By NANCY ARMOUR
AP National Writer
GREEN BAY, Wis. — The Green Bay Packers could have filled an entire highlight reel with their interceptions last year.
Good thing, because the rest of their defense wasn’t worth watching.
A year after finishing with the NFL’s worst defense, the Packers have traded the excitement of those big turnovers for consistency. And the change could be the difference between another early exit from the playoffs and a deep run that could last all the way to the Super Bowl.
“I’d prefer our defense this year to last year’s,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said.
The Packers (12-5) play at San Francisco (11-4-1) on Saturday night in an NFC divisional game.
Green Bay rolled through the regular season in 2011 with a defense every bit as explosive as its high-powered offense. The Packers led the league with 31 interceptions, and no quarterback — rookie or veteran — was safe from their sticky hands. Four of the picks were returned for touchdowns.
Even as the Packers cruised to a 15-1 record and the NFC’s No. 1 seed, however, there were signs of trouble with the defense. Green Bay ranked dead last in the NFL in both yardage (almost 412 per game) and yards passing (almost 300). Their 6,585 yards allowed was the worst in team history, as were the pass attempts (637), completions (390) and yards passing (4,796).
And all those flaws were exposed when Green Bay played the New York Giants in the divisional round. Eli Manning threw for 330 yards and three touchdowns and Hakeem Nicks had seven catches for 165 yards as the Giants tossed the defending Super Bowl champions out of the playoffs with a 37-20 win.
The Packers don’t have nearly as many takeaways this time — they finished the regular season with 18 — but they’re no longer pushovers, either. They jumped to 11th in total defense, and their average of 337 yards allowed per game is a 75-yard improvement. Opponents passed for an average of 218 yards against Green Bay, also 11th best in the NFL.
They ranked in the top half of the NFC in every defensive category except run defense. And you can thank Adrian Peterson for that.
“I don’t know what the answer is,” B.J. Raji said. “I just know we left last year in the past and took the approach that this is a different year and we wanted to improve our ranking.”
The Packers have done all this despite losing Charles Woodson for half the season with a broken right collarbone. Clay Matthews (hamstring) and C.J. Wilson (knee) also missed four games each.
But the injuries also forced Green Bay to play its young guys, and their speed and athleticism has turned out to be a boon for the Packers.
“We’re just a more consistent, more multiple defense this year,” Capers said. “I think we can attack you in different ways. I think we’ve got more athletic ability on our defense this year than we had. I think these young guys have given us more athletic ability, more speed, more pass rush ability.
“You look at our sack numbers in terms of from last year to this year, there’s a big difference,” Capers added. “And our style of play, we need to do that.”
Only Denver and St. Louis (52 each) and Cincinnati (51) had more sacks than Green Bay (47), and it’s a good bet the Packers would have led the league had Matthews not been hurt.
Even with missing four games, Matthews finished with 13 sacks, a half-sack off his career high. Only the 49ers’ Aldon Smith had more in the NFC.
“They’re just playing good defense,” San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “Sound defense, good team defense, not allowing the big plays that showed up last year.”
Now, just because this Green Bay defense is sound doesn’t mean it’s stodgy or boring.
Quite the contrary.
Rookie Casey Hayward tied for fifth in the NFL with six interceptions. Jay Cutler is no doubt thrilled he’s got at least seven months before he has to see a Packers defensive back.
But substance matters as much as style, and Green Bay has it this year.
“No doubt about it,” cornerback Tramon Williams said. “I’m pretty sure that’s not hard to see that we’re a better defense from last year.”
Notes: WR Randall Cobb returned to practice Thursday despite still feeling under the weather. “He’s going to go,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I don’t have any questions about that.” … McCarthy described the Packers’ last practice before they leave for San Francisco as “very spirited, to say the least. They have too much energy and I think that’s common for this time of year,” he said. “I feel very good the way the last three days of practice have gone.” … The Packers aren’t concerned with the state of Candlestick Park, where the field is dry and patchy in some spots, soggy in others. “A lot of the grass fields are that way toward the end of the season. It’ll be the same for everyone,” Jordy Nelson said. “You just have to feel it out. In pregame, make sure you have the right cleats on, what you feel comfortable in.” … WR Jarrett Boykin (ankle) is improving but won’t be ready to play this week.