Rodgers impressed by ‘juice’ of rambunctious, revamped defense

Bill Huber

During a two-minute drill on Tuesday, Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Preston Smith sacked Aaron Rodgers. Smith, part of a revamped and rambunctious Packers defense, turned toward Rodgers and did Rodgers’ championship belt celebration.

No, this is not the same downtrodden Packers defense.

Pressure and coverage is the winning formula to playing winning pass defense. The Packers did neither at an acceptable level last season.

While Green Bay tied for eighth with 44 sacks and seventh with a sack rate of 8.35 percent, the pass rush often was a feeble, all-or-nothing affair. Sacks aren’t the only way to measure the effectiveness of the pass rush. According to league data, the Packers had 72 quarterback hits; only the Carolina Panthers (71) and the Khalil Mack-less Oakland Raiders (48) had fewer.

Not only did the pass rush not get home but the secondary didn’t get to the ball. Green Bay tied for 30th with seven interceptions, was 31st with an interception rate of 1.33 percent and 25th with 59 passes defensed.

Not surprisingly, with that toxic combination, the Packers finished 22nd in points allowed.

This defense – retooled by general manager Brian Gutekunst with the high-profile additions of outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Rashan Gary and safeties Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage, looks much, much different.

“We started talking about that ever since we got here, talking about how we could be special,” linebacker Blake Martinez said. “We have it locked in in the sense that we can always talk about it but what are going to do in the actual, live thing? Are we going to put the action to it every single day? Right now, we’re putting the right pace on it and we’re getting the culture back to where we want it to be.”

The two-minute drill that ended Tuesday’s practice provided a snapshot of the metamorphosis taking place on defense. On first down from the 38, two of the team’s marquee offseason additions, free-agent Za’Darius Smith and first-round pick Gary, stormed through the line and forced Aaron Rodgers to throw away the ball. On second down, Jaire Alexander broke up a pass to receiver Davante Adams. On third down, another marquee acquisition, Preston Smith, sacked Rodgers and did the discount double-check.

A brilliant play Rodgers-to-Adams bomb moved the offense into scoring position but the defense stomped out the threat with authority when Gary drew a holding penalty on All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari. The drill was over. The defense celebrated.

“I think our defense has a little more juice than in years past,” Rodgers said after practice. “There’s juice with the players and the coaches, so there’s a lot of people bouncing around. When we have that D-line that they can throw at us in the two-minute situation of the Smiths and Rashan and Kenny (Clark), that’s a pretty tough four-man rush.”

Earlier in the day, during a 10-play series piloted by Rodgers, Za’Darius Smith had a sack, Curtis Bolton’s blitz forced a throwaway, Tony Brown broke up a pass and defenders swarmed to stop quick passes to Jimmy Graham, Aaron Jones and Geronimo Allison.

Day after day, even with cornerbacks Kevin King and Josh Jackson sidelined by injuries, defensive backs are breaking up passes. Brown, an undrafted rookie last year, probably leads the team with practice-field breakups. Up and down the depth chart, from safety Adrian Amos to second-tier players like Natrell Jamerson and Chandon Sullivan, the Packers are breaking up passes at an eye-opening rate.

“We’ve got to be close, we’ve got to be tight,” Amos said. “We don’t want to give them anything easy. If they made a play, they just made a great play. That’s the name of the game in the secondary – it’s about competing each and every play.”

Rodgers sees the difference. It’s been a long time since he’s been supported by a defense that’s been really good. Green Bay hasn’t fielded a top-10 scoring defense since 2010, when that unit finished second en route to hoisting the Lombardi Trophy. The Packers finished 22nd last season, 26th in 2017 and 21st in 2016.

For years, Rodgers and Co. ran roughshod on the practice field. The tide has turned this summer. The offense’s inconsistent performance might have something to do with a new-and-improved defense.

“They’re playing good. When they’re playing good, it kind of picks the level up of the entire practice,” Rodgers said. “We were getting after them pretty good today. I felt like they may have won the two-minute but I think we won the day. They wanted to bounce around about something so they were bouncing around about the two-minute drill. It’s been fun. The competition’s been great.”