If there is a more overrated statistic in football than total defense, it has yet to be found. The stat, which is often tossed around by casual fans to differentiate good defenses from bad, is based on combined rushing and passing yards allowed, which sounds good but means little without proper context.
This should be kept in mind during any discussion of the Packers' quest for a perfect season and a second straight Super Bowl victory. The conventional wisdom is that if Green Bay (10--0) falters, it will be due to a defense that ranks 30th overall and not because of a quick-strike offense that leads the NFL in scoring.
The Packers gave up 455 yards to the Buccaneers in a 35--26 victory on Sunday, the sixth time this season that Green Bay has surrendered at least 400 yards of offense—last season, the Pack's fifth-ranked defense allowed that many yards just twice. This year's Green Bay D is yielding an average of 391.8 yards a game, roughly an extra first down a week off the franchise worst of 400.2 set in 1983, when the team finished 8--8.
But what does it really mean? Teams with high-scoring offenses typically don't rank in the upper echelon in total defense because they surrender a lot of yards late in games, while the other team is playing catch-up—the Packers give up roughly 20% more yards in the fourth quarter than they do in any other. The Saints won the Super Bowl two years ago with the league's highest-scoring offense and its 25th-ranked defense. The Colts won the title in '06 after tying for second in scoring and ranking 21st in total D. And the Patriots claimed their first Vince Lombardi Trophy while ranking sixth in scoring and 24th in total defense.
"Anytime you're looking at an undefeated team, it's only normal for skeptics and people that are trying to come up with a story to search for something," says defensive tackle B.J. Raji, who lined up as a fullback in the opening quarter on Sunday and scored Green Bay's first touchdown, on a one-yard plunge. "Obviously our yards per game have not been as good as in the past, but this is a different team."
A statistic more connected with postseason success—even more than points allowed—is scoring differential (points scored minus points given up). Fifteen of the past 21 Super Bowl champions have finished first or second in that category. The Pack was second in 2010 and is No. 1 this year with an average differential of 14.3 points a game.
That's not to say the Packers are pleased with their defense. Through Sunday, they've surrendered a league-high 52 plays of 20 yards or more and are permitting opponents to convert on 42.9% of their third downs, tied for the sixth-worst rate in the league.
Injuries have played a role. Green Bay lost Pro Bowl free safety Nick Collins for the season in Week 2 to a herniated disk in his neck. Collins was the defensive quarterback who helped make sure everyone knew his assignments and was aligned correctly—issues that continue to plague the unit. Tampa Bay running back LeGarrette Blount highlighted another problem on a scintillating 54-yard second-quarter touchdown run, during which he shed a raft of defenders: poor tackling.
"Some of the things that we see on film are easily correctable," says cornerback Tramon Williams. "Even though sometimes it's communicated, it's just not getting done. At this point we just have to hold each other accountable. Once you see that happen, you'll see us take off again—not just with the big plays but also the clutch plays to win games—sound defense throughout the game."
The Packers have compensated for their problems by leading the league in interceptions (19) and tying for fourth in total takeaways (22). They've also leaned on their superb offense, which is scoring a league-high 351/2 points a game and has put up so many points that Green Bay has yet to trail in the fourth quarter this season; in seven of their victories opponents did not get closer than seven points in the final quarter. More impressive: The Packers have not trailed by more than a touchdown at any point in a 16-game winning streak that dates to last season and includes the playoffs.