The Green Bay Packers run defense suffered through another poor performance Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers. In fact, the run defense was the biggest cause of the team’s defeat in their winnable Week 10 game in the Steel City. The better performance of the previous two games was not repeated. Unfortunately, the Packers run defense suffered from both poor strategy and poor execution in this loss. Here is a look at what went wrong.
The Packers Run Defense by the Numbers
The Steelers entered this game ranked 25th in the NFL, averaging just 90.5-yards per game. But against the Packers, the Steelers ran 36 times for 205 yards. That’s a 5.7-yard average per rush. Both touchdowns Pittsburgh scored came on running plays and both were easy scores where the defense didn’t touch the runner until he was in the end zone.
Jaylen Warren gained 101 yards in the game. That was the first 100-plus yard game Warren had this season. In fact, he gained more than 40 yards in just one game prior to the meeting with the Packers.
Keep in mind, Pittsburgh gained only 119 net yards passing in the game. Their quarterback, Kenny Pickett, had only six touchdowns in the prior eight games of the season and the Steelers passing game was not considered a major threat. The defensive strategy should have been shut down the run and force Pickett to beat the Packers with his arm.
The Packers Run Defense’s Ill-Advised Strategy
Despite the Steelers having an inexperienced quarterback who was far from elite, the Packers opened the game with just two defensive linemen, four linebackers and five defensive backs. In other words, defensive coordinator Joe Barry emphasized defending the pass against a team with a weak passing game that was going to run the football.
Part of this approach may have been due to the absence of Jaire Alexander from the Packers secondary. With Alexander inactive and Rasul Douglas traded, the Packers started rookie Carrington Valentine and recent practice squad elevation Corey Ballentine as boundary corners. Of course, Quay Walker was also missing from the lineup at linebacker which further hindered the Packers run defense.
The Steelers came out and immediately moved the ball on the ground. Their opening drive went 75 yards on 10 plays. Six of those plays were runs and they gained 32 yards. Only two of those plays gained fewer than five yards and one of those was the four-yard touchdown run by Najee Harris.
The Packers did adjust later in the game, but by halftime, the Steelers had scored 17 points and gained 100 yards rushing on 20 carries. Their two running backs had 17 carries for 95 yards or a 5.6-yard average.
The Poor Execution for the Run Defense
The Packers run defense adjusted their approach and slowed down the Pittsburgh rushing attack in the third quarter. They held the Steelers to just 3.3-yards per rush. Pittsburgh held the ball for 3:57 in the third quarter and scored just three points. In that drive, they ran just twice for seven yards.
The Packers run defense had another big opportunity in the fourth quarter to shut down the Steelers running game and give the offense a chance to win. But instead, the Steelers ran the ball down the Packers throats and in the fourth quarter. They also averaged 7.3-yards per rush. With the game on the line, the Packers run defense came up short.
“When it counted, we gave up some critical run plays,” defensive lineman, Kenny Clark admitted. That included missed tackles, poor positional play and just getting beaten at the point of attack.
The Steelers added a field goal early in the fourth quarter when clinging to a 20-19 lead. The Packers then needed a touchdown rather than a field goal to win the game.
“We knew they wanted to run the ball, and, at the end of the day, we didn’t do enough,” Clark said. “We got into kind of a flow at the end of the first, second and third quarter but, at the end of the day, we gave up too many yards, quarterback scrambles, letting Najee run around, ‘30’ run away.”
The Packers Run Defense Needs to Be Better
When he was asked what went wrong, head coach Matt LaFleur was direct. “A lot of missed tackles,” he said. “We knew they were going to try to run the football, and they did it better than we did. They went out there and executed better than we did. We had a lot of calls designed to stop the run and they were still gashing us. It certainly wasn’t good enough. You can’t give up almost 200 yards rushing in this league and expect to win football games.”
Outside linebacker Rashan Gary agreed. “It’s making the corrections and people being where they need to be and people making plays how they need to make plays. That’s the only thing we did,” Gary said after the game. “We already knew the first two series where they were hitting us. Third series, we started clamping down, started getting tight. But we can’t start off like that. We gotta start off hot.”
The Packers defense must reduce missed tackles and do a better job of shedding blocks and maintaining position on the edge. It’s a problem they haven’t been able to fix consistently for years. Do they have it in them to get better?
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