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GREEN BAY — The NFL is a difficult place for defensive coordinators these days, with scoring up league-wide and smart, young, innovative coaches reinventing offensive attacks.

Matt LaFleur is one of those coaches changing the game. Even if he self-deprecatingly deflected the idea.

“Who said I was smart?” the Green Bay Packers second-year coach said, smirking.

The numbers do. Entering Sunday’s game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium, the Packers rank sixth in total offense (395.8 yards per game) and third in scoring offense (30.8 points per game). Their matchup with the Colts’ elite defense — Indianapolis comes into the game No. 1 in the NFL in total defense (290.4 yards per game) and fourth in scoring defense (19.7 points per game) — is one LaFleur sees as a measuring-stick game for Green Bay.

“It’ll be a great challenge for our offense,” LaFleur said. “You look at the Colts’ defense. They’re in the top of almost every category for a reason. They have a really good scheme and really good players. It’ll be a good test to see where we’re at and see if we’ve made some progress.”

The Colts defense, coordinated by one of the league’s most highly regarded young coaches on that side of the ball in Matt Eberflus, is something of an outlier this season. Most of the league’s defenses have struggled to contain opposing offenses, which have been putting up points at a breakneck pace. But the Colts, as LaFleur pointed out, have been effective in just about every way possible. In addition to their overall numbers, they’re second in pass defense (198.7 yards per game), third in rush defense (91.8 yards per game) and tied for second in interceptions (11).

“We feel really good about our (defensive) unit,” said Colts coach Frank Reich, who played quarterback in the NFL from 1985 through 1998. “It starts up front with the D-line with them stopping the run. In this league, you win by throwing — but you’ve still got to stop the run. Our defense has been doing a really good job of that, and we’ve got good schemes. Matt Eberflus, our defensive coordinator, has done an outstanding job.”

And that’s not an easy task. According to Pro Football Reference, entering Sunday’s games, the NFL’s 32 teams are averaging 25.1 points per game apiece — which would be the highest in league history. The next-highest scoring season was 1948, when the league’s 10 teams averaged 23.6 points per game.

This is the continuation of a decade-long trend, as seven of the NFL’s 10 highest-scoring seasons in its more than a century of existence have happened since 2010, when the Packers won Super Bowl XLV. That team, led by quarterback Aaron Rodgers in his third season as a starter, had both a top-10 offense (No. 9 in total offense, No. 10 in scoring offense) and a top-10 defense (No. 5 in total defense, No. 2 in scoring defense). Then-defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ unit finished the regular season allowing just 15.0 points and 309.1 yards per game.

Offensive evolution

Those numbers would be welcomed by current Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who believes his unit has steadily improved during the team’s 7-2 start but acknowledges it’s harder than ever to be a top-flight defense.

“Offenses have evolved. You look at some of the stuff that’s being run now versus what was being run 10 to 15 years ago, a lot of it’s some next-level stuff,” said the 54-year-old Pettine, who broke into the NFL in 2002 and has been a coordinator for the New York Jets (2009-2012), Buffalo Bills (2013) and Packers (since 2018) while also having served as Cleveland Browns head coach (2014-2015).

“(One reason) is just the influence of the spread offense kind of trickling up to the NFL (from the college game), where the premium now is getting the ball to guys in space. So you might have it schemed up where, ‘Hey, I’ve got a defender there to make the play,’ but you’ve still got to make it. So you’ve got to make sure you build your team more around the ability to tackle and athleticism and space as compared to before, where it was more downhill runs and handling double-teams and more power football.

“It’s gotten to the point where it’s so much finesse, so I don’t think it’s any one thing. It’s certainly a combination of it. But it’s been a challenge this year. Just looking at (scores), I think the lowest score of a team that won was like in the low 30s (one week). It looked like heading toward some basketball scores.

“There’s no excuses. It’s our job to get them stopped.”

In last week’s victory over Jacksonville, the defense delivered at the end, squelching the Jaguars’ late-game scoring threat in a 24-20 win. The teams’ combined total of 44 points were the fewest in a Packers game this season, and Rodgers remarked the game felt like some early-2019 games, when the defense saved the day as the offense struggled. At the same time, the Packers were facing a team quarterbacked by Jake Luton, a rookie sixth-round draft pick making his second NFL start.

“It’s a results business. When you look at our record, we’re not wrapped up in the statistical part of it,” Pettine said. “Our goal is, we want to be the winningest defense in the league. But, at the same time, we want to make sure that we’re not just going to ride the coattails of the offense — and that happened in some games early on. We want to make sure that we’re a unit that, you look at this past Sunday when things weren’t going well offensively for whatever reason, that we were able to step up and help finish the game out.

“As a staff, we look at it and we just want to be more consistent. The problem, especially in 2020, is you don’t necessarily have a consistent lineup. We’ve had issues at corner, at inside linebacker. When you’re rolling guys through, it’s hard to develop that chemistry. … The encouraging thing is we are where we are, and I think we all know that we haven’t played anywhere near our best game. Hopefully, our best football is ahead of us as we start the downhill run toward the end of the year. (I’m) optimistic, but certainly aware of some of our issues. And we’re working behind the scenes to get them cleaned up.”

Health improving

Getting healthy should help. The defense got veteran inside linebacker Christian Kirksey back from injured reserve last week, ending a revolving door at the position that had included rookies Krys Barnes and Kamal Martin and inexperienced young veterans Oren Burks and Ty Summers seeing extended playing time. Pro Bowl nose tackle Kenny Clark, who missed three games with a groin injury suffered in the regular-season opener, appears to be rounding into form and probably had his best overall game of the season last week against Jacksonville.

And after playing without both their starting cornerbacks last week, the Packers will have No. 1 cornerback Jaire Alexander (who missed one game with a concussion) and Kevin King (who missed five games with a quadriceps injury) back in the lineup against the Colts.

“We’ve got rules in this building. No excuses. That’s Rule No. 2,” said outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith, without saying what Rule No. 1 is. “I feel like for us, we’ve started out slow but, at the same time, we’re getting a lot of guys back. A lot of guys are getting healthy. We got Kenny back. Jaire was out for a game. Kevin King was out for (a while). Basically, it’s getting everybody back in rotation, man, of being ourselves.

“It’s starting to come. As you could see last week, man, that’s all Mike Pettine.”

Whether the Packers can continue a defensive resurgence remains to be seen. Of their seven remaining games, only one is against a team with an offense currently in the top 10 in either scoring or yardage. That team is the Tennessee Titans, who rank 10th in scoring offense and 11th in yards, compared to Indianapolis (14th, 15th), Chicago (31st in both categories), Philadelphia (24th, 27th), Detroit (17th, 16th) and Carolina (21st in both categories).

“I think our defense has been improving. I really do,” LaFleur said. “Again, we have to make sure we get consistent effort, consistent execution play-in and play-out. It can’t just be once in a while, because there’s been a lot of great moments. But if not all 11 are doing their jobs to the best of their ability, you’re going to get beat. That’s just the nature of this league.”

Asked if he believed schemes like the offenses he, San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay and others run have changed how defenses are evaluated, LaFleur replied, “I don’t think so. There’s certain standards that are engrained in you. The bottom line is, this is a team game. You’ve got to do whatever it takes whether offensively, defensively and special teams to go out there and find ways to win ball games. Some days you need your offense to score 40, and some days the defense has to hold them to three, or whatever it may be. That’s just the nature of it.

“It’s about playing complementary football. The great teams do a great job of doing that in all three phases. I know we haven’t put out a complete game as a team yet this year, so that’s something we’re striving for each and every week.”


Photos: Packers' 2020 season so far in pictures

This article originally ran on madison.com.

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