s every team’s winning formula, but that’s especially true for the Packers. Their defensive resources have been poured into stopping the pass, with Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Rashan Gary rushing the passer, and Kevin King, Jaire Alexander, Adrian Amos and Savage manning the secondary.

If the Packers can take the lead, then they can play downhill and force the opposition to attack the strength of the defense.

That’s exactly what happened against Chicago. At 20-3, Green Bay forced a holding penalty on third-and-7. On third-and-17, the Smith Bros. struck, with Za’Darius Smith’s sack and strip resulting in a recovery and touchdown by Preston Smith. At 27-3, the game was pretty much over with 3 minutes remaining the first half.

The knockout blow came midway through the third quarter, when Savage’s second interception was turned into Rodgers’ fourth touchdown pass of the game for a 34-10 lead.

“I just thought (Preston Smith’s) physicality and effort were really, really good – as good as we’ve seen this year,” coach Mat LaFleur said. “And then Savage, he had a great week of practice, got a pick or two in practice, and it translated over to the game. Those are two of our better players. In order for us to be the best version of ourselves, our best players have to be the best version of themselves and that’s what we’re striving for each and every day.”

That line from LaFleur is critical to Green Bay’s championship dreams.

The Packers need more from the Smith Bros, who are being paid to dominate but haven’t done so nearly as often as last year. They need splash plays by Savage, who generally hasn’t provided enough of them in his young career. They need more takeaways.

Those areas are all trending Green Bay’s way. Over the last four games:

- Preston Smith has delivered eight of his 17 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.

- Za’Darius Smith has three sacks, two forced fumbles and nine of his 20 quarterback hits, according to the official league stats.

- The team has delivered eight of its 12 takeaways.

Of course, it all comes with the caveat of the competition. The last four games came against San Francisco backup quarterback Nick Mullens, Jacksonville rookie quarterback Jake Luton, the occasionally mistake-prone Indianapolis veteran Philip Rivers and Chicago first-round bust Mitchell Trubisky. To be sure, New Orleans’ Drew Brees, Seattle’s Russell Wilson and Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady will pose tougher challenges in potential playoff games.

Nonetheless, at least the defense is trending the right direction as the calendar flips to December.

“They’re going to come in bunches,” Savage said of turnovers. “You’ve just got to stay the course. You can’t get too involved with trying to go out of your way to do this or do that. I think everybody’s been doing their job and we’re talented enough to make those plays when we get our opportunities. We’re going to keep that up.”

If they do, there’s no telling how far this flawed but improved defense can help carry the team in the playoffs.