Commentary

Packers feeling defensive about the D

Yes, they give up a lot of yards, but players say turnovers are the key

Originally Published: December 16, 2011
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

The Green Bay defensive players know how the numbers look, and that the presumption is if the Packers lose a game this season, it will be because the defense, not the offense, lets the team down.

Defense, after all, wins championships in the NFL, and Green Bay's D ranks 31st in total yards allowed and 31st in passing yards allowed, better only than the similarly flawed New England Patriots. The Packers have allowed a grotesque 394.7 yards per game, including 288.7 passing yards per game. Seven times the defense has allowed more total yards than the offense, which ranks third in the league overall, has put up.

It is all there, and the Packers players see it, but they see this, too: Green Bay leads the league in interceptions, and it is not even close. They have 27 this season. Three teams are tied for second with 18.

This year could be the exception to the NFL rule because, although struggling to stop teams from churning out yards, the Packers are effective creating turnovers and then turning those turnovers into points. Give Aaron Rodgers the ball, and he is going to make something good happen. The Packers' defensive players know that too.

"Huge," Packers safety Charlie Peprah said when I asked him to put a value on creating turnovers. The Packers stress it, and it will be especially true when the calendar flips to January and every possession matters.

"You know, most teams, especially moving forward, they're going to try to steal possessions from our offense in some type of way," Peprah said. "So our mindset on defense is to give a possession back to Aaron and them. If we can get a chance to catch a ball or cause a fumble, we're trying to give it back to our offense as many times as we can. Let's get up top and get ahead, and we can play our game. That's kind of the mindset, man, just get the ball back to ARod and those guys as often and as much as possible."

[+] EnlargeClay Matthews
Al Bello/Getty ImagesClay Matthews' interception against the Giants was one of 27 this season for Green Bay, which leads the league.
In Mike McCarthy's tenure in Green Bay, the Packers are 46-6 (an .885 winning percentage) in the regular season when they win the turnover battle, and 6-20 (.231) when they don't. In every game this season, they have either created more turnovers or finished even with the opponent. Their plus-20 turnover differential is second in the league, and their 104 points scored off turnovers is third.

Also, they are the only team this season with three players -- Charles Woodson (seven), Tramon Williams (four) and Peprah (four) -- who have at least four interceptions each.

"Turnovers are emphasized on this defense, and whether that comes in the form of interceptions, fumbles, fumble recoveries, it really doesn't matter," said Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, who picked off Eli Manning in Week 13 and returned the interception 38 yards for a touchdown.

"But it seems to me that we've got a lot of ballhawks on this defense who are making plays. Fortunately we're able to come up with the majority of them. When we get our hands on them, that's really key, especially when our offense is playing the way in which they are. To stop the opponent on offense and give it to ours, it usually turns out to be seven points for us."

That was the case against Oakland on Sunday, when the Packers intercepted Carson Palmer four times. The first came on the Raiders' opening possession when Brad Jones picked off a pass intended for Darrius Heyward-Bey, giving the offense the ball on the Packers' 48-yard line. After a defensive holding penalty against Oakland, Ryan Grant busted a 47-yard run to give Green Bay a 7-0 lead.

In the second quarter, Woodson made his seventh interception of the season, stepping in front of a pass again intended for Heyward-Bey. Four plays later, Grant found the end zone again for a 31-0 lead.

The Packers did not score on the other two interceptions -- by Rob Francois and Sam Shields -- but Francois intercepted Palmer in the end zone at the end of the first half and Shields intercepted Palmer on the Raiders' last possession, when the game was long over.

"You know, the thing is, we expect [the offense] to score," Woodson said. "So for us to come up with turnovers and get the ball back in their hands, we feel real good about what they're going to do once they have an opportunity. … Those things work hand in hand. If you've got an offense and a quarterback that's playing the way he's playing, you give those guys opportunities and good things are going to happen for you."

That will be the formula for the playoffs. An extra possession could be the difference between winning and losing, although the way the Packers are putting points on the board, at a rate of 35.8 per game, it might not matter.

The defensive players said they hoped to use the Raiders game as a building block. They would like to erase the perception that they aren't very effective slowing teams down. The No. 31 ranking doesn't tell the whole story of the Packers' defense, but it is still there, a black mark on an otherwise stellar season.

"Well, I wouldn't say [turnovers are] more important, because statistically you want to be tops in the league, but at the end of the day it's all about winning," Peprah said. "If that's the formula and that's what it's going to take, then hey, that's what we're going to do.

"But at the same time, we want to make it look a certain way. It all matters, but right now we just need to keep turning the ball over and giving the ball back to Aaron, and that seems to be the right formula."

Ashley Fox is an NFL columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @AshleyMFox.