Will Packers get rush defense on track against Chargers?

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- No one involved with the Green Bay Packers' defense -- player or coach -- has been around the team longer than Jerry Montgomery. In his nine seasons as an assistant coach, Montgomery has seen a few teams that could stop the run.

In 2016, when Montgomery's title was defensive front assistant, the Packers ranked eighth in the NFL against the run. In 2020 and 2021, when he served as defensive line coach, the Packers ranked 13th and 11th, respectively, against the run.

He knows what good run defenses look like.

"To me, it's black and white," said Montgomery, who in 2022 added run game coordinator to his defensive line coach title. "Alignment, assignment, key, technique -- did you win your block? Did you fit where you're supposed to? So, that's how I see it."

Through nine games, the answer to those questions too often has been no. The Packers (3-6) head into Sunday's game against the Los Angeles Chargers (1 p.m. ET, Fox) ranked 27th in the NFL against the run and fresh off getting steamrolled by the Pittsburgh Steelers' runners .

Najee Harris (16 carries, 82 yards, 1 TD) and Jaylen Warren (15 carries, 101 yards, 1 TD) helped the Steelers to 205 yards on the ground on the way to beating the Packers 23-19 on Sunday.

It marked the third time (Atlanta Falcons in Week 2, Detroit Lions in Week 4) this season that the Packers have allowed 200 or more rushing yards in a game. It's happened 13 times this season across the rest of the NFL.

"I don't want to compare, but yeah, I've been around some good ones," Montgomery said. "And I think we're good. I think we've got what we need in this room to be really, really good. And we've shown that at times. We just have to be better consistently, and that's real. There's no sugarcoating it, no running around it, and when we do it, it looks right."

Still, strong run-stopping units have not been as common as leaky ones in Green Bay over the past decade. Dating to 2013, the 2016 team is the only one that finished in the top 10 in fewest rushing yards allowed per game. Six times since 2013, they finished 21st or worse, including 26th last season, and they're headed for another bottom finish again.

That they've been bad against the run under different coordinators -- from Dom Capers to Mike Pettine and now Joe Barry -- is perhaps the most baffling part. All three have fielded run defenses that ranked in the bottom third of the league in at least one of their seasons.

Against the Chargers, the Packers are in a predicament: Do they overcorrect and pay more attention to the run by putting an extra defender, usually a safety, closer to the line of scrimmage, or do they still have to sit back in a split-safety look because of the high-powered passing attack of Justin Herbert & Co.?

"Well, that's the challenge," Packers coach Matt LaFleur said this week. "I think anytime someone's as explosive as they are, especially in the pass game, you're going to have to play some split safety. And we're going to have to do a great job. So that is a challenge."

The Chargers have the No. 8 passing offense in the league but rank just 22nd in rushing. The Packers' pass defense looks strong at No. 7 in the league until you look at the less-than-star-studded lineup of quarterbacks they've played.

The Steelers weren't exactly tearing up the league in the running game before last Sunday, either. They came in averaging just 90.5 rushing yards per game, 25th in the league. And it had appeared the Packers had their run defense settled after holding the Minnesota Vikings and Los Angeles Rams to just 62 and 68 yards rushing, respectively, in consecutive weeks.

Barry identified two key problems against the Steelers. He said too often there were "gapped out," meaning players were out of their lanes, and they had their most missed tackles of the season.

"That's what keeps us up late at night, is when you are stacking blocks and you are playing well and you stack a couple games together where you play really well -- whether collectively or in a certain area -- we had played the run pretty good for two weeks," Barry said. "From a tackling standpoint, I never would've guessed that we would've ... there were no signs of that that I was concerned with going into the game."

In an effort to get more run-stoppers on the field, Barry and Montgomery moved Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kenny Clark further from nose tackle, away from the ball, in order to get T.J. Slaton more snaps. Clark has played just 2.8% of his snaps at the nose this season, compared to 12.3% in 2022. However, that's only in the base 3-4 defense, so the impact isn't massive.

Slaton, the third-year pro, is the highest-ranked Packers defender in run stop win rate. His 40% mark is 20th among all defensive players with enough snaps to qualify among the leaders. Outside linebacker Rashan Gary, at 42%, actually would rank ahead of Slaton if the playing time minimum was lowered to 250 snaps.

"I'm not perfect, I get out of my gaps sometimes and it creates seams," said Slaton, who appeared to do just that on Harris' 24-yard run in the fourth quarter. "With Pittsburgh, they had those explosive runs. It's like, c'mon now, that's where it adds up."

No other Packers defenders has a run stop win rate above 35%. Linebacker Isaiah McDuffie, who has filled in for starters De'Vondre Campbell and Quay Walker at different times, is at 35%, which ranks 67th in the league. Clark's run stop win rate is a career-low 29%, although that's only slightly below his career average of 31%.

Missed tackles have been problematic, too. Clark, for example, missed a chance to get Warren behind the line of scrimmage on his 20-yard run in the fourth quarter.

"We've got some really good [pass-]rushers up front, and that's what we like to do," Clark said. "The best way to keep us honest is to run the ball, and that's what teams are going to do."

Especially until the Packers show they can shut it down. They've been equally susceptible to giving up yards before contact per rush (they're 19th in the league at 2.52) and yards after contact per rush (also 19th at 1.67). They were worse than their season average against the Steelers, at 3.64 and 2.06.

"There's been weeks this year where all 11 have been on point and have played some really good football and played some really good run defense," Montgomery said. "And then there's some weeks where it could be the front, it could be the backers, it could be the back end ... we're not going to point fingers -- that's not what it's about. We've just got to consistently, consistently, have all 11 guys do their job."