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Identifying the Fundamental Problem with the Packers' Defense

Injuries have certainly played their role, but it's another very simple thing that's plaguing the Packers' D as of late.

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Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Any time a team's season starts circling the drain like the Packers' has over the past two weeks, the common reaction for most is to look for reasons why. For the Packers, those reasons are, well, numerous. The most glaring is the fact that Aaron Rodgers will be spending more time grooming his 'stache over the next few weeks than actually throwing footballs, but it's far from their only problem. Among those was what Mike McCarthy in his post-game press conference following Sunday's loss called a, "recurring issue" which referred to the defense's inability to get off the field in the 4th quarter. For two straight weeks the Packers had opportunities to win only to be slowly and methodically picked apart while the offense stood on the sidelines.

This of course, got the "Fire Capers" chants going at full tilt and while calls for an improvement on scheme and talent utilization certainly have merit, it ignores the biggest problem facing this defense:

These guys aren't tackling for shit.

As Bob McGinn pointed out in a rare, but well-deserved takedown of the team on Sunday night, the Packers have missed on an almost incomprehensible 59 tackles through eight games this season. For reference, the defense missed on less than half that many (24) through eight games last season.

The Packers have missed on an almost incomprehensible 59 tackles through eight games this season.

When you're facing all-world running backs like LeSean McCoy and Matt Forte as the Packers have in the last two weeks, a whiff here and there is to be expected. But that's what makes their missed tackles number so alarming - the teams they've faced haven't exactly been offensive powerhouses. To date, they've played a Redskins team with a quarterback on one leg, the Bengals, the Lions minus the best receiver in the league, and a Browns team that actually intentionally started Brandon Weeden at quarterback. Even the Vikings and 49ers - teams with huge talent in some parts of their offense (Peterson/Kaepernick) are essentially one-trick ponies. But even that hasn't stopped teams from mowing right through the Packers defense.

As McGinn pointed out, that fateful nine-minute long drive the Eagles went on to seal the game was played facing an extra safety in the box for the entire series. That's not just disappointing. It's depressing. And not just because of what happened on Sunday, but what it means for this team moving forward.

People like to cite (1) Dom Capers' schematic deficiencies or (2) that he thought the read-option was what happens when you hit the Closed Captioning button on your TV as some of the reasons why the defense has come up short. The fact is, he's not the one failing to wrap up or getting his ankles shattered by a juke move. Basic tackling fundamentals can certainly be coached and all, but it also begs the question - just why are paid professionals more than halfway through the season still in need of entry-level job training?

And therein lies an even more critical question for the Packers - if it's not a matter of scheme or an abundance of injuries (aside from Clay Matthews), is it possible the personnel the Packers have on defense just aren't very good? It's a question that Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson must've at least considered by now.

And what a scary thought that must be.

In my opening article here at Acme Packing Company, I wondered if the Aaron Rodgers era for the Packers could be like that of the Peyton Manning-led Colts: teams defined by quarterback greatness and high scoring that consistently got undermined by defenses unable to pull their own weight. Through two Rodgers-less games, that theory might have more validity than ever. Twice now the defense has been asked to carry the load and twice now they've not only failed, but they've done so in humiliating fashion.

Even when Rodgers comes back and the offense is humming again, is there any good reason to think the defense will be any different from the one that got shellacked by San Fran twice in the last year? Or run over by teams with backup quarterbacks as they were against Chicago and Philadelphia? After the defense was gashed by Colin Kaepernick last year, the conventional wisdom was simply that the Packers weren't prepared for the read option.

Players are still woefully out of position and bouncing off running backs like Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl.

Maybe they weren't. But that doesn't explain why players are still woefully out of position and bouncing off running backs like Bo Jackson in Tecmo Bowl. It's easy to blame the Defensive Coordinator but at the end of the day, all he does is coordinate. At some point, the onus has to fall on the players to go out there, be smart, and - when presented with the opportunity to tackle someone - make sure that the opponent winds up on the ground. It's the most basic and fundamental part of defensive football as we know it.

That might be the most troubling part of all this. Schemes can be tweaked. Game plans can be adjusted. Hell, Defensive Coordinators can be replaced. But nearly an entire defensive team that can't tackle? That's a problem. Certainly technique, intensity and scheme are important parts of the equation. But when stripped of all other teachable factors or physical advantages (which are marginal at best at the professional level), a defensive player is left with only a few innate differentiators: vision, instinct, willpower, and yes - even tackling. Like football itself, some players just seem born to do it.

Right now, I'm not sure how many of those players the Packers have.

Ted Thompson landed an all-world quarterback and drafted smartly enough to make the Packers at least competitive every year. There's not much more you can ask from your GM. But as Packers fans know all too well, windows never stay open for as long as you think they will. With Aaron Rodgers approaching 30 and facing an injury that could very well sabotage the 2013 season, the ultimate question for the Packers is this: if they don't have the right personnel on defense now, when will they?

And by then - will it be too late?

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