GREEN BAY, Wis. -- There's a way for the Green Bay Packers to fix the recurring pattern that likely will end their season somewhere short of the Super Bowl: Get back to Aaron Jones and devote more manpower to the run defense.
Otherwise, despite Aaron Rodgers' heroics (are they even heroics anymore considering how often he has played well this season?) combined with Davante Adams' ascent to the top of the NFL's list of receivers, the Packers are in danger of repeating their errors of 2019, when they won plenty of games (13 in the regular season, one in the playoffs) but crumbled against fast, athletic defenses and run-oriented offenses.
It's what happened Sunday in the overtime loss to the Indianapolis Colts. And considering the run-heavy teams that remain on their schedule, it could ruin their playoff positioning and ultimately end their season without a trip to Tampa for Super Bowl LV.
The Packers haven't had a 100-yard rushing game from a back since Jones' 168-yard day in Week 2 against the Detroit Lions and while their defensive numbers actually look better than last year, they're still struggling to stop the run.
Coach Matt LaFleur's mantra of complementary football remains a priority, and what goes hand in hand more than running the ball and stopping the run?
"It just makes you a much more complete football team," LaFleur acknowledged this week. "Obviously we know we have to run the ball better, and I've got to be more committed to calling some plays [with more clear-cut run options] ... and making sure that we have good looks to run the football into and then we have to execute better, obviously.
"And then from a defensive perspective, again, I always look at run defense as, the best run defenses, there's an intent, there's an everybody doing their 1/11th in terms of being gap sound, playing with great fundamentals, and then flying to the football. The best run defenses swarm the football. And again, there were some really good moments of that [Sunday]. It's just too inconsistent."
Four weeks into the season, the Packers ranked fourth in the NFL in rushing. They've slipped to 14th. Jones hasn't had more than 15 carries since Week 4 and now that he's two games into his return from a calf injury, perhaps LaFleur will ramp that up. Of Jones' five 100-yard games last regular season, three came in the final four weeks.
On defense, the Packers have improved significantly in total yards allowed per game (12th in the NFL up from 18th last year) and rushing defense (13th from 23rd) but only slightly in yards allowed per carry (21st from 24th).
It seemingly turned around when the Packers jumped out to a 28-14 first-half lead against the Colts, but it didn't last.
"I feel like, especially the first half, we were playing really complementary football in all three phases," Rodgers said after the game. "I think what's been missing is that all three phases kind of firing on every cylinder."
Their tackling was worse than usual on Sunday, when they allowed 72 of the Colts' 140 rushing yards (51.4%) after first contact. The Packers' season percentage coming into the game was 41.2%, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine may have to start countering with more base personnel -- three defensive linemen and four linebackers -- even if the matchups would ordinarily dictate otherwise. He used three or more defensive linemen on just 21 of 74 snaps against the Colts likely because Indianapolis used three-receiver sets 54 times, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
Pettine's defense emphasizes the edge rushers, which is why general manager Brian Gutekunst signed Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith in free agency in 2019 and drafted Rashan Gary 12th overall that same year. While Gary has improved, the Smiths haven't been as impactful, especially Preston. It might be time for Pettine to give Gary more snaps and play with two inside linebackers on the field more often now that Christian Kirksey and Kamal Martin -- their preferred combination -- are back from injuries.
Perhaps the Colts caught Pettine by surprise to start the second half when they came out with eight straight runs to start the second half despite trailing by two touchdowns. But perhaps it's a sign of just how weak teams view that aspect of the Packers' defense.
What's more, look at what's to come. Of the final six games there are two against the quarterback-deficient Chicago Bears who have to run the ball, a Tennessee Titans team that relies heavily on Derrick Henry and perhaps by the time they play the Carolina Panthers in Week 15 Christian McCaffrey will be back.
"I love this defense," Kirksey said. "I'd go to battle any time with these guys. We've still got everything in front of us. So right now, we've got to look at the film, learn from what we're doing and just build."