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Jim Polzin: It's taken a village to make the Packers' defense one of the best in the NFL

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polzin jump page photo 11-18

Packers cornerback Rasul Douglas celebrates during the second half of Sunday's win against the Seahawks. 

GREEN BAY — Aaron Rodgers was asked a question about the Green Bay Packers’ defense earlier this week and ended up naming 11 players during a long-winded answer.

Thing is, all of them were deserving of a shout-out from the veteran quarterback even though it’s hardly a star-studded group.

“I think there’s a lot of guys who might not be big-name guys who have been playing really good football for us,” Rodgers said.

That helps explain why the Packers, 10 games into the 2021 season, are ranked No. 3 in the NFL in total defense heading into a matchup with the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Green Bay sitting that high in a key stat category this deep in the season — despite injuries that have cost standouts Jaire Alexander and Za’Darius Smith a combined 15 games — should be enough to turn even the biggest of skeptics into at least partial believers. You can’t see it, but my hand is raised.

It’s also a testament to the work of a lot of people, from front-office types to coaches to the players themselves.

Let’s stick with that order, even though this is by no means an attempt to rank who deserves the most credit for the defense’s surprising success to date.

General manager Brian Gutekunst’s fingerprints are all over this unit. The offseason signing of inside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, who’s second in the NFL in solo tackles, may end up being one of the best personnel moves in the league. Campbell not only solidified a position that has been a weakness for years, he’s been a legitimate playmaker and arguably the team’s defensive MVP.

While that was the best move by Gutekunst and his staff, grabbing Rasul Douglas off Arizona’s practice squad deserves honorable mention. The veteran cornerback came up with the game-saving interception in the win over the Cardinals last month and has been solid at a key position ravaged by injuries.

Meanwhile, two of Gutekunst’s previous free agent signings, safety Adrian Amos and outside linebacker Preston Smith, are respected voices and key performers on defense.

Outside linebacker Rashan Gary and safety Darnell Savage have blossomed in their third seasons, showing why Gutekunst selected them both in a span of nine picks during the first round of the 2019 NFL draft. The Packers’ 2021 first-round pick, cornerback Eric Stokes Jr., has started seven games with precious few rookie moments along the way.

The decision by Packers coach Matt LaFleur to hire Joe Barry as defensive coordinator, replacing Mike Pettine, was a head-scratcher at the time but has quieted critics.

Two things were concerning about the Barry hire: poor results in his previous stints as a defensive coordinator in Detroit and Washington, and the fact he’d be leading a staff in which each of the position coaches had been retained after coaching under Pettine.

To hear LaFleur and the players tell it, that marriage has gone smoothly. To Barry’s credit, he’s let the assistants coach their positions while seeking their input. To the assistants’ credit, they’ve been able to adjust quickly to a new leader.

“I think Joe’s done a great job of bringing that type of culture, allowing the assistant coaches to coach the heck out of their guys and be a part of the process,” LaFleur said. “And I’m just really happy with the progress our defense has made.”

That progress wouldn’t be possible without individual improvement. Nose tackle Kenny Clark started the season slowly but is playing at an All-Pro level. Role players such as defensive linemen Dean Lowry, Kinglsey Keke and Tyler Lancaster, along with cornerback Chandon Sullivan and inside linebacker Krys Barnes, have gotten better.

“It’s a lot of guys playing really good football,” Rodgers said, “and then the scheme is allowing them to get comfortable in it and to find where they can add their own creativity to those positions.”

The Packers (8-2) are in the midst of a key five-game run that will go a long way in determining their spot in the NFC playoff pecking order. They’ve gone 2-1 over the past three weeks — sandwiching wins over Arizona and Seattle around a Rodgers-less defeat at Kansas City — and the defense has done most of the heavy lifting during that stretch. Kyler Murray, Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson combined for one touchdown pass and a 59.7 QB rating against the Packers.

As LaFleur has pointed out multiple times recently, a unit is only as good as its last game and the Green Bay defense has another difficult test up next. Minnesota (4-5) is ranked No. 8 in total offense, with playmakers at wide receiver (Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen) and running back (Dalvin Cook) surrounding quarterback Kirk Cousins.

The Packers had the No. 9 total defense in the NFL last year under Pettine and look how that ended: with him out of a job following a loss to Tampa Bay in the NFC title game. So crowning this defense at what would be the midway point of what Green Bay is hoping will be a 20-game schedule this season is premature.

But Rodgers praising a “championship-level defense” after the way it performed while shutting out the Seahawks last Sunday was notable. He’s been around plenty of bad defenses during his time in Titletown, but this one appears to have the necessary pieces to hold up its end of the bargain when it matters the most.

Contact Jim Polzin at jpolzin@madison.com.

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