GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Dom Capers liked how the Green Bay Packers defended the run last season.
“Except when we’ve played Minnesota,” the Packers defensive coordinator said this week.
In two regular-season games last season against the Vikings, Capers’ unit was embarrassed by Adrian Peterson. He rushed for 409 of his near-record setting total of 2,097 yards -- nine yards short of breaking Eric Dickerson’s single-season record -- in the two games against the Packers.
It was tough to tell which game was worse for the Packers’ defense -- Peterson’s 210 yards at Lambeau Field or his 199 yards at Minnesota.
Three years removed from leading the NFL in rushing defense, the Packers would not rank in the top 10 for a third straight season. They allowed 118.5 rushing yards per game in 2012, the most they have given up since 2008. Even if you magically removed Peterson’s two-game totals, the Packers still would not have ranked in the top 10. They would have been 12th with a 14-game average 106.2 yards rushing allowed per game.
The Packers handled Peterson slightly better in the NFC wild-card playoff game last season, holding him -- a relative term -- to 99 yards rushing on 22 carries.
Heading into Sunday’s game at Minnesota, the Packers believe they are better equipped to handle Peterson -- or any running back for that matter. Through six games, they rank third in the NFL in rushing defense. They have allowed an average of just 79.0 rushing yards per game, better than their franchise-record mark of 83.3 yards per game set in 2009 when they led the league in run defense.
“I think we’re more prepared to play against anybody this year,” Packers defensive tackle Mike Daniels said. “You could tell by the tone during our meeting last year; it was different before we played the Vikings. Now, it’s like let’s go out there and do what we’ve been doing.”
The Packers have allowed only one running back -- Washington’s Alfred Morris (13 carries for 107 yards) -- to rush for more than 50 yards against them this season.
“I like the way our run defense is playing now,” Capers said. “You haven’t seen many explosive plays come out. I think we’re getting more people to the ball with better leverage and tackling better. That’s what you have to do against Peterson.”
The Packers learned some hard lessons against Peterson last season, especially during the regular-season finale in Minnesota. Peterson’s 199 yards led the Vikings to a 37-34 victory that allowed them to get into the playoffs.
Daniels can still envision where they erred against Peterson.
“I remember specifically in the playoffs last year I was lined up against one of their guards, and I had complete control of the guy, and I just peeked slightly, I peeked into the wrong gap,” Daniels said. “I swear that’s when Adrian got the ball. By the second I got to my gap, he was already hip to hip with me taking off, and I said ‘Woo.’
“There was a time when we played them away last year, guys played hard up front. [Defensive tackle B.J.] Raji was basically unblockable that game, but it’s almost as if we’re a little too overaggressive, and he kind of made us pay. You have to have that controlled aggression.”
By Peterson’s standards, he’s off to a slow start, although he still manages to rank fifth in the NFL in rushing with 511 yards. But the Vikings’ 1-5 start and their quarterback issues, having started three different ones this season, have rendered Peterson less impactful.
But that isn’t what has the Packers defense feeling more confident heading into Sunday’s game at Mall of America Field. Rather, it’s a feeling inside their defensive meeting room that’s different this year.
“When you’re playing run defense, you have to take care of your responsibilities,” Raji said. “We know what our responsibilities are and if we do that, there shouldn’t be anywhere for anyone to run.”