Packers' new formula: Rely on defense rather than offense
By STEVE MEGARGEE AP Sports Writer
GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — The Green Bay Packers are relying on an unfamiliar approach to remain in their customary position atop the NFC North standings.
A franchise that has benefited from Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback play for most of the last three decades, first with Brett Favre and now with Aaron Rodgers, is getting more production from its defense than its offense.
"We're making a statement," linebacker Krys Barnes said Sunday after the Packers' 17-0 victory over the Seattle Seahawks. "I think the defense is playing at an elite level."
That's continued even as the Packers have faced three of the league's top quarterbacks in Arizona's Kyler Murray, Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes and Seattle's Russell Wilson over the last three weeks. They won 24-21 at Arizona, lost 13-7 at Kansas City with Rodgers, and handed Seattle its first shutout loss since 2011.
Green Bay ranks third in the league in yards allowed per play (5.1), yards allowed per game (309.9) and points allowed per game (18.0) under new defensive coordinator Joe Barry. Last year, the Packers were 17th in yards allowed per play (5.6), ninth in yards allowed per game (334.0) and 13th in points allowed per game (23.1).
Barry, like Rodgers, missed the Chiefs game while on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
"You want to keep building, keep building, keep building," cornerback Kevin King said. "You never want to think that, 'Oh, I've arrived. We did this the last three weeks.' It's like, three weeks from now you all might be saying something different."
The Packers have needed to play this championship-caliber defense because an offense that produced an NFL-leading 31.8 points per game a year ago isn't approaching those heights this season.
That offense likely will be missing 2020 Pro Bowl running back Aaron Jones at least for the next game or two due to a mild sprain of his medial collateral ligament that caused him to leave the Seahawks game early.
"I don't think it's going to be long term, but we'll just monitor it on a daily basis and see how fast he can heal up, because he's certainly a guy you want out on the field," coach Matt LaFleur said Monday.
Green Bay ranks 19th out of 32 teams in scoring with 21.6 points per game. The Packers had totaled seven points in a seven-quarter stretch before A.J. Dillon scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns Sunday.
They're averaging 5.5 yards per play, down from 6.3 last season, and rank 17th in the league in that category after placing second a year ago. Last year, they ranked fifth in yards per game (389). This year, they're down to 20th (339.4).
That offense has been dealing with uncertainty at the quarterback position since Rodgers tested positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 3. Jordan Love made his first career start in place of Rodgers at Kansas City on Nov. 7. Rodgers was back Sunday but wasn't as sharp as usual after not practicing in the week leading up to the game.
There are other issues as well.
Green Bay is missing center Josh Myers and tight end Robert Tonyan due to knee issues, with Tonyan's injury knocking him out for the entire season. David Bakhtiari still hasn't played since tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee Dec. 31, though the 2020 All-Pro left tackle is getting closer to making his season debut.
"I do think that there's a lot more out there for our offense, and I know we expect more out of the offense, there's no question," LaFleur said after Sunday's game. "So, hopefully, we come back and we're hungry and we attack it when we get back to practice on Wednesday."
The Packers haven't allowed a single point over their last six quarters, which represents their longest such streak since 2010. The last time they gave up fewer points through the first 10 games of a season was in their 2010 championship campaign. The last time they allowed fewer yards through their first 10 games was in 2009.
WHAT NEEDS WORK
Green Bay doesn't have a touchdown pass in either of its last two games. Of course, Rodgers didn't play in Kansas City.
Dillon had 128 yards from scrimmage against Seattle after producing 90 yards from scrimmage at Kansas City. … OLB Rashan Gary has four sacks over his last four games. … S Adrian Amos had an interception and three passes defended.
The kicking unit's struggles continue. K Mason Crosby missed a 42-yard field goal before hitting a 27-yarder. Since making a franchise-record 27 straight field-goal attempts, Crosby has gone 5 of 12. ... QB Blake Bortles was released from the practice squad Monday as QB Kurt Benkert was activated from the practice squad reserve/COVID-19 list.
Along with the Jones injury, Gary hurt his arm and OLB Whitney Mercilus hurt his biceps. LaFleur said Gary is still being evaluated. Without going into specifics, LaFleur didn't sound hopeful about Mercilus' situation.
"That's a tough one," LaFleur said Monday. "Man, I feel bad for him."
17 — The Packers have given up 17 points or fewer in seven straight regular-season home games dating to last season. The last time they did that was in 1968-69, when they allowed no more than 17 points in 10 consecutive regular-season home games.
The Packers get a chance to extend their 3 ½-game lead in the NFC North when they visit the second-place Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. Green Bay has a franchise-record seven consecutive victories in road division games.