Mike Pettine's defense carrying Packers for a change


Sometimes we focus on the wrong things in life. Fixating energy and frustration on Aaron Rodgers' struggles to find consistency in Matt LaFleur's offense can cause us to miss the frenetic menace the Green Bay Packers defense has become.

Mike Pettine's brigade of bullies has harassed, smothered, and tyrannized opponents through the first three weeks.

The Packers rank first in the NFL in takeaways (8), second in scoring defense (11.7 PPG allowed) -- the last top-10 Green Bay scoring defense was 2010 (won Super Bowl XLV) -- tied for third in sacks (12), No. 4 in red zone percent allowed (33.3), and fifth in passing yards per game given up (197.3).

It's not just box-score metrics where the Pack D has come off looking good. Football Outsiders ranks Green Bay third overall in DVOA through three weeks, with the No. 3 pass D. Pro Football Focus grades out the Packers D at 81.8, second highest in the NFL.

Pettine's D passes the eye test. The front four can generate pressure, and the back-end, led by future All-Pro corner Jaire Alexander, has blanketed opponents.

Up front, the defense starts with newcomers Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith, brought in during free agency, and rookie Rashan Gary, taken 12th overall in the draft.

Packers GM Brian Gutekunst raised some eyebrows when he handed the Smiths big deals. Through three games, the moves have proven prescient. Preston Smith has 4.5 sacks, seven QB hits and three tackles for loss. Za'Darius Smith has three sacks, seven QB hits and three tackles for loss. Moving inside and outside, Za'Darius has been a menace, generating 19 disruptions (tied for 2nd-most in NFL) and 14 hurries (tied for most in NFL), per Pro Football Focus.

With the Smiths screaming off the edge, Pettine's defense leads the NFL in pressure rate (39.0 percent) -- last year GB had a 26.2 pressure rate (21st in NFL). Notably, Pettine is generating that pressure with only four, blitzing at only a 19.5 percent rate, fifth-lowest in the NFL.

The front four are buoyed by one of the best young secondaries in the NFL. Alexander is fast becoming one of the best cover men in the game, capable of wiping out an opponent's top target (like Sunday when Emmanuel Sanders had just two catches for 10 yards), driving to the ball to create turnovers, and has proven to be a stalwart against the run. Rookie safety Darnell Savage is a rangy playmaker who can cover in space and support the run D -- even as Savage has missed a couple plays here and there, the talent is clear and he should only improve with experience. Free-agent addition Adrian Amos has brought stout hitting and a veteran presence in the secondary.

With linebacker Blake Martinez cleaning up all the trash in the middle, the Packers boast front and back ends that provide difference-making talent. Yes, the run D might need to improve as the season evolves, but in 2019 the NFL is about the pass. The Packers can smother the pass right now.

Quibble, if you will, that they've faced the Bears, Vikings and Broncos through three games, none of which owns an explosive passing offense, but you can only face who is on the schedule. The Packers defense has won in each outing.

It's a different world watching Rodgers being carried by a defense after years of dragging them along by their collar. But good teams find ways to win even when one side struggles. The Packers will need Rodgers to improve as the competition stiffens, starting with Thursday Night Football against the Philadelphia Eagles. Knowing in the meantime that the defense can stem the tide should be welcome news in Green Bay.