Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Rebuilding project has gone quickly
Packers match their start of 2017 with dominant defense
GREEN BAY – Two years ago almost to the day, the Green Bay Packers escaped the same monolith in a football-crazed state, winners of their fourth game in five weeks, seeping invincibility.
When Aaron Rodgers got the football at the 25-yard line that Sunday afternoon, needing a touchdown with 73 seconds left, it was a foregone conclusion how the drive would end. Nine plays later, the last a 12yard pass to Davante Adams that drove an
other last-second win deep into the heart of Texas, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones acknowledged his team left too much time on the clock.
“You've got to have the ultimate respect for Rodgers,” Jones said then, “in terms of his team.”
Leaving Texas that night, it was fair to wonder when Rodgers' team might lose next. The Packers seemed unshakable, an offense that couldn't be stopped, if not quite a team clicking on all cylinders.
Rodgers, fresh off “run the table” one season earlier, was at the height of his game, positioning himself for a third MVP. Mike McCarthy's offense had quieted its detractors after dropping 35 points in consecutive weeks. Nobody knew the franchise quarterback was about to break his collarbone and, with that injury, a promising season would crumble.
Two years after that high-water mark — this franchise had been all downhill since — left tackle David Bakhtiari stood with his back to a wall inside the Packers' locker room Tuesday, gushing. The Packers are again 4-1, crushing the host Cowboys 34-24 last Sunday at AT&T Stadium in a game it led by four touchdowns in the second half. There's no longer the same feeling of invincibility. Two straight losing seasons — leading to a new general manager and new head coach — served as reminders of just how vulnerable any NFL team can be. Bakhtiari did not play in that 2017 victory at the Cowboys, but he was no less a spokesman for that team than he is now.
Those “good vibes” Rodgers spoke of as he smiled after Sunday's win. There's nobody better to contextualize them than the All-Pro left tackle.
“I think we're starting to understand who we are,” Bakhtiari said, “and now it just becomes mastering that and always growing on that.”
Who the Packers are as they enter Week 6 of 2019 is a team with its arrow pointing straight north. Where their ascension will level out, nobody knows.
“No one is a fortune teller,” Bakhtiari said. But if this Packers team doesn't exude the same invincibility it had in 2017, its ceiling now appears even higher.
For one, the Packers have established a top-10 defense. A group that plays with robust swagger it couldn't possibly replicate two years ago. The Packers rank eighth in the NFL in scoring defense (18.6 points allowed per game), a category they haven't cracked the top 10 in since their Super Bowl season of 2010. They're tied for third in the NFL with 11 takeaways, and their seven interceptions are tied for second. The pass rush, led by Za'Darius and Preston Smith, has been remade overnight, ranking ninth with 15 sacks.
In 2017, the Packers ranked 26th in scoring defense, 13th in takeaways, 20th in interceptions and tied for 17th in sacks.
“We're a lot better defensively,” defensive tackle Kenny Clark said. “We're a lot ahead (of where we were then). I think a lot more guys are just bought in this season.”
The Packers' 2019 defense is also much better situationally. They rank 11th on third down, allowing a first down on 36.6 percent of snaps. That might not sound impressive, but consider the Packers ranked 28th on third down in 2017 (42.7 percent). Likewise, the Packers' 17th-ranked red-zone defense is about the league average, but they posted the 30th-ranked red-zone defense in 2017.
Typically, Bakhtiari said, teams don't start building their identity until after the season's quarter pole. Now with a sample size of five games, Bakhtiari said the 2019 Packers have shown to be a different team than in the past.
“I think the one thing we're starting to show with the charter of this team,” Bakhtiari said, “is we can win multiple ways, multiple phases. It's not just an offensive-heavy team. It's not just a bend-but-don't-break, high-turnover defense. This is a high-turnover defense, or completely shut them out where they cannot move the ball. This is an offense that can control the ball, control the clock, or we can march all the way down the field really quick and score. Special teams that can completely change the field. JK (Scott) is a weapon. I think he's one of the underrated players on our football team that people don't give enough credit for.
“I think this is a team that we need to continue to grow and continue to understand what we have. But this is something that if we build off of, we can be dangerous down the stretch and carry that into the latter end of this season.”
The ultimate factor determining how far this Packers team advances might be how much its offense improves. That the Packers rank 13th in points (23.8) and 25th in yards (337.2) per game yet are still 4-1 shows just how different they are now.
The Packers have scored more points than the previous week in all five games this season, from 10 in their opening win at Chicago to 34 last week. They haven't put together a complete game, but their ability to minimize game-changing mistakes despite their growing pains is a big reason they've won. The Packers are tied with the New England Patriots with a plus-seven turnover margin that leads the NFL. They rank 12th in the NFL allowing 10 sacks, but half of them came on opening night at Chicago, likely the NFL's top defense.
They're lighter on offensive skill position players than in 2017. Gone are Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. In their place, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Geronimo Allison remain wild cards. If they can join Davante Adams to give the Packers a solid receiving trio, it would go a long way to help settling the offense.
But this Packers team has shown something it hasn't done in years: an ability to win without lighting up the scoreboard.
“Back then,” Bakhtiari said, “we were and had always been kind of an offensive-heavy (team), very reliant on Aaron. And now we can — obviously, we'll always be reliant on Aaron. He's the best, if not one of the best, players in football, year in and year out. But now we have other pieces that can help. That's the most important thing, and that's what you want.
“You want a dynamic football team. You want a balanced football team. Those teams are usually the ones that can sustain the ebbs and flows of every week and put you in positions to be very successful.”