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The cheat sheet: Is the Green Bay Packers’ defense legit?

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Detroit Lions vs. Green Bay Packers game preview and prediction.

The Green Bay Packers beat the Minnesota Vikings 21-16.

One thing I wanted to explore heading into this game was just how good the Green Bay Packers’ defense has become.

Are they indeed a top level unit, or are they simply far improved from what Dom Capers and Mike McCarthy used to trot out onto the field?

The answer, like most things in life, isn’t black and white. And with only five games to go off of, there is still a lot of grey to sift through to find an answer.

Take their Week 5 matchup against the Dallas Cowboys for example. The Packers dominated the game in many ways. They won the turnover battle, sacked Dak Prescott three times, and limited Ezekiel Elliott to just 62 yards.

But, they also gave up 563 total yards on defense, including 441 yards through the air.

“Way too many big plays,” Packers head coach Matt Lafleur said after the game.

But from a defensive perspective, giving up all those yards might not be what it seems.

“A bogus stat in today’s football is defensive total yards allowed,” said Steve Spagnuolo, Kansas City Chiefs’ defensive coordinator. “To me, playing good defense comes down to situational defense — third down, red zone…when you have an opportunity to make a big play, you have to make it.”

So, with that in mind, let’s dive into the Packer’s situational defense to see what we can take away.

NFL: OCT 06 Packers at Cowboys Photo by Andrew Dieb/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Third Down Defense

Through five games, the Packers’ defense has allowed opponents to complete third downs 36.67 percent of the time—good for 11th in the NFL.

However, so far this season they haven’t been as stout at Lambeau Field. They rank just 23rd in third down defense at home, allowing 45.95 percent conversions.

Last season the Packers ranked 13th opponent third down conversion percentage.

The verdict? The Packers are better so far this season, but not by much.

NFL WEEK THREE “u2013 GREEN BAY PACKERS VS. DENVER BRONCOS Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Red Zone Defense

Last season the Packers ranked 19th in opponent red zone scoring percentage (60.71 percent) and 24th in opponent red zone scoring attempts per game (3.5).

So far this season they’ve improved. Hopping up a few spots to 17th in red zone scoring percentage (53.85 percent) and moving all the way up to seventh in red zone scoring attempts (2.6).

The verdict? They’re limiting teams from getting to the red zone, but still aren’t great at limiting touchdowns when opponents get inside the 20-yard line.

Green Bay Packers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Big Plays on Defense (Turnovers)

When Spagnuolo talks about making the big play “when you have to make it” he could be talking about a number of things: a stop on third down, a drive killing sack, or a big stop in a two-minute situation.

But when I think of making a big play on defense, I think of turnovers. And that is where the Packers defense has really shined so far this season.

The Packers defense is tied for first place in turnover differential (+7) and tied for second in total turnovers (12).

Compare that to last season where the Packers only got 15 turnovers through the entire season.

That’s how the Packer’s were able to win the game last Sunday against the Cowboys despite giving up so many yards. They took the ball away three times from Dallas and scored 10 points off those turnovers.

The verdict? The Packers have seen a significant uptick in turnovers through the first five weeks of 2019, and it’s helping shape them into a top-half defense in the NFL.

So, in the end the Packers’ defense is legit.

I don’t think they’re anywhere close to, say the Bears (as some opined after the first game of the season), but they have more than enough solid parts.

The Packers’ talented young cornerbacks (Jaire Alexander and Kevin King) and high-priced free agent pass rushers (Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith) have helped build a top 10-15 defense in the NFL.

Philadelphia Eagles v Green Bay Packers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Opponent snapshot

The Green Bay Packers are once again at the top the division heading into this week with a 4-1 record. If not for an ill-timed late interception against the Eagles, they might be undefeated.

Head coach Matt Lafleur has had his share of first-year head coaching mistakes, but overall the Packers look poised to compete in the NFC this season.

Through the first part of the season, the Packers have been winning games through a consistent running game and improved defense, and not solely through Aaron Rodgers’ arm.

That’s a scary proposition for Packers opponents.

Green Bay Packers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Packers’ biggest threat

Aaron Rodgers

Despite a revamped running game and defense, this team is still run through Rodgers, even if the gaudy stats aren’t there to back it up. He’s still the one player on that team you have to account for in the game plan.

For the Lions, they’ve had two weeks to plan for Rodgers and the Packer’s new offensive philosophy. I expect them to continue to play man coverage and force Rodgers to make tight throws.

The plan should be somewhat similar to the one they just deployed against Patrick Mahomes. Rodgers isn’t quite as elusive as he used to be, but he is still one of the best in the league at creating big plays with his legs—especially if the defense has their backs turned away in man coverage.

The Lions’ defense will have to do better than they did last season. In the Week 5 matchup last year Aaron Rodgers threw for 442 yards and three touchdowns and the Packers didn’t punt the ball once.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Packers’ weak link

Wide receivers (without Davante Adams)

At the time of writing this there haven’t been any updates to Davante Adams “week-to-week” turf toe injury he suffered in Week 4. Adams missed last week’s game against Dallas, but the Monday night game could extend the possibility of him returning to the lineup.

But David Chao of profootballdoc.com, believes the injury could force Adams to miss Week 6 and possibly even Week 7 depending on the severity of the injury.

Without Adams, the Packers will go with Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Geronimo Allison, and Jake Kumerow. They’ll also get help from Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis at the tight end position.

Bottom line

It’s funny how the NFL has become a week-to-week league. The Packers are getting propped up a little bit too much based on their win against Dallas on Sunday. I don’t expect the Packers to have that type of performance against the Lions on Monday night.

The Lions are stout enough on defense to limit the Packers run game and without Davante Adams, the Packers simply won’t have enough firepower to keep up with the Lions on offense.

Prediction

Lions 28 Packers 24