Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will be in the cross-hairs for Green Bay’s final half-dozen regular-season games. A team that ranks 28th in yardage surrendered has no business being in the NFL playoffs. If Pettine can reduce both the rushing and passing yardage yielded in these final games by 30 yards each, that would put the Packers at around tenth best during that six-game stretch. For the reasons below it’s an attainable goal
On paper, the Packers easily have the personnel to be a top-ten defensive force. So, who’s not holding up their end of the bargain?
It’s certainly not the Smiths, the team’s two new edge rushers. While Preston is among the league leaders in sacks, Za’Darius has had even more QB pressures than his partner. With the pressure that Green Bay has consistently gotten on quarterbacks, it almost has to be the defensive backs who bear the bulk of the responsibility for giving up 257.8 yards per game – tenth worst in the league.
Backing up nose tackle Kenny Clark on the D-line are a group of adequate, though hardly exceptional, players: Dean Lowry, Tyler Lancaster, and Montravius Adams. Pettine has been rotating his 300+ pounders, with Lowry getting 63% of the snaps, Lancaster 37%, and Adams 23% – they ought to be fresh the rest of the way.
After a hot start, Clark, who fans thought was going to have a Pro Bowl year, cooled off. Pro Football Focus, however, couldn’t praise the 24-year-old fourth-year man enough for his efforts against Carolina. Having Clark in top form during the Pack’s stretch run could work wonders for this defense.
I don’t know whether to label Kyler Fackrell a lineman or a linebacker. Either way, in playing 36 percent of the defensive snaps, he has only 11 tackles and one-half sack – though he does have 6 QB hits. He needs to get more involved in the mayhem going forward.
All the members of the D-Line should be doing more to slow down opposing running backs. Upcoming rival RBs vary greatly in talent: the 49ers’ RB threesome have rushed for 1,299 yards in Shanahan’s run-happy offense; the Giants have Saquon Barkley, who rushed for 1,307 yards as a rookie in 2018; the Redskins rely upon hoary Adrian Peterson; Chicago’s RBs have cooled off, with David Montgomery at 3.5 ypc and scatback Tarik Cohen at 3.1; the Vikes’ likely All-Pro Dalvin Cook is already over 1,000 yards on the year, though on Sunday the Broncos held him to 26 yards on 11 carries – maybe Zimmer has worn him out; the Lions’ Kerryon Johnson is averaging only 3.3 ypc.
This brings us to the inside linebackers. Since 2017, Blake Martinez has easily been the NFL’s leading tackler, and he’s only two behind the Cards’ Jordan Hicks (who’s played an extra game) again this season. Plus, he’s played the last three games with either a club or a cast on his wrist. Add to that that he never misses games.
Yet two Packers-dedicated web sites in the past two weeks have gone so far as to suggest Green Bay drop him when his contract is up for renewal next season – what do these critics want, anyway?
Improvement may be in store at the other ILB spot. The current pecking order is Ibraheim Campbell, B. J. Goodson, and Oren Burks bringing up the rear. The Packers know Campbell well, as he finished 2018 with Green Bay, and they couldn’t wait to get him in the Carolina game as soon as he got off injured reserve. In getting a little more than half of the defensive snaps against the Panthers, Campbell registered six tackles.
The Packers clearly have two fine safeties in Adrian Amos and rookie Darnell Savage. Amos seems to be getting more comfortable with Pettine’s defense with each game – he had a 100+ yard pick-six go through his arms on Sunday on the play that Williams got the interception. Savage, injured against Dallas in Week 5, is just getting back to the form he showed in his first few games. I’m expecting these two to increasingly clamp down on opposing receivers over the ensuing six games.
Lastly, we have cornerbacks Jaire Alexander, Kevin King, and Tramon Williams. Pro Football Focus rates Tramon as the Packers’ top defensive back on the year, so I’ll take their word on it that the veteran’s wiliness is making up for his diminishing speed.
Alexander and King are super athletes, as shown by the fact they are the top CB tandem in the league in terms of passes defended: Jaire has 12 and Kevin has 11. Having said that, Jaire is having a down season compared with his eye-opening rookie year. He’s been a tad off all year – it’s critical that he play up to his potential the rest of the way.
King has overcome the injury jinx so far this year, but his inconsistency is nerve-wracking. He’s either all over his guy or he’s not even in the picture.
I view the biggest defensive culprits on the year as being these two young and talented cornerbacks. If each had just caught balls thrown right into their bread baskets, the Pack would have four or five additional interceptions, two or three of which would likely have been pick-sixes. Jaire in particular has pressed too much to jump in front of receivers, only to have them go deep without anyone backing him up. I’m looking for a world of rapid improvement from this duo.
There you have it. Guys who need to – and likely will – perform better for Pettine in the next six weeks are, in this observer’s order: Jaire Alexander, Kevin King, Kenny Clark, Darnell Savage, and Kyler Fackrell. You can add in Ibraheim Campbell as a guy who’s bound to benefit this defense.