Improving Packers' defense gets hot at the right time going into playoffs

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers finished ninth in the NFL total defense. Read it again.


Now let that sink in.

Top 10 for the first time since 2010.

That's the same unit that last season ranked 18th in yards allowed and was in large part responsible for the loss that ended things one game short of the Super Bowl.

Eleven months after the San Francisco 49ers rushed for 285 yards against them in the NFC Championship Game, the Packers enter the postseason off back-to-back games in which they held the NFL's leading rusher (2,000-yard back Derrick Henry of the Titans) to under 100 yards and Chicago's 1,000-yard rusher (David Montgomery) to 69 yards.

"We're getting hot at the right time," nose tackle Kenny Clark said heading into the regular-season finale against the Bears.

Before anyone crowns this a championship defense, here's something else to consider: As good as No. 9 might look, the Packers' defense ranks seventh among the 14 teams that qualified for the playoffs and fifth among the seven NFC postseason teams.

And of course, yardage rankings are merely one measure of a defense. There's yards per play (Packers rank 14th), yards per rush (21st), points allowed (13th), third down (tied for 10th), fourth down (tied for 19th) and red zone (eighth) that must be considered.

Still, it's a better picture than the one the Packers left everyone with at the end of last season.

Or even last month.

"I just think really this last quarter of the season is where you could really feel it," Packers coach Matt LaFleur said when asked when things changed defensively. "With [the] Carolina [game in Week 15], then Tennessee was a great moment for us, Detroit [too, in Week 14]. There's been a lot of good moments in there for our defense. I think it's really translated into much more success."

It has coincided with the emergence of Krys Barnes. Over the last month of the season, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine began to shift the undrafted rookie into the role of primary inside linebacker. In that stretch, he has played 69.2% of the defensive snaps, while fellow inside backers Christian Kirksey (56.1%) and Kamal Martin (22.9%) have played reduced or different roles.

With Barnes as the middle linebacker (and primary signal-caller), Kirksey has played more at the weakside position, and it's led to more plays from him, too. While Barnes has 40 tackles and a forced fumble -- on a Teddy Bridgewater sneak at the goal line against the Panthers -- in that stretch, Kirksey has two sacks and an interception in that span.

"Krys Barnes has done an outstanding job of kind of taking the Mike [middle linebacker] position," LaFleur said. "I think it's freed up Christian to play that Will [weakside] linebacker, and I think he's benefited from it in terms of he's made a lot of plays for us -- a lot of big plays. We're going to need that to continue. Kamal has done a great job in there, too, when he's in there at the Will linebacker.

"All three of those guys who are getting the bulk of it have really picked up the play in that room, which has helped our defense as a whole. I think the communication has been better. I think guys are playing more aggressive, more physical, guys are running to the football. We're stressing all those little things that I think become big things. And I think that's where it all comes to the style of play -- what you want to be, what your identity is by what you're putting out there -- and I definitely think the urgency, the effort, the intensity has definitely increased from the midpoint of the season to where we're at now."

Safeties Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage also have played their best football late in the season. Savage didn't have an interception through the first 11 weeks and finished with a team-high four, while Amos broke up five passes and had a sack over the final month.

Last year, the defense was only as good as how Preston Smith, Za'Darius Smith and Clark played up front and Jaire Alexander covered in the back. The emergence of Barnes and the safeties has made them more complete.

How much of the defensive improvement has stemmed from LaFleur's highly productive offense and Aaron Rodgers' MVP-level play also should be considered. But at least now -- as the top-seeded Packers await their divisional round opponent (it will be the lowest remaining NFC seed after this weekend's wild-card games) -- they can feel better about their defense has done lately.

"To see our defense go out there and do what we did, fly around, swarm, make plays and stop the rushing attack," Barnes said, "I think that was big for us and lets us know what we can do heading into this big playoff stretch hopefully."