World’s Best Preview: The Truth About Run Defense
Can the Green Bay Packers stop Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey on Sunday?
Perhaps a better question is whether it will matter.
McCaffrey leads the NFL in rushing yards per game (110.1) and is third in yards per carry (5.34). He’s got a scoring run of 40-plus yards in four of eight games, and topped 115 rushing yards and 6.0 yards per carry five times. Throw in his contributions as a receiver and McCaffrey deserves to be front and center in the MVP race.
Green Bay’s run defense, on the other hand, has been putrid for most of the season. The Packers are 24th in rushing yards allowed per game (127.7) and 25th in yards allowed per carry (4.73). They’ve allowed 120-plus rushing yards in six games this season, second-most in the league.
First of all, what’s wrong?
“It’s run fits,” defensive tackle Kenny Clark said. “When we’re playing those coverage snaps, it’s being able to leverage gaps and help each other out. We’ve got to get back to that so we’re all working together to help each other out.”
Former defensive coordinator Dom Capers used to compare playing run defense to a pair of gloves. With gloves, each finger has its own specific spot. In run defense, each player has a specific gap. If a defender leaves the gap through either a blown assignment or being blocked out of the way, a crease is formed.
Inside linebacker Blake Martinez, who’s been playing through a broken finger that has limited his ability to shed blockers and grab ball-carriers, said on some plays, a defender is swimming outside rather than inside. Other times, it’s not having a defender in the right place when the defensive line slants right or left. And other times, it's simply losing the physical battle.
“It’s been a misunderstanding with the multiple switching from personnel from speed to dime to base and all these different personnels, where a different guy’s in at the second linebacker spot and the different plays we put in each week,” Martinez said. “It’s the multitude of stuff. It goes down the list. It’s just little things here and there where we get out of the game and it’s like, ‘Wait, I should have been over here next to Blake in the A gap? Oh, well, that would’ve worked.’”
That those kind of mental mistakes are happening through nine games is confounding. Unless defensive coordinator Mike Pettine dials back his menu, what’s the solution?
“It’s one of the things we just talked about at our meeting,” Martinez said. “We need to get back to us, where we’re flying the ball, we’re being more physical, we’re attacking the ball. And it’s the small things at every position, whether it’s depth, hand placement, alignment – all those type of things that help you pre-snap to be effective.”
Maybe what happened last week against Los Angeles will help bring about a solution. The Chargers were the first team since the 1947 Lions to rush for 40 yards or less in four consecutive games. Against the Packers, they rushed for 159 yards. The Packers were drubbed 26-11.
“Losing definitely helps,” Clark said. “When you win and stuff goes wrong, I don’t want to say it slips under the rug but it doesn’t hurt as much. When you lose and you see what’s hurting, like having explosive plays and people being able to run the ball on us, it puts extra pressure on everybody and kind of wakes everybody up.”
Clearly, stopping the run will be a focus for the Packers against McCaffrey, and not just because McCaffrey has been such a dominant weapon this season. Teams that can run the football tend to run a lot of play-action passes. The Panthers are no different, with second-year quarterback Kyle Allen ranking sixth in the league with 31.0 percent of his passes coming off play-action. According to Pro Football Focus, he has a 96.1 passer rating on play action vs. 83.9 on standard dropbacks.
The key for the Packers – and not just this Sunday but for the rest of the season – is to play better run defense without Pettine having to sell out to stop the run. They’ve done it at times, with 2.8 yards allowed per carry vs. Detroit, 3.1 vs. Chicago and 3.9 vs. Denver.
“I could make a 30-play cutup of us playing great run defense and a handful of ones where we’re not, we’re giving up chunk plays,” Pettine said. “That’s been a frustrating thing, and it’s had a ripple effect through our play. When we can’t get teams behind the sticks and get them in adverse third-down situations, then you’re constantly having to play more honest defense (on) third-and-on-to-four, (and) that has an effect on you.”
The best way to judge run defense is yards per carry, not yards per game. Entering Sunday, 10 teams are giving up 4.0 yards per carry or less: the Jets (3.13), Tampa Bay (3.40), the Rams (3.56), Chicago (3.67), Atlanta (3.80), Philadelphia (3.82), Pittsburgh (3.86), Oakland (3.90), Denver (4.00) and Tennessee (4.00). Not a single one of those teams would be in the playoffs if the season ended today, and only the Rams (5-3), Eagles (5-4) and Raiders (5-4) are over .500. By contrast, eight of the top 10 teams in yards allowed per passing play would be in the playoffs. The two exceptions are the Bears and Broncos, who have been torpedoed by inept quarterback play.
Here’s another way to look at how playing dominant run defense doesn’t equate to a dominant performance. This season, teams allowing 3.0 yards per carry or less in a game are 29-23. Push that average to 3.5 yards per carry, and the record is just 45-45.
However, while there seems to be little correlation between playing good run defense and playing winning football, and while Pettine has pointed out countless times the fastest way to lose a game is to give up a bunch of 20-yard passes, Pettine still says there is urgency to tighten up their run defense.
“I certainly think it’s important. Run defense and run offense, you can say it doesn’t correlate but where the correlation can happen is how it helps you down the road in what kind of third downs are you in,” Pettine said. “When teams are throwing the ball, their run game has helped them. It’s either put them in a bad spot or put them in third-and-1-to-5, which teams are converting a heck of a lot more than 6-plus. I don’t think it’s that easy to quantify to say that from a correlation standpoint there’s a definite cause and effect. I do think it’s important to be able to run the football on offense when you’re a team that’s based in cold weather or you get leads on people and you want to be able to eat the clock up. If you had to prioritize one or the other, you’d say you’d lean more towards the pass. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be at least functional at the one.”