What to do about this defense? After watching the debacle against Detroit, I started thinking about Dom Capers and the defense. I know many Packer fans are calling for Capers' head on a platter, but is it really Capers' fault? So, I decided to take a look at all of the different angles and possibly come up with an explanation for the current state of the Green Bay Packers defense. Hold on to the seat of your pants because it's a bumpy ride.
1. Good ole statistics. I started with the most obvious and easy angle. Currently, the Packer's defense is ranked 23rd in points allowed and rank near the bottom in both pass defense, 22nd, and run defense, 26th. Before we get out the tar and feathers, lets not forget that the Packer's run defense was the top run defense in the league until Aaron Rodgers went down with the clavicle injury. More on that later. So what do the rankings mean?
Well its clear that the Packer's defense is not very good, but the first half of the season shows that the defense is a lot better than the current product on the field would indicate. So what are we seeing? Some fans would say this is classic Dom Capers. He starts out hot but then fades throughout his tenure as defensive coordinator. After looking at the rankings from each year when Capers was the defensive coordinator, I don't see enough evidence to make that conclusion. Sure, he had below average second years in Jacksonville and Miami but he was only there two years. What about Carolina and Houston? Capers was the head coach in both stops and Carolina had excellent defenses until the last year. In my opinion, it is not even realistic to include a new franchise into the discussion especially when Capers was the head coach and not the defensive coordinator. The only trend that I can see is that defensive rankings were atrocious in the last year of both of Capers' head coaching stints. If you would like to peruse the rankings for yourself, here is the link: http://www.pro-football-reference.com/coaches/CapeDo0.htm
Statistically speaking, I don't see any answers. This is a down year statistically, but I think that simply looking at the numbers and firing Capers would be a mistake.
2. Talent/ Injuries. Looking at the defense to start the year, there were a lot of question marks about this team's toughness and physicality. Midway through the season, those questions seemed to be answered. Johnny Jolly brought some attitude and swagger that the defense had been lacking. The run defense was outstanding led by Jolly, Raji, and Picket. Against the Ravens, A.J. Hawk played outstanding and really shined. Jamarri Lattimore impressed with his physical, thumping style of play. The cornerback group, widely considered the strength of the defense before the season, was not living up to expectations but everyone just assumed that once Casey Hayward and Morgan Burnett returned that we would see a ball hawking secondary once again. Fast forward to week 13 and the sky is falling. What the heck happened? Is a coordinator only as good as his players?
Unfortunately, I believe this defense lacks talent across the board. Clay Matthews is the only bona fide All-Pro and even he has his hamstring-4-week-hiatus a year warts. The rest of the linebacker room is either in the young and developing category or the average category. That corner group that was considered so deep is above average but nothing special. The safety position needs a lot of help. The defensive line has some bright spots but has slumped in the last weeks. I decided to look at each starter and sub-package player and grade them on talent and future prospects.
DE Johnny Jolly- Tough, nasty, physical, and quick. Undisciplined in gap control, out of shape, and takes plays off. Risk and reward type of player. Takes chances that can lead to big plays but also lead to 80 yard TD runs by Adrian Peterson. Brings attitude and swagger to the defense and is worth bringing back on that alone. 16 total tackles, 1 sack. C
NT Ryan Picket- Run clogger. Disciplined in gap control but no longer has the strength and athleticism to hold the point of attack. Routinely pushed around on the line of scrimmage. Space eater at this point in his career that can no longer take on double teams effectively. Picket is getting long in the tooth and should not be a starter for Green Bay next year but might be worth a 1 year veteran minimum contract. 14 total tackles. D
DE B.J. Raji- Athletic, quick, explosive when he wants to be. Takes plays off, doesn't shed blocks well, rarely pushes the pocket in pass rush. Plays out of position and gives up gap control. He is having a down year and not worth the reported 8 million dollars the Packers offered him. Only bring him back if his price drops significantly. 13 total tackles. C-
DE Mike Daniels- Hustle and quickness is the name of the game for Daniels. Has trouble disengaging from longer offensive lineman. Not stout against the run or at the point of attack. Good pass rusher with a variety of moves and a motor that never stops. A bright spot for the Packers that should develop as time goes on. 19 total tackles, 5.5 sacks. B-
DE Datone Jones- Long, quick, and very athletic. Adjusting to the NFL game, but has shown versatility and growth throughout the season. Don't really know how he would hold up against the run because he never really is in on run downs. Situational player at this point but has a lot of potential. He could be a very good player for the Packers in the next couple of years. Needs to get stronger and develop pass rush moves. The Packers need Jones to become a 3-down player. 8 total tackles, 3 sacks. C
OLB Clay Matthews- Athletic, quick, agile, and explosive. Unbelievable body control and amazing use of hands. Instinctive and has a motor to get after the QB. Has a knack for big plays and creating turnovers. Very good against the run although at times struggles to set the edge and at times can be a little too finesse. A little awkward in coverage. Misses games nearly every year due to hamstring tweaks. Bottom line is this guy is the face of our defense, an All-Pro when healthy, and the Packers only game changer on defense. 32 total tackles, 6 sacks, and 3 fumbles forced. A
LB A.J. Hawk- An overly criticized player. If he wasn't a top 5 pick and playing on a defense bereft of playmakers, everyone would love Hawks consistency and reliability. Solid player, good tackler, great locker room guy, and a true team player. Becoming a better blitzer and plays with a lot of heart. Struggles taking on blocks, not especially strong at the point of attack, is a liability in coverage and in space, and not an elite athlete. However, Hawk is a solid, dependable player in the NFL and having a good season. 103 total tackles, 5 sacks, 1 forced fumble. B-
LB Brad Jones- Fast straight line speed, but lacks lateral quickness. Over pursues, lacks courage and awareness, ducks under blocks opening running lanes for opposing running backs, and overall lacks the physicality and strength to be even average in the run game. Has decent coverage skills but lack of discipline, awareness, and fluid hips get him beat more often than not. A soft player. Packers gave him too much money. 70 total tackles, 3 sacks, 1 forced fumble. D+
LB Jamarri Lattimore- Big thumper, strong in the run game, and good special teams player. Brought a physical and nastiness to an otherwise soft defense. A liability in coverage and probably does not know the defense as well as some of the other guys, but he is a guy that just goes out and hits people. I like him over Brad Jones especially since Hawk and Jones together make for a pretty soft pair of ILBs. 27 total tackles, 2 sacks. C-
OLB Nick Perry- Strong, athletic, and explosive. Unfortunately, he is also stiff in the hips, can lack creativity in his pass rush, disappears for long stretches in games, and is injury prone but he has shown a lot of good things this year. Sets the edge in the run game as good as anyone on the defense. Developed into a better pass rusher. Physical and tough. If he stays healthy, he could be a nice player for the Packers. 24 total tackles, 4 sacks, 3 fumbles forced. C+
OLB Mike Neal- Athletic and incredibly strong. Undisciplined, poor gap control, does not play well against the run, can't get off blocks, and often misses tackles. Occasionally flashes here and there, but lacks consistency and is a liability in run support. For how strong he is, he plays soft. A project player that has not panned out and I wouldn't sign him to anything but a cheap contract. 34 total tackles, 3 sacks. D
CB Sam Shields- Fast, fluid hips, good ball skills, fast reaction, good vision. Takes too many chances in coverage, not physical and only an average tackler. Probably Packer's best cover cornerback, but is not a shutdown corner by any means and probably wants more money than he is worth. Has really improved his tackling. Nice player, but not great. 48 total tackles, 11 passes defended, and 2 interceptions. B-
S Morgan Burnett- Good, but not elite athlete. Stiff and not explosive in his breaks, average tackler, decent communicator, and has average ball skills and instincts.Not the second coming of Nick Collins at this point. Misses too many tackles for my liking and has not done anything special in pass coverage. Has made a couple big plays the last couple of weeks. Solid but not spectacular. 72 total tackles, 3 passed defended and a couple big fumble recoveries. C+
S M.D. Jennings- Below average size and athleticism for safety position. Flat footed, lacks any sort of instincts, terrible ball skills, can't cover anyone one-one, completely over matched against opposing TE's. Lacks explosiveness out of his breaks and is often out of position in the first place. Basically no help in the run game, and should never be a starter. 59 total tackles, 1 sack. F
S Jerron McMillian- Big hitter but bad tackler. Good straight line speed, but not good lateral quickness. Can't cover in space, undisciplined, stiff in the hips, bad ball skills and can't cover TE's. He is a backup and special teams player. 15 total tackles and 1 pass defended. D
CB Tramon Williams- Average athlete for position. Works hard and has greatly improved tackling. Nothing physically or athletically that stands out about Tramon. He uses disguise and intelligence more than ever. He really misses having Nick Collins out there to "make him right" when he gambles. Seems to have lost some of the ball skills and awareness. Overly criticized because he has had a pretty solid year overall. Shows versatility playing in the slot which is not his strong suit because he does not have the quickness to cover slot receivers. He is getting paid too much money for his current role, but I would like him to stay if he takes a pay cut. 57 total tackles, 2 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 8 passed defended, and 2 interceptions. B-
CB Micah Hyde- Average athlete for position. Good tackler but still getting used to pro game. Has excellent instincts and ball skills. Not quick enough to cover slot receivers. If Hayward had been healthy, I think Hyde would be a decent option at safety. He has shown a lot of promise but has a lot to work on. 37 total tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble. C+
CB Davon House- Long and lanky but lacks top end speed and quickness. For a supposed "physical corner" he is not very physical or strong. Terrible tackler, terrible special teams gunner. Is a huge liability covering WR's on the outside. Opposing QB's have eaten him for lunch. Lacks ball skills and has dropped several potential interceptions. 40 total tackles, 1 sack, 10 passes defended, and 1 interception. D+
So in conclusion, we have 1 "A" player who is misses several games every year, a few "B-" players, lots of average to below average players or young players with potential, and several garbage players that should never see the field. You could do more analytic work and pull out profootball.com ratings, but in this case I think the eye test is good enough. Is it really Dom Capers' fault that he has this collection of players to work with? This team simply does not pass the eye test and seems to lack any desire to hit or tackle. On top of that we have injuries to account for which we can't really blame Capers for either. Frankly, this team has been ravaged by injuries. Losing Clay Matthews to his annual hamstring tweak was costly but the defense overcame it for the most part. Losing Hayward for the year probably did not help. The truth of the matter is that we had almost all of our starters on defense, with the exception of Hayward, for the game against the Lions and played one of the worst games I have seen from our defense in a long time. The big injury that coincides with the demise of the defense is the injury of Aaron Rodgers. Something happened to the defense when Rodgers went down, and it isn't just limited to the fact that they have to be on the field longer (although that absolutely does contribute).
3. Mental Psyche. Playing good defense has a lot to do with desire and teamwork. 11 guys doing their job and flying to the football with a reckless abandon. The Packers don't have a lot of top shelf talent on defense but they were able to play pretty good defense in the beginning of the year because of desire, effort, intensity, and guys just plain doing their job. That's nowhere to be found anymore. What happened? As much as we want to say these guys are "professionals," let's be honest. They are human just like everyone else. What happened to your mental psyche when you saw Rodgers leave against Chicago? I bet almost everyone thought the game was over including the defense. Let's stop pretending that just because they are NFL players that they don't face the same doubt and fears as everyone else. Just because the defensive players say things like "we have to pick up our game" or "if we are out there for 200 plays we have to stop them 200 times" doesn't mean they weren't affected by Rodgers leaving.
It has become evident that the Packer's mental psyche on defense shattered into a million pieces when Rodgers left the field. If they had a lot of talent on defense, they might be able to pick up the slack and hold down the fort until Rodgers got back. The fact is they just don't have the talent. They are on the field longer as well which only accentuates the chinks in the armor. For anyone who has played football with a bad QB, they know exactly what I am talking about. Every turnover, every three and out, every errant throw causes the defense to say here we go again. To the Packer's credit, they have remarkably stayed fairly united in the locker room. This a good sign if Rodgers should come back. I guarantee the defense improves dramatically the minute Rodgers comes back.
4. Scheme. When I looked at the scheme (the same scheme I played in college) I don't find gaping flaws besides the lack of talent. The Packer's safety play is horrendous and you just cannot play a 3-4 without good safety play. It just doesn't work. I have harped on it since the draft and will continue to harp on the need for improvement at the safety position. The Packers also don't stop the run. The 3-4 is not the best scheme against the run, but the truth of the matter is that the Packers were #1 against the run the first half of the season. Scheme is not at fault. The Packers can't stop the run with 9 guys in the box. That says a lot about the the players, not the scheme.
Still Capers is not completely free of fault. My bone to pick with Capers has more to do with his approach than the scheme. Right now, I see a lot of safe calls. Bend but don't break defense. Corners are off and not pressing. It's not working, but Capers is just trying to protect against the big play knowing the weaknesses on this defense. I would be the opposite and be aggressive. Press corners, all kinds of blitzes, disguising coverages, lots of movement; but I know for a fact that the bad safety play would lead to breakdowns and huge plays. Either way you slice it, the Packers don't have the talent right now and can't stop the run which is the most important thing a defense must be able to do. Still, I would rather go down swinging and try to force the issue than the slow and painful way.
5. Conclusion. So who's fault is it that the defense is playing so poorly? The problem is that it is a combination of several factors, the most important being the Packers just don't have top shelf talent. Guys didn't develop as we hoped. Guys got injured and hurt their development. Ted Thompson took several risks this year at OLB, ILB, and S and they haven't turned out like he had hoped. The defense is capable of being a top 15 defense when healthy and with the right coaching. I find Capers at fault with his approach and not being to get his players to tackle and do their jobs. Guys are just flat out doing their own thing and it makes the whole defense look horrendous. The injury situation to Rodgers was crippling. The lack of turnovers has not helped either, but that can hardly be Capers' fault.
Dom Capers is not the problem. If you want a different approach/ style, than maybe it's worth looking to bring someone else in, but let's be clear that if Capers has the right players than he would have a top 5 defense again.