GREEN BAY — It was ugly, Kenny Clark confessed. Really ugly.
“You just look at the film, like, ‘How did this happen?’” the Green Bay Packers nose tackle said Monday, referring to the 176-yard gashing the defense endured during last Thursday’s loss to Philadelphia. “I mean, a lot of it is stuff we can fix. That’s the frustrating part about it.
“It’s little stuff that we can fix if we play to our rules.”
It may be little stuff, but it has added up to a big problem the past three weeks — and the challenge only gets bigger with the Dallas Cowboys and Ezekiel Elliott up next at AT&T Stadium on Sunday.
“We all know Zeke is a great running back. We’ve played him multiple times,” Clark said. “We’ve got a tough task ahead of us for sure.”
The Packers defense’s troubles against the run began with Minnesota in Week 2, when Dalvin Cook broke off a 75-yard touchdown run and the Vikings rolled up 198 total yards on the ground.
While the Denver Broncos didn’t have any of those long runs, they still managed a 149-yard effort in Week 3, putting together 15-, 15- and 12-play scoring drives and chewing up tons of clock (finishing with an 11 minute, 8 second advantage in time of possession).
Then came the Eagles, who left Fox Sports announcer Troy Aikman sounding only slightly hyperbolic when he claimed after the Packers’ 34-27 loss that the Eagles offensive line created bigger holes than he’d ever seen. The Eagles averaged 5.3 yards per carry as a team, but halfbacks Jordan Howard (15 carries, 87 yards, two touchdowns) and Miles Sanders (11 carries, 72 yards) averaged 6.1 yards per carry combined. They had four runs of 16 yards or more and they didn’t have a single negative-yardage run play.
Why? Packers coach Matt LaFleur said Monday what he saw on film was a lot of defenders failing to maintain gap integrity — whether that was the result of being forcibly moved from their location or doing so of their own accord as they tried to make a play defensively.
“We saw some guys getting out of their gaps — and that is the first thing that’ll get you beat in terms of trying to stop the run,” LaFleur said. “If you’re not playing your gap or the right assignment, then it’s a lot easier on the offense. We have to do a better job of being disciplined and staying in our gaps.
“We always talk about it on both sides of the ball, it takes all 11. It really does.”
According to Clark, there were far too many instances of defenders eschewing their responsibilities and trying to do too much. That created large swaths of open space, especially for Howard, who on one particular drive had four straight carries that took the Eagles into the end zone after Aaron Rodgers’ sack/fumble at the Green Bay 17-yard line.
“I don’t even know how I can explain it. Basically, we’ve just got to play our rules,” Clark said. “Everybody can’t be out there trying to do everybody (else’s) job. Everybody has to play their gap. I mean, you want to go out there and make plays, but for the most part, everybody’s got to do their job, really — be where we’re supposed to be.”
“We’ve just got to play our game, play fast, and the guys that are expected to make the play, you’ve got to make the play.”
Clark disputed the suggestion that defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s penchant for playing sub packages with extra defensive backs makes the defense more susceptible to allowing production on the ground. But Pettine did acknowledge last week the run was an issue, as were explosive plays. Sanders had a 30-yard run while Howard’s longest run was a 19-yarder.
“It’s a concern because some of the plays we were in a scheme that we should have stopped the run,” Pettine said before the Eagles game, referring to failures of the run defense against Denver. “We want to be good against it all. It’s not a conscious effort to say, ‘We’re just going to play coverage every snap and just bend and not break (against the run).’
“That’s been in our biggest issue, and we’ve talked in the room about it. ... The praise we’re receiving as a defense, our guys know that we’re nowhere near where we can be.”