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Packers Are Kings of the North and Showcase Super Bowl-Caliber D

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystDecember 24, 2019

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - DECEMBER 23: Outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith #55 of the Green Bay Packers and linebacker Kyler Fackrell #51 of the Green Bay Packers celebrate after a sack against the Minnesota Vikings during the game at U.S. Bank Stadium on December 23, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The NFC North belongs to the Green Bay Packers, and they're a serious Super Bowl contender because of their defense.

"I think there's more work to be done, and I think that we can do more work," cornerback Jaire Alexander told The Athletic's Matt Schneidman last week. "But Super Bowl-level defense? Psshh, I like to think so, of course."

Think for a second about the transition Green Bay underwent.

Aaron Rodgers is arguably the most naturally gifted quarterback in NFL history. But he's not the driving force behind the Packers.

Running back Aaron Jones is the offensive focal point and deserves so much credit for developing into a feature back and providing one of the most productive seasons in franchise history.

Davante Adams snagged a career-high-tying 13 receptions for 116 yards in Monday's 23-10 victory over the Minnesota Vikings.

Left tackle David Bakhtiari is arguably the league's best pure pass-blocker.

Offense has been the Packers' calling card for decades, dating back to Brett Favre's heyday.

To think, the Green Bay defense ranked among the league's worst for multiple seasons during Dom Capers' final years. Three things dramatically changed between then and now.

First, Mike Pettine came on as the defensive coordinator. First-year head coach Matt LaFleur wisely retained Pettine, an aggressive play-caller who emphasizes multiple looks, pressure packages and turnovers.

Mike Roemer/Associated Press

Statistically, Pettine's unit isn't among the league's elite. It ranked 22nd in yards allowed entering Monday. But the Packers perform well where it counts: The group ranks in the top 10 in scoring defense. Plus, its 40 sacks place it among the top 13 defenses.

Second, Brian Gutekunst took over for Ted Thompson as general manager. The younger talent evaluator didn't adhere to his mentor's dogmatic belief in a draft-and-develop approach. Instead, the organization became far more aggressive in free agency, though the front office continues to find draft gems.

Third, Green Bay has playmakers at all three levels. Once upon a time, linebacker Clay Matthews served as the face of the defense with little to no help from other positions. It is now littered with those capable of changing the game with one play.

The unit overwhelmed the Vikings, their offensive line and quarterback Kirk Cousins. Minnesota averaged a woeful 2.6 yards per play and managed only seven first downs, as The Athletic's Sheil Kapadia noted.

Cousins, in fact, played his worst game of the season. He completed only 51.6 percent of his passes for 122 yards. An average of 3.9 yards per attempt is pathetic no matter how good the opposing defense is. The Packers sacked Cousins five times with far more pressure applied on a down-by-down basis.

"I gotta give it up to our defense. They really performed at an extremely high level," LaFleur told reporters after the game. "Coach Pettine did a great job getting these guys prepared, had a really good game plan, and just were able to get a lot of pressure on the quarterback."

Za'Darius Smith is the catalyst.

Smith and his bookend, Preston Smith, were the jewels of Green Bay's free-agent class and have powered the Packers' pressure packages.

The Z-Man demolished anyone who tried to block him Monday night. Za'Darius Smith registered seven tackles, five tackles for loss, five quarterback hits and 3.5 sacks. Those five tackles for loss were the most in a game by any defender this season, according to NFL Research.

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - DECEMBER 23: Outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith #55 of the Green Bay Packers celebrates a defensive play during the game against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium on December 23, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

But the stat line doesn't begin to tell how good he was during his latest performance.

Pettine knows he has something special in the 27-year-old edge-defender, who inexplicably didn't receive a Pro Bowl nod. The defensive coordinator created mismatches throughout the contest by moving Smith all over the line of scrimmage. Smith created pressure working from the edge, the 3-technique and over the center. None of the Vikings offensive linemen could handle the sack artist.

"It seemed like he was unblockable," LaFleur told reporters. "... You can't say enough about him, not only as a player but as a leader. And just how he totally embraces the team concept. ... He's been a huge addition to this football team."

Smith's 13.5 sacks place him among the league's elite. He's only the third defender ever with 13 sacks, 35 quarterback hits and 17 tackles for loss (since those became official stats), according to Zach Kruse of Packers Wire.

"Who the hell is this guy?" Bakhtiari thought when he first had to block Smith, per The Ringer's Robert Mays.

The Super Smith Brothers lead the league as teammates with a combined 25.5 sacks.

They're joined up front by Kenny Clark. The nose tackle isn't a typical space-eater. Clark has continued to develop and consistently collapses the pocket and gets to opposing quarterbacks. As of last week, he ranked second among interior defensive linemen with 58 pressures, according to Pro Football Focus (h/t NFL Network's Ben Fennell).

Quarterbacks simply have nowhere to go.

If by chance a ball-carrier gets going, inside linebacker Blake Martinez will likely track him down. He had a team-best eight tackles against the Vikings and is the league's second-leading tackler with 148 stops.

Finally, the secondary can clamp down or create turnovers.

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - DECEMBER 23: Cornerback Jaire Alexander #23 of the Green Bay Packers tackles running back Ameer Abdullah #31 of the Minnesota Vikings during the game  at U.S. Bank Stadium on December 23, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Alexander is a top-three cornerback alongside the New England Patriots' Stephon Gilmore and Buffalo Bills' Tre'Davious White. According to SB Nation's Peter Bukowski, Alexander has allowed only a single opposing No. 1 wide receiver to snag more than three catches. Only two have gained more than 40 yards.

To be fair, Stefon Diggs smoked Alexander for the Vikings' only touchdown and posted 57 receiving yards. Diggs, however, caught only three balls.

Opposite Alexander, Kevin King is wildly inconsistent. At the same time, he leads the Packers and is tied for fourth in the league with five interceptions. King picked Cousins when he deftly worked his way to the deepest threat from the backside of the play and plucked an intended pass to Diggs.

Safeties Adrian Amos and first-round rookie Darnell Savage are versatile pieces Pettine can use all over the field.

The Packers have all the pieces necessary to ride their defense well beyond a simple playoff berth. Right now, Rodgers and Jones are wonderful complementary pieces. Yes, you read that correctly. The defense is the driving force behind Green Bay's 12-3 record and division crown.

As everyone knows, defense wins championships. If that's the case, Green Bay has as good a chance as any squad to bring home the Lombardi Trophy.

"The North is not enough," the Packers' T-shirts read after Monday's victory.

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Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.

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