Blowout at 49ers Was Turning Point for Packers’ Defense

Bill Huber

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Defensively, the Green Bay Packers knew they had a big problem coming home from a 37-8 thumping at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers.

Green Bay might have been 8-3 but it was going nowhere fast the way its defense was playing. While the 49ers gained only 339 yards on the night, the Packers were gouged for six plays of 20-plus yards. Those plays accounted for 57.2 percent of the total output.

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In the seven-game stretch spanning Week 5 against Dallas to Week 12 against San Francisco, the Packers had allowed 35 plays of 20-plus yards, the sixth-most in the league. On the way home from San Francisco, the defensive players decided to get together an hour earlier than scheduled on Monday. Without the coaches, they decided to huddle together as a group to watch the big-play barrage.

What happened in that meeting, the players say, set the stage for Green Bay’s run to the NFC Championship Game. Fittingly, it’s a rematch at San Francisco.

“After that game, we all met as a defense, just the players, and watched all the explosive plays throughout the season,” linebacker Blake Martinez said on Wednesday. “As we were going through the plays, it became evident that certain guys in certain position groups thought they were doing the right thing and certain guys from other position groups thought they were doing the right thing. Throughout the whole time we were watching, it was like, ‘Oh, I thought I was supposed to be doing this.’ ‘Oh, well, I thought I was supposed to be doing this.’ It got to the point where it was like, ‘OK, let’s get on the same page, get on the same thought process.’ Each day through practice, we kept improving it and improving it, and it’s been excelling every week since then.”

The results have been instrumental to Green Bay’s late-season run.

During the team’s five-game winning streak to end the regular season, it allowed 16 plays of 20-plus yards. That was tied for the ninth-fewest. Essentially, the Packers cut their 20-yard play count from five per game to three per game.

More importantly, over those last five regular-season games, it allowed only one touchdown of 20-plus yards, fewest in the league. By contrast, including touchdowns against of 61 yards by tight end George Kittle and 43 yards by receiver Deebo Samuel in the loss to the 49ers, the Packers had given up seven touchdowns of 20-plus yards over the preceding seven games – third-most in the league.

As defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is fond of saying, a good defense is a noisy defense. Defenses that talk are defenses that are confident in what they’re seeing. Defenses that talk tend to be on the same page because any problems can be worked out before the snap.

“We came back to the drawing board, had conversations in meeting rooms, talked about some of the things that we needed to do better, and we really focused on it,” veteran defensive back Tramon Williams said. “We really focused on it. We were giving up too many big plays, and it wasn’t because we were incapable of covering it. It was because the communication wasn’t that great, and we made that a focal point of communicating better. Making sure that we overcommunicated, instead of assuming that guys knew what to do. So, we overcommunicate now, we make sure guys are in the right spots.”

The proof is in the pudding. During the season-ending winning streak, Green Bay allowed the second-fewest points in the league with 14.2 per game. That’s almost eight points less per game than the first 11 games. Even last week, Seattle’s rally had more to do with Russell Wilson’s brilliance than anything the defense did wrong.

“Without that game (at San Francisco), the way that game unfolded, we don’t know if we’d be the team we are right now,” Williams said. “I feel like because of that game, we’re a better team from it.”