The defense has been playing significantly worse since Aaron Rodgers' injury, and should markedly improve when he returns.
Having Rodgers under center is equally as important to both the run game and the defense as it is to gaining yards through the air and putting points on the board.
Below is a close breakdown of the performance of the run game on the offensive side of the ball and the front seven and the secondary on the defensive side since Rodgers was sidelined. It helps make clear the role Rodgers plays at the center, as the hub of the wheel from which the other areas of the game radiate like spokes to form an efficient whole.
Run Game Runs into a Wall Without Rodgers
The Packers have not won a single game this year in which they did not rush for at least 100 yards and pass for at least 250. That newly found balance between the run and the pass carried them undefeated through October, a month that saw them win four straight games, gaining an average 275.5 yards through the air and 151.5 yards on the ground per game.
Compare those numbers to 2012, when the Packers averaged 253.1 passing yards per game and just 106.4 on the ground, which put them at No. 20 in the league in rushing production per game.
In 2013, Eddie Lacy emerged, getting solid relief from James Starks when necessary, and the ground game has surged as a result. The Packers have risen to No. 6 in the league in rushing yards per game this season, at 139.9; however, when Rodgers was injured in Week 9, the run game hit a wall—literally.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, in the Packers' first eight games, opponents brought seven or more men in the box on just 25.5 percent of their total offensive snaps.
The effects of those defensive looks are highlighted in the below table. In short, without the threat of Rodgers' arm, the Packers are netting fewer yards on nearly the same number of attempts. Most notably, they are averaging far fewer yards per attempt due to the extra unblocked defender in the box.
(Note that for all stats, the three games without Rodgers as starter are compared to the rest of the season; the game against Chicago that he started is included with the first eight.)
|Average Carries Per Game||Average Rushing Yards Per Game||Average Yards per Attempt Per Game|
|Games with Rodgers as Starter (8)||29.5||148.6||5.5|
|Games without Rodgers as Starter (3)||28||116.7||3.9|
"They're starting to bring a safety down, and it's unblocked," Lacy told Fox Sports Wisconsin's Paul Imig. "We don't have a person for that unblocked defender, so no matter what run we play, he just shoots a gap and he's a free hitter."
When Rodgers is in the game, defenders leave that second safety up high more often than not, not wanting to take the chance of Rodgers' arm in a weak zone backfield.
In football, however, the ebb of defensive adjustments are met with the flow of new offensive strategy, and so the cycle goes. On Sunday versus Minnesota, Lacy was prepared for and responded to the pressure he had come to expect from opponents up front.
I wrote about Lacy's tackle-breaking ability here, and he upped the ante on Sunday. Per ESPN Stats & Information, 56 of Lacy's 110 yards on the ground were after contact. That power and vision propelled the Packers to their second-highest rushing yards total of the season, despite having the second- and then the third-string quarterback under center.
That development is certainly a boon to the run game in Rodgers' absence, but the Minnesota defense is not exactly stout. The Vikings are allowing the eighth-most rushing yards per game, at 119.3.
Lacy may not be able to break many tackles up front against the Lions, who are allowing just 88 yards on the ground per game.
The less-successful run game without Rodgers also ties into clock management, as being behind in the fourth quarter doesn't lend itself to running the ball, giving opponents the advantage in ball control, which affects the performance of the defense.
Rodgers' Absence Exposes Defense
It's been a chain reaction: the Packers offense has struggled to both put points on the board and to control the ball without Rodgers, and thus the defense has spent more time on the field. Every point it has allowed opponents has been a point the offense struggles to match, which makes for a losing equation almost every time.
As Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier told reporters last week, as reported by ESPN's Rob Demovsky, "good quarterback play can cover a lot of ills on your team." The defense, after an uninspired start to the year, was making improvements, all of which took a nosedive in the last four games.
Time of possession and ball control is a huge factor. Those who don't understand the nuance of football scoff at the idea of a defense becoming fatigued; after all, isn't it their job to play for 30 or 31 minutes if need be?
Truth is, defenses like the Packers', when accustomed to a certain amount of offensive firepower that quarterbacks like Rodgers bring to the table, aren't built to consistently be on the field more than the offense week after week.
In Rodgers' absence, that is what has been happening.
|Defense Time on Field||Defensive Snaps Per Game||Opponent Average Plays Per Game|
|Games with Rodgers as Starter (8)||28:02||66||62.5|
|Games without Rodgers as Starter (3)||33:47||70||67.0|
|Last Game (vs. MIN)||40:33||81||79.0|
This increased strain on the defense, compounded with the injuries to both the front seven and the secondary (including Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Brad Jones, Johnny Jolly, Casey Hayward, James Nixon, Sam Shields, Jarrett Bush and Morgan Burnett), caused a noticeable decrease in the team's production, as shown below.
|Yards Allowed Per Game||First Downs Allowed Per Game||Passing Completion % Allowed Per Game||Rushing Yards Per Attempt Per Game|
|Games with Rodgers as Starter (8)||345.0||18.9||62.23%||4.3|
|Games without Rodgers as Starter (3)||398.7||22.0||69.88%||4.9|
Much of the reason the defense has struggled in Rodgers' absence has to do with defensive formation. Capers will call very different plays when the Packers are ahead in the second half as compared to when they're playing from behind, and in each of their last three games, the Packers have headed into the fourth quarter down by at least seven points.
That didn't happen once in the eight games Rodgers started.
When the Packers are playing from behind, Capers is going to be forced to play eight men in the box because opponents are going to run the clock down by rushing the ball. Of course, that also invites teams to burn the Packers on the occasional huge gain through the air.
The secondary is 20th in the league in yards per game allowed, with 244. Only playing one high safety for most of the second halves of the last three games, in order to stack the box against opponents' increased rushing, has pushed an already weak secondary over the edge.
The secondary could help itself in Rodgers' absence by bringing the Packers' turnover differential back into the positives, but it's tied for dead last with only four interceptions on the year. The Packers have a negative turnover differential for the first time since 2006.
The run defense has also taken a nosedive from early this season, when it was ranked third in the league, to its current standing at 19th; however, it's essential to remember that in addition to any unblocked gaps or missed tackles that may be a result of poor play by the front seven, Green Bay's run defense is just seeing a entirely different kind of offensive attack since Rodgers was injured.
Below is a screenshot of the Vikings' first play of their first full drive in the fourth quarter on Sunday.
The Packers have stacked the box, bringing safety Sean Richardson down as the eighth man. Peterson only gained five yards on the play, but in this formation, if he breaks the first line of defense, he could be off to the races with only one high safety to contain him in the backfield.
The Packers were forced to use the same formation while playing from behind in the fourth quarter against both the Giants and the Eagles. In all three of those drives in those three games—after the Packers brought a safety down to the box—opponents completed a pass of at least eight yards.
The play of the defense has been a sore subject among Packers fans in 2013, but it's essential to dig deeper and find patterns in its inconsistent performance. Looking at the production in weeks Rodgers has started versus weeks he has not, there's no question that Rodgers enables the defense to be more successful.
Green Bay's run game, passing game and defense are not separate and distinct from one another with rigid boundaries. Each influences the other, and when one aspect of the game suffers, it infects another and spreads.
When Rodgers returns—unlikely, according to Mike McCarthy, for Thursday's game versus Detroit but possibly for the following week against Atlanta—the offense will receive a boost in time of possession and points scored per game.
When opponents once again fear the pass and the run equally, the Packers will see fewer defenders in the box, which will allow Lacy to punish them. When opponents do bring a safety down to contain the run, Rodgers will have his opportunities to attack through the air.
Putting points on the board and controlling the clock by running the ball—which the Packers will have freedom to do if they aren't playing from behind, as they have been forced to do so often in Rodgers' absence—means the defense is on the field for fewer snaps and is fresher. The pressure to make up for the play of the backup quarterbacks is lessened.
Many have quipped that Rodgers doesn't play defense, so his return won't fix the team's biggest problems on that side of the ball, but the impact Rodgers will have on the defense, simply being present on the field, can't be underestimated. The boost it will receive from his return may just be enough to carry the team against the Falcons, Cowboys, Steelers and Bears and into the postseason.