Packers have 'got a defense,' but it's hard to figure

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Aaron Rodgers' beaming "we've got a defense" proclamation seemed apropos at the time.

The Green Bay Packers offense had just struggled its way through the season opener, but the quarterback walked off Soldier Field a winner because those on the other side of the ball held the Chicago Bears to merely a field goal. The free-agent trio of Adrian Amos, Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith did exactly what they were signed to big-money contracts to do: produce game-changing plays that the Packers defense had previously lacked.

Three months later, and with the Bears playing the return game on Sunday at Lambeau Field, it's worth wondering if Rodgers just got swept up in the moment and his words were all poppycock or if the Packers' defense can once again pick up this team if the offense clunks its way through another game like Sunday's ugly -- Rodgers' word -- 20-15 win over the punchless Redskins.

"All of us are competitors. All of us are smart people. We understand what this was," linebacker Blake Martinez said Sunday. "We went against -- not saying they're a bad team but we know we're better than them. We didn't show our full potential. For us, I think we'll be disappointed because of it. We have to fix those things, especially when we play teams that are the same caliber as us."

The Packers' defense looks hard to figure.

Individually, there have been dynamic performances:

  • Preston Smith leads the team with 11.5 sacks, six of which have come on all-important third downs.

  • Za'Darius Smith also has double-digit sacks (10) and leads the NFL in pressures, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

  • Jaire Alexander ranks second in the NFL in pass breakups, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

  • Amos is one of four Packers with multiple interceptions, and he's played all but four defensive snaps this season.

  • Kenny Clark, who is in line for a sizable contract extension, is coming off a 1.5-sack game on Sunday.

  • Yet collectively, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's crew looks less than the sum of their parts.

With three games to play, they rank lower in several statistical categories than they did last season. Among them are yards allowed per game (22nd this year vs. 18th in 2018), yards allowed per play (26th vs. 14th), yards allowed per rush (27th vs. 13th), passing yards allowed (21st vs. 12th) and third-down percentage (18th vs. 13th).

Perhaps none of that matters given what they've done in four key areas: takeaways (tied for sixth this year vs. 29th in 2018), interception rate (fourth vs. 31st), red-zone defense (13th vs. 22nd) and, perhaps most importantly, points allowed (tied for sixth vs. 29th).

"I always think the critical situations are really important in terms of third-down conversion, red-zone defense -- which, we've done a really good job, by and large, for the most part, this year," Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. "I think [Sunday] they were 2-for-2 in the red zone so that wasn't good enough, but shoot, the last one, the kid, [Redskins receiver Terry] McLaurin, made a heck of a catch, and I think if that ball's anywhere else [Darnell] Savage picks it off. You've got to give him credit. He made a great catch.

"I just think, too, first- and second-down efficiency is so important. Because just like I talk about our offense being in those third-and-long situations -- we've had too many of them -- I think when you look at our defense, there's been too many third-and-shorts and teams are converting on us."

Explosive plays have been the defense's bugaboo. The Packers have allowed 16 plays of 40-plus yards (second-most in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information) and 53 plays of 20-plus yards (11th-most in the NFL).

"You want to be dominant, but if that's off the table, then certainly you want to make sure if you're going to choose where you're going to be good, it's going to be keeping teams out of the end zone," Pettine said before the Redskins game. "I think that's one thing, given the issues we've had this year, one thing where we have done a good job.

"You also don't like it too when you have No. 12 on the other side of the ball. Just look at some of the long drives we gave up. We want him back out there. So as I always say, we play our best defense sitting on the bench. So that's key for us; we've got to get off the field."