In the Green Bay Packers’ Week 3 showdown against the New Orleans Saints, NBC announcer Cris Collinsworth expressed, “This Packers defense is built for shootouts.”
Based on the play of the defense over the last three weeks, it doesn’t seem like this is a compliment.
The Packers offense is obliterating defenses on a weekly basis. Their own defense has … survived? Despite starting the season 3-0. the defense has given up 34, 21, and 30 points to its first three opponents. Because the offense has been so dominant, the Packers keep winning. But to keep winning, the defense as a unit needs to find it’s footing.
The most positive way to interpret Collinsworth’s comment is that when the offense puts up a big lead, it forces teams to throw the ball more. This creates more opportunities for the pass rush to do its job, and it takes pressure away from the Packers’ porous run defense. Put that way, it doesn’t sound as bad. Yet it forces the offense to pick up the defense’s slack. What happens when the offense can’t put up 35+ points a week?
Additionally, the Packers aren’t getting to the quarterback the way they did last season. The Packers currently have six sacks as a team, with your team leaders Za’Darius Smith and Kingsley Keke having two a pop. At this point in 2019, the team had 12 sacks. Sacks aren’t the be-all-end-all matrix for pass rushers, but you’d like to see more anyway. If the defense is made “for shootouts” it needs to get to the quarterback.
Surely the lack of Kenny Clark complicates matters. When your only star defensive lineman is out and there’s a lack of interior pressure, it makes everyone on the outside’s job more difficult. And a strange offseason certainly didn’t help matters.
Thankfully, things aren’t all gloom and doom for this defense. The team is, after all, 3-0. Despite giving up big plays at inopportune times (first drives, right before halftime, etc.), the defense has stood its ground when the game was on the line. As we saw Sunday, despite a fairly quiet night overall, Za’Darius Smith came up with a game-changing fumble recovery against Packers’ sleeper agent Taysom Hill. Chandon Sullivan had a momentum-altering interception against the Lions in Week 2. The defense has played good enough to survive games.
And, to be fair, there is always an element of luck. The Saints had two fumbles in Sunday’s game they were able to recover due to favorable bounces. Should the football have bounced its way into the hands of a Packer defender, maybe the narrative is completely different.
This defense is flush with individual talent as well. Jaire Alexander, minus one bad tackle Sunday night, has played phenomenal football and has become one of the best man corners in the NFL. Kevin King, for the most part, has been an exceptional compliment, while Chandon Sullivan is a bright up-and-coming player. Despite comparably lower numbers compared to last season, we know what the Smith Bros are capable of, and Rashan Gary is evolving into a stud pass rusher, too. When Kenny Clark returns, the Packers will regain one of the best nose tackles in the league.
The individual performances are there; the team just needs to work better as a cohesive unit. As a unit, the defense lacks a true identity. The pass rush isn’t getting home enough, and takeaways aren’t coming in bunches. The defensive line and inside linebacker positions lack depth. Mike Pettine needs to show a willingness to adapt and put his players in the best position to succeed, and the players need to execute. Missing five tackles on a checkdown play to Alvin Kamara is inexcusable.
The Packers are 3-0, and it feels great. But the defense will need to improve as a unit to keep the momentum going. It’s a long road to February, and the fate of the team can’t solely rest in the hands of the offense.
Matt Hendershott is a Packers fan and Miller High Life enthusiast from Northwest Ohio. He has a Master of Arts in Media and Communication from Bowling Green State University. You can follow him on Twitter @MattHendershott.