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Tom Oates: Defense must make its stand for the Packers to be successful now and in the playoffs

Tom Oates: Defense must make its stand for the Packers to be successful now and in the playoffs

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The Packers forced four turnovers and sacked Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins once during Green Bay's 21-16 victory on Sept. 15 at Lambeau Field.

MINNEAPOLIS — With two games to play in the NFL regular season, the Green Bay Packers are right back where they started.

Just as they did in September, they’re winning with defense.

It was unexpected back then, so much so that quarterback Aaron Rodgers proclaimed, “We’ve got a defense,” after the Packers opened the season with a 10-3 victory at Chicago. But what was a surprise in September has become a necessity in December.

Given the season-long inconsistency of Green Bay’s offense under first-year coach Matt LaFleur, the only way the Packers can build on a three-game winning streak and finish the season out right is if the defense can show that its improvement since the San Francisco debacle a month ago is real. Green Bay will take an 11-3 record into tonight’s NFC North Division showdown with Minnesota (10-4) at U.S. Bank Stadium, but the Vikings’ potent, run-first offense will severely test the revived Packers defense, even with star running back Dalvin Cook sitting out due to injury.

“I just think the emphasis (has been) towards the run game,” LaFleur said of his defense. “I think we’ve had a pretty good plan going into a lot of these games and obviously with what we have in front of us with the Vikings, who are really good at running the football, it’s going to be an emphasis again this week.”

The defensive problems through the middle portion of the season were twofold: The Packers couldn’t stop the run and couldn’t cover tight ends. For sure, the defense has forced turnovers, harassed passers and played tough in the red zone, but those improvements in coordinator Mike Pettine’s second season were overshadowed by the issues with the run and middle-of-the-field passes.

The statistics tell the tale. In the first three games, wins over Chicago, Minnesota and Denver, the Packers allowed 11.7 points and 328.3 yards per game. In the last three games, wins over the New York Giants, Washington and Chicago, they allowed 13.7 points and 337.3 yards per game. In the intervening eight games, however, they allowed 25.9 points and 400.1 yards per game.

Some of the improvement can be traced back to the level of the competition. The only productive offense the Packers faced in their first three games was Minnesota’s and their last three games were against offenses ranked in the bottom third of the league.

Still, there are reasons to think improvement has taken place. With the heavy influx of free agents and rookies during the offseason, the newcomers are finally up to speed in Pettine’s complex defense. Improved communication has reduced the number of missed assignments.

“There were times we weren’t all on the same page for sure,” Pettine said. “Those are the ones we’re striving to eliminate and hopefully have eliminated a good number of them. I just think it’s more plays in the system, guys are still getting more comfortable with it, with a lot of new faces this year plus the guys from last year, and we’ve changed a little bit from a year ago as well, not doing some of the things we were. It’s not that we’re running the exact same stuff as last year and they’re getting the same reps in it. That’s why I think guys feel more comfortable where we’re showing some improvement.”

The improvement against the run seems real, especially since the Packers slowed opposing running games while staying in a nickel scheme. They have held two of their last three opponents under 100 yards rushing. That happened only three times in the first 11 games.

It would be wise to take a wait-and-see approach on stopping tight ends, however. Elite tight ends Travis Kelce of Kansas City, Hunter Henry of the Los Angeles Chargers, Greg Olsen of Carolina and George Kittle of San Francisco burned the Packers for 25 catches and 376 yards in a recent four-game stretch. The Packers faced lesser tight ends in their last three games, giving up only eight catches for 78 yards.

Even without Cook, the Vikings will stress the Packers defense in both areas. Backup Alexander Mattison averages more yards per carry than Cook but is questionable with an ankle injury. Third-stringer Mike Boone showed he was capable by running for 56 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries last week. As for the pass defense, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins is having his best season and veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph has been a thorn in the Packers’ side throughout his career.

“It’s a challenge, there’s no doubt about it,” LaFleur said. “We know that they’re going to try and run the football. That’s the foundation of their offense. A lot of things play off their run game, whether it’s their keeper game or their play passes. It all starts with their run game and they’ve done a great job with their run game. So, just like last time, we’ve got to do a good job of setting edges, of trying to get penetration and being sound, fundamentally sound, guys playing their gaps, using the right techniques. It’s going to be good old-fashioned, physical fight.”

It’s the kind of fight the Packers will have to win tonight and in the upcoming NFC playoffs, which will feature top-10 offenses New Orleans, San Francisco, Seattle and Minnesota. Since the Packers offense doesn’t appear capable of winning shootouts with those teams, the onus is the defense to step up.

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Tom Oates has been part of the Wisconsin State Journal sports department since 1980 and became its editorial voice in 1996, traversing the state and country to bring readers a Madison perspective on the biggest sports stories of the day.

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