GREEN BAY — Julius Peppers is still optimistic about the Green Bay Packers defense. Even though the group hasn’t given him much reason to be lately.
“Because that’s just how I am,” the 15-year NFL veteran replied this week when asked what gives him optimism in the wake of three consecutive losses — including Sunday’s 47-25 loss at Tennessee — in which their opponents have scored at least 30 points.
“I see a lot of guys working hard, a lot of guys trying hard. I see a team that’s resilient. We’re not going to give in to it. We’re going to find a way to make it happen.”
But can they?
Packers opponents have scored at least 30 points in four of their past five games (one of those touchdowns was Indianapolis’ 99-yard kickoff return TD two weeks ago). According to Elias, no Packers team has given up 30 points that many times over a five-game stretch since 1953.
Although they still rank in the top 5 in run defense and top 10 in overall defense, two areas where they were terrific to start the year — their run defense and their ability to get after the quarterback — have fallen on hard times. Green Bay went into Tennessee with the No. 1- ranked run defense, but for the second time this season, the unit faced a top-level rushing attack and struggled.
First, it was Dallas and Ezekiel Elliott, then it was DeMarco Murray and the Titans, who started the game with a 75-yard touchdown run. Although the Titans weren’t as productive running the ball thereafter (29 attempts, 87 yards), allowing such a big play to start the game was demoralizing, defensive coordinator Dom Capers admitted.
“We talk all the time when we’re going on the road about trying to start fast and not letting the opponent get the crowd in the game. (Against Tennessee), we did just the opposite,” Capers said. “There were a number of things that happened on the long run, but it’s certainly not the way you want to start the game. I do believe that first play had an impact on us the next few series.”
Indeed, the Titans wound up scoring touchdowns on their next three possessions, too. And when the unit finally did get a stop, returner Trevor Davis muffed a punt to set up yet another score. Penalties, including several offsides calls, hurt as well.
“We ended up with six defensive penalties during the course of the day. We talk all the time about when you have penalty-aided drives, they normally end up with points on the board. And that’s not the formula that you want,” Capers said.
Meanwhile, the pass rush has disappeared, too. The Packers enter Sunday night’s game with 23 sacks through nine games, good for 10th in the league. But it’s been the past three games when the rush has been a non-factor.
The Packers had two sacks Sunday on Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota — including a garbage-time sack from Datone Jones — but did not register another quarterback hit in the game. Over the past three weeks — with their best pass rusher, Clay Matthews, sidelined with a hamstring injury — the Packers have just six sacks and 11 quarterback hits. In the first six games, the Packers had 17 sacks and 41 quarterback hits.
“It’s not about one player. Never will be. There’s so much more to our football team than just our star players,” coach Mike McCarthy replied when asked how much the team misses Matthews. “Clay is an outstanding football player. He’s injured. It’s part of the game. We have an excellent group to work with, (but) we need to do things better.
“As far as who’s healthy, who plays, it doesn’t matter. It never will matter for my approach. This is a football team. It’s 11-on-11. This is not a two-man sport, a one-man sport or a 5-on-5 deal.”
But perhaps the most glaring issue is the lack of turnovers the Packers have generated. They are minus-1 in turnover differential, tying them for 18th in the 32-team league, but their defense has just 10 takeaways. That ranks them in the bottom half of the league; six other teams also have 10 takeaways, while seven other teams have fewer than 10.
Forcing turnovers was once the calling card of Capers’ defenses — from 2009 through 2014, no NFL team intercepted more passes, and only New England had a better turnover differential — but last year, the Packers tied for a middling 18th in takeaways (22).
“You’ve got to create some impactful plays. We did have an opportunity to make a few (against Tennessee) but we didn’t get them made,” Capers said. “That’s the nature of these games in the NFL. We talk all the time that two, three, four plays are critical plays in the game.”
And now, they’ll have to make such plays against a Washington offense that ranks fourth in the NFL in total yards (407.8) but 16th in points per game (23.8).
“We’ve just got to rally and we’ve got to find a way to stop the bleeding,” Peppers said. “Somebody has to make a play. I think that’s a little bit of what we’re missing right now — guys making plays, and that’s pretty much what the game is, having playmakers on the field make plays. So we’ve got to have a lot more of that, actually, a lot more of that moving forward.”