Packers run defense feeling rundown

Forte gets 141 yards rushing off Packers defense

Julius Peppers wasn’t the only one who knew what was coming, but he knew best.

With a new run-oriented, defensive-minded head coach, a high-quality, proven running back and a quarterback who’d made too many mistakes to count during the rivalry, the Chicago Bears were going to come into Sunday’s regular-season opener  and run the ball. Everyone on the Green Bay Packers’ defense knew it – especially Peppers.

“I played for John Fox for eight years, so I expected that would be the game plan,” Peppers said. “And that’s what we got.”

They also got run over.

Bears running back Matt Forte surpassed the 100-yard mark by halftime (16 carries, 105 yards) and finished with 24 rushes for 141 yards, while the Bears finished with 189 yards on the ground – an alarmingly familiar stat that felt a little too much like the first half of last season, when the Packers gave up an NFL-worst 153 yards per game on the ground during the first eight games.

“We have to make sure we continue to work to improve our run defense. I think we can,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Monday. “The better you play the run, the more you’re going to have the third-and-8, 9, 10 categories as opposed to the third-and-short. It’s a lot easier for an offense when they have third-and-2, 3 and 4 where they can run or throw the ball.

“I’ve seen us play the run very well. I think it’s more a matter of assignment gap control, technique, those types of things with the first game.”

There was also the issue of tackling – or lack thereof. Advanced statistics site Pro Football Focus had the Packers for seven missed tackles on the day, but coach Mike McCarthy said Monday that the number was “in double digits.”

On a day filled mostly with positives – the Packers did win, 31-23, marking their first triumphant regular-season opener since 2011, when they started 13-0 – the holes in the run defense combined with shoddy tackling was a colossal Debbie Downer. Although McCarthy said it’s not uncommon for a defense to tackle poorly in a season-opening game, he quickly added that it was “no excuse” for such a poor showing.

“That does not cut it. We need to do a better job there,” McCarthy said. “It’s really the fundamentals of the game are what we spent a bunch of time on today talking about and emphasizing with our whole football team. That’s where we can make our improvement.”

Just as he’d said after the game, McCarthy pointed to his guys’ inability to handle the Bears’ outside zone plays as the biggest issue. He made no mention of playing without three starters – suspended defensive end Letroy Guion, injured inside linebacker Sam Barrington (who left with an ankle injury in the second quarter) and injured safety Morgan Burnett (who was inactive with a calf injury).

“If you’re playing run defense, your gap integrity is very important … [as is] the ability to go tackle a very good runner,” McCarthy said. “We knew going into the game that he was a focus – Matt Forte was a focus of ours. He played very well.”

It won’t get any easier for the run defense going forward, either. The Packers will face Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch on Sunday at Lambeau Field, then Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles the next week. Lynch carried 20 times for 110 yards and two touchdowns in last year’s season-opener against the Packers, then carried 25 times for 157 yards and another TD in the NFC Championship Game.

“Last time [we] played him, he’s one of the best backs in the league,” Packers safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said. “He’s a tough back to get down. We just have to gang tackle him and rally to him.”

And then get him on the ground.

“We have to tackle better,” Capers reiterated. “Part of that is again the speed of the first game. It’s the first regular season game. Forte is a good runner. [But we’re going to see good runners every week. We have to tackle better. We had too many missed tackles.”