Packers Aren’t Super No. 3: Will Bend-But-Don’t-Break Eventually Snap?
Note: With an 8-2 record at the bye, the Green Bay Packers are a prime contender to be playing in Super Bowl LIV on Feb. 2 in Miami. This is part of a six-part series – three on why the Packers will get to the Super Bowl and three on why they will fall short.
By almost every measuring stick, the Packers’ defense is bad.
Entering Sunday’s game, Green Bay is 28th in total defense, 28th in yards per play, 25th in rushing defense, 27th in rushing defense per play, 23rd in passing defense and 26th in passing defense per play. Even the Smith Brothers-driven pass rush has been mediocre, ranking 20th in sack percentage.
Of course, what matters most is the scoreboard. Thanks to the league’s eighth-ranked red-zone defense, which is allowing a touchdown on only 48.5 percent of opponent possessions inside the 20, Green Bay is 12th in the league with 20.5 points allowed per game.
It’s a good thing that Mike Pettine’s crew has been so strong in the red zone because it’s spent quite a bit of the season with its collective back in the shadow of the goal post. Green Bay’s defense has played 109 red-zone snaps, second-most in the league. It’s kept teams from crossing the goal line more than half the time behind an equal dose of big plays (a league-high four interceptions and four sacks; the league high is five) and solid play (sixth-ranked 27.5 percent first-down percentage).
“We don’t want to just fall back, we’ll bend but we won’t break and we’re OK conceding yards until teams get into the red zone and then we’ll tighten up,” Pettine said. “That’s not how we want to play, but we do know if teams do get down there, we do put a big emphasis on red-zone defense and have done some good things down there. We don’t want to be that team. We play our best defense sitting on the bench and we want our offense out there and we want our guys fresh for when it’s time to go back out. There’s a variety of reasons why we’ve given up some of those drives. It’s something that is of concern and we’re working on it.”
The question is whether the bend-but-don’t-break Packers can avoid being snapped against the type of quarterbacks they’d face in the playoffs. Of quarterbacks with more than 25 red-zone attempts, the Rams’ Jared Goff is fourth with a red-zone passer rating of 108.6. San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo is fifth in rating (107.9) and second in completion percentage (70.3). Dallas’ Dak Prescott is seventh in rating at 103.7. Seattle’s Russell Wilson has completed only 45.6 percent of his red-zone passes but has a league-high 19 touchdown passes (plus three more rushing) to pace the league’s fourth-best red-zone attack. Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins is fifth with 12 touchdown passes and second with 18 completions that gained first downs to key the league’s seventh-ranked red-zone offense.
Bending but not breaking has worked thus far, and it might continue to work given the remaining quarterbacks on the regular-season schedule. However, for this defense to be playing winning football in the playoffs, it’s going to have to tighten up its play between the 20s so it doesn’t have to depend on stopping teams inside the 20.
“We absolutely have to be better,” coach Matt LaFleur said of the defense. “I think we’ll be pretty critical of ourselves in terms of what we’re asking our guys to do. This upcoming week will give us a pretty good look at what we need to improve upon moving forward. We’ll have a lot of time to self-evaluate.”