The Green Bay Packers run defense continues to struggle. Through the first four games of the season, the Packers the Packers rank 22nd in the NFL giving up 126.8-yards per game on the ground. They are also allowing opponents to gain 5.0-yards per attempt which also places them 22nd in the league.
But the problem goes deeper than just numbers. The Packers defense has faced offenses that they knew would be running the football and yet the Green Bay defense couldn’t stop them.
In Week 1, the Packers were trailing the Vikings in the second half. They knew the Vikings would be running with Dalvin Cook and trying to control the clock. But the Packers couldn’t stop him and the Vikings iced the win. Minnesota gained 126 yards on the ground and averaged 4.5-yards per rush for the game.
In Week 2, the Packers faced the Bears, a team with a second-year quarterback in Justin Fields who the team doesn’t trust to win games with his arm. The Packers still yielded 203 yards on the ground to the Bears.
Against the Patriots, the Packers also knew the Patriots had to run the football. They started the game with Brian Hoyer, a journeyman veteran backup who hadn’t won a start since 2016. When Hoyer was injured in the first half after being sacked by Rashan Gary, the Patriots turned to rookie Bailey Zappe who had yet to take a snap in an NFL game.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick wasn’t going to have Zappe throw the ball downfield frequently to move the ball. That was a big risk and Zappe was likely to make a critical mistake that could lead to a turnover.
So, the New England stuck to their ground game. The Packers defense got a steady dose of Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson. But they couldn’t stop them. Harris gained 86 yards on 18 carries and ran for a touchdown and Stevenson added 66 yards on 14 rushes.
The Packers defense was supposed to improve against the run this season. The team surprised most experts by drafting two defensive players in the first round in Quay Walker and Devonte Wyatt. This would allow the defense to keep to inside linebackers on the field at the same time which would mean they would still be able to stop the pass becoming too small to stop the run.
Thus far, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. There are multiple reasons for the team’s struggles thus far. The defensive line added free agent Jarran Reed and the Packers retained Dean Lowry who many expected to become a cap casualty. But too often in the opening four games of the season, the defensive line has been pushed back at the snap of the ball. That has also helped blockers get to the second level and take out linebackers and safeties who comes up to make tackles in run support. That makes it tougher for the defense to stop the run.
Wyatt has yet to play much this season. Through four games, the first-round rookie has only been on the field for 28 defensive snaps, an average of just seven per game and just 12 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. His run defense grade has actually been good according to Pro Football Focus but his impact has been minimal.
Also, inside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell hasn’t played up to his All-Pro level of a year ago. Granted, 2021 was a career year for Campbell and he was a tackling machine both against the run and in pass coverage. This year, Campbell hasn’t quite lived up to his performance in his first season with the Pack. Campbell has missed more tackles this season and hasn’t been nearly as dominant. The defense would certainly improve if he returned close to his play of a year ago.
Walker earned a starting job at the inside linebacker position opposite Campbell. Walker has outstanding speed and has the potential to be a quality starter for the Packers for years to come. But at this point in his career, the former Georgia star is still adjusting to life in the NFL. Walker makes some good plays but he also struggles to take the proper angle to the ball carrier and doesn’t always stay in his lane on running plays. Once Walker gains experience, he should be able to improve in this area but until then, the defense will likely have difficulties stopping the run.
The strategy defensive coordinator Joe Barry has implemented this year emphasizes stopping the pass. The new setup which keeps two inside linebackers on the field most of the time was designed to improve the defense against the run without sacrificing the pass defense. Thus far, the pass defense has been among the best in the league, but the run defense still needs to improve if this team hopes to win later in the year against quality opponents.
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