GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers’ improved run defense starts with the players tasked with rushing the passer.
The increased toughness and desire of outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith have helped keep opposing running backs bottled up down the stretch.
During the first seven games of the season, going through the debacle against Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook, the Packers were 23rd with 4.65 yards allowed per carry.
During the final six games of the season, the Packers are 11th with 4.38 yards allowed per carry. They stifled Philadelphia’s Miles Sanders, Detroit’s D’Andre Swift and Adrian Peterson, Tennessee’s Derrick Henry and Chicago’s David Montgomery over the last five games. Really, the only blight over that span was Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s 45-yard touchdown. Remove that from the equation, and Green Bay would be yielding a sixth-ranked 4.04 yards per carry.
“I wouldn’t say we were bad throughout the year setting the edge but we obviously had our issues at times,” outside linebackers coach Mike Smith said this week. “I think the big thing about setting the edge is, obviously, you’ve got to have great technique but it’s all a mind-set, man. It’s all rolling off the ball. You’re never reached if you get knockback. If you knock his butt off the ball 3 or 4 yards, I don’t care where your helmet is. That ball is going to bounce or it has to go inside. My No. 1 rule in setting the edge is beat him to the punch. That’s a big part of it. That’s why it helps when you have guys that are big and long, like we are.”
As you’d expect given their places on the coaching tree, the running games under Rams coach Shawn McVay and Packers coach Matt LaFleur are rooted in the outside zone. In the most simplistic of terms, the key to beating the outside zone is to hold firm at the point of attack. And the best way to do that? Pure, unadulterated physicality. That’s where the 272-pound Za’Darius Smith, 265-pound Preston Smith and 277-pound Rashan Gary should come in handy in trying to stop Rams running back Cam Akers. With 131 rushing yards against Seattle, he was the only back to hit triple-figures last weekend.
“I’m not going to pee on your leg and tell you it’s raining. If something’s not right, I’ll tell them. That’s part of being a coach and being a professional. I’m not coaching junior high or high school or even college kids. These are grown men and that’s part of this business. You’re a reflection of me. If it’s not dominance, then it’s on me. We can have our best game, like Tennessee. I thought we freakin’ rolled off and it was one of our better games setting the edges, and I still think we can get a lot better.”
Setting the edge will be important on Saturday against the Rams. As is the case with Green Bay, a lot of Los Angeles’ passing game is rooted in those outside-zone runs. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, for instance, has made a living on bootleg passes. Rams quarterback Jared Goff, meanwhile, used play-action on 34.0 percent of his dropbacks, the fifth-highest rate in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
What happens when you can take away the run? Tannehill, who finished the season with a lofty 109.2 passer rating on play-action, was 1-of-5 for 12 yards on play-action in Week 16 at Lambeau.
“It’s such a big thing because these teams are such outside zone, stretch teams,” Mike Smith said. “That’s where you get the boots off of; you see so many boots these days off of it. When you can completely destroy the edge, you’re getting them to do something else and they’re going to have start running the ball more inside. It’s such a heartbreaker for these type of offenses if you get that going.”