Green Bay toughens up in 2013

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Bob McGinn, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Sunday, October 13, 2013

BALTIMORE—The evidence, based on observation and metrics, has shown the Green Bay Packers to be a bigger and more physical football team in the first four games than a year ago.

Nothing from the first quarter of the season supports the view more that the Packers will win at least 12 games in the regular season and be among the top two or three contenders to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.

Points, points, points. Passing, passing, passing,

It’s the law of the land in the National Football League these days, and it’s a game Mike McCarthy’s Packers will be able to play with the best of them as long as Aaron Rodgers remains a great quarterback.

But the impact of wide-open offense across the league gradually will lessen with the onset of cold weather and then winter.

Come December and the postseason, what will travel well and play well will be strong defense and a solid running game. To survive those critical end-of-season games, a team must have the bulk, the power and the toughness not just to compete but to win.

Based on what we’ve seen so far, the Packers are stopping the run as they did in 2009 when leading the league in run defense and running the ball even better than they did during their Super Bowl drive of 2010.

These are remarkable improvements from just last season, when the Packers were a subpar run defense for the third year in a row and weren’t much better trying to run it themselves.

They’re just 2-2 and bumping along behind two teams in the NFC North, but their standing and status should be changing in the near future.

The problems so far have been the never-ending cycle of injuries and a schedule that sent them to San Francisco and Cincinnati, a pair of Super Bowl-caliber teams that remain slightly better than Green Bay in the areas that matter most in the championship equation.

In San Francisco, the Packers played with a savagery on defense so unlike the unit that twice meekly succumbed to the 49ers a year ago. Indomitable Frank Gore, who controlled those games with 112 and 119 yards, did all he could behind an elite, massive offensive line to muster 44 yards in 21 carries.

As Clay Matthews said afterward, “One thing I can say about this defense is that I felt we put it all out there.”

The words of honest, outspoken Desmond Bishop one day after the playoff defeat at Candlestick Park basically said all that needed to be said about the 2012 defense.

“We just need a better mind-set as a defense,” said Bishop, an unemotional observer all year because of injury. “You see it in a few people, but you need an entire team in order to be successful. I think that’s what we need to change the most.”

Translation: The Packers lacked the hustle, the heart, the size, the tenacity and the direction of the truly respected defenses.

Still, when it came time to settle accounts on opening day, the 49ers were too strong. Their fourth-quarter pass rush, the other critical element of great defense, proved too much for the Packers’ offensive line, and Green Bay’s defense also folded at the end.

In Cincinnati, the Packers hit the Bengals with 182 yards on the ground partly because their center and guards dominated Geno Atkins. Last week, Bill Belichick said Atkins rated as the NFL’s most dynamic defensive tackle in years and probably would warrant being the first overall pick if he were in the next draft.

Again, the Packers failed to finish.

First, the pass defense crumpled.

Second, the offense couldn’t convert the late fourth and 1 because David Bakhtiari missed his block leading to Johnathan Franklin’s fumble trying to go over the top.

Third, Bakhtiari was on the ground after trying to execute the risky, unsightly cut block he had been instructed to make while Michael Johnson leaped overhead batting down the final pass.

Those final few minutes in San Francisco and Cincinnati reeked of weakness, and weakness loses. Now the Packers get another shot at finishing against the defending champion Baltimore Ravens.

At midweek, an AFC executive in personnel whose job includes studying endless hours of pro tape was asked to name what he considers the most physical teams in the league.

“The Jets, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh tries to be and San Francisco,” the scout replied. “Seattle isn’t with that first line. Green Bay, from a personality standpoint, is somewhere in the middle of the pack.”

Based on his assessment, the Packers will have played three of the NFL’s four most physical teams on the road in the first five games of the season.

On paper, the Ravens could be the most difficult game left on the schedule. Even then, the Packers are favored by a field goal.

The No. 1 reason why the Packers haven’t gone off yet is the talented pass rushes they’ve encountered. Baltimore will be the fifth foe in a row with not one but multiple outstanding rushers.

Cleveland’s stout defense will present another major obstacle next Sunday, but when the defenses generally diminish over the final 10 weeks there’s no telling how controlling Rodgers, his receivers and for once a legitimate ground game could be.

However, first things first. AFC foe or not, the Packers need to beat a good team on the road, and that’s Baltimore at a noisy and somewhat foreboding M&T Bank Stadium.

The Ravens are the type of team the Packers probably couldn’t even compete against if this were a year ago.

For the second straight year, the Ravens had the heaviest opening-day roster at 255.8 pounds per man. The Packers ranked 27th last year at 242.9; they were 10th at 250.4 as champions in 2010.

Shoved around by power teams such as the 49ers and Giants in 2012, general manager Ted Thompson rebuilt a roster that ranked seventh last month at 249.6. Now the Packers can walk into M&T with a 235-pound running back (Eddie Lacy), a muscular center (Evan Dietrich-Smith), a third wide body on the defensive line (Johnny Jolly) and outside linebackers (Mike Neal, Nick Perry) that are even bigger than the Ravens’ behemoths.

The ongoing transformation of the Packers from a semi-finesse to a semi-power team isn’t just about bulk.

Mostly it’s about attitude. Last week, defensive coordinator Dom Capers used Bishop’s word (“mind-set”) plus a word often used by McCarthy (“edge”) for what pleased him most about his unit against Detroit.

Given the Ravens’ tradition of toughness, did the Packers talk about the importance of being physical last week?

“Quite frankly, we’ve talked about physicality since we got together in the offseason,” replied B.J. Raji. “That was one of our goals as an entire team. We call it playing with an edge. We wanted the identity of our team to be in that mold.”

When the Packers carried the fight to Colin Kaepernick, Gore and that O-line, it was clear something was afoot. In the end they had been humbled by Anquan Boldin, but the glint in the eye of several defensive assistants the next week suggested they saw what I saw.

The pursuit, the gang-tackling and the renewed sense of team have been constants.

Tramon Williams and Sam Shields are sticking in their face these days. Neal is hard to handle because he’s a strapping 275 and playing with such violent hands. Brad Jones and A.J. Hawk are flying around, maximizing their ability. A beefed-up Mike Daniels is all man.

Perhaps the biggest difference is Jolly, a charismatic character none of his teammates would want to look in the eye after a whiff or half-baked effort.

Last season, the Packers had no chance trying to run with 40 percent of their front wall well below the NFL standard for aggressiveness. Jeff Saturday was washed-up physically and never should have been signed, and Marshall Newhouse wouldn’t go for the throat.

T.J. Lang is healthy, which he wasn’t for long stretches a year ago.

Lang has taken to the side switch better than Josh Sitton, but both have been mauling. Dietrich-Smith is so much more robust than Saturday.

Bakhtiari is getting quite a rookie’s rite of passage, but his confidence hasn’t waned and he never ceases trying to finish. Though even more undersized than Bakhtiari, Don Barclay hasn’t backed down from a fight yet in 10 career starts.

What we saw last year, McCarthy saw tenfold. In spring, he made it clear that he was sick and tired of this group not getting after people.

“Whenever coach McCarthy has put an emphasis on an area, the area is usually corrected,” said James Campen, his offensive line coach. “Every coach wants to see great fundamentals, but above anything you want to see aggressiveness and finish.”

The startling 141-yard rushing average isn’t just about the line.

Greg Jennings and Donald Driver were a little lean to stalk cornerbacks and crack safeties. Having the well-muscled tandem of Jordy Nelson and James Jones lined up outside every snap has helped ball carriers find another count of daylight.

James Starks, Lacy and Franklin have done well refusing to go down on first contact. In the passing game, Jermichael Finley and all three wideouts have been hard to tackle, too.

Now come the Ravens, who over the last 16 years have incredibly ranked among the top eight defenses in yards allowed per rush. Ray Lewis is gone, but ask the Miami Dolphins how impossible that front seven was to run against last week.

Baltimore’s offensive line has been woeful at times, but there’s bulk as usual and a commitment to run once Ray Rice returns to full health.

It’ll be crazy loud, too, and Matthews won’t be in uniform to provide a counterpoint to attack rushers Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil.

The Packers would be fools trying to stand toe-to-toe all afternoon with Baltimore. What the Packers must do is hold their own in the macho areas so their advantages on the perimeter can be decisive.

Nine months ago, the Packers weren’t equipped for the assignment. Today, they are.

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