In what has become an annual tradition here at Acme Packing Company and SB Nation as a whole, we have put our heads together with the minds over at Football Outsiders for a quick Q&A about the Green Bay Packers. This year, Mike Tanier of that group fielded our questions, which came to mind after reading through the Packers section of Football Outsiders' 2014 Almanac.
APC: The Packers' red zone offense was troubling (by Green Bay standards) a year ago, ranking 15th in the league in DVOA. It seemed to us that those issues were surfacing even while Aaron Rodgers was healthy. Would you agree with that, what other factors besides Rodgers' injury may have contributed to those struggles last season, and did the Packers do enough to address those other issues for 2014?
I just pulled up the Packers' red zone performance in the Rodgers games. The first thing that pops out is the number of red zone sacks, particularly in the first few games. I think a combination of issues contributed to that: Eddie Lacy had not established himself (or was hurt) in those early games and the line was unsettled. Starks ran well in the red zone in those games, but I wonder how comfortable the Packers were with pounding the ball. It looks like they were throwing a lot, and teams were waiting for it.
I think Lacy addresses some of those problems, and the development of Bahktiari/return of Bulaga should also help. The Packers are more balanced offensively now than they were in those first few weeks. Balance does not mean 50-50, of course, but it means that power running is back in their arsenal. In the red zone, that's still a necessity.
APC: Injuries to key players have taken their toll on the Packers more than most teams over the past few seasons, as they ranked 30th or worse in Adjusted Games Lost in three out of the past four years. We've speculated that the Packers should be a top Super Bowl contender if they can get even league-average health in 2014; is that a reasonable assessment?
I think so. This is the most complete roster the Packers have built since the Super Bowl season, and it may be better top-to-bottom than that roster (which was reconstructed from bit parts on the fly). It is also the least "goofy" roster: there is a backup quarterback, the running backs are not all cast offs. Other than center, there is no leap-of-faith section of the depth chart, where we are assuming Ted Thompson's lawn boy really is a quality pass-rusher as well. When you mix the top-tier talent the Packers have with real depth and breadth, they have to be in the Super Bowl conversation.
Of course, the Seahawks and 49ers justifiably dominate that conversation. But what happens if the NFC West teams clobber each other? What if even great Seahawks-Niners teams go 3-3 in the division because the Cardinals and Rams are so good, while the Packers manage a 5-1 (division record)? Lambeau makes an intriguing playoff equalizer. In fairness, I am saying the same thing about the Superdome elsewhere.
APC: After some re-tooling on the defensive line, B.J. Raji is back at nose tackle, where he played during the team's Super Bowl run in 2010. What should Packers fans expect from Raji and the Packers' somewhat re-tooled defensive line this year?
It's a somewhat thin unit on paper. Raji is a 30-snap role player now. Mike Daniels is tremendous situationally, but I don't know if he can be that effective across 70 snaps. I don't have much to go on with Datone Jones and some of the others. I think you should expect a lot of 2-4-5 and 2-4-6 packages with this group. Julius Peppers is listed at linebacker, but we know how that goes.
My concern is that the teams the Packers must beat in the division and the playoffs - Bears, then Seahawks-Niners and maybe Eagles - are very physical running teams. Using lots of base 2-4-5 makes sense in the AFC when you are contending with Brady-Manning. That said, having more linebackers on the field makes sense against the Eagles or new up-tempo Lions (they won't get gassed as fast and can be more versatile), and similar logic can apply against a team like the Seahawks that can beat you with lateral speed as well as raw power.
APC: Most Packers fans would say that the safety group had the worst season of any unit on the team. Morgan Burnett especially was expected to take a big jump and instead fell flat. Can you point to any particular flaws in Burnett's game, or were the unit's struggles more due to poor partners alongside him in M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian? (Furthermore, please tell us that Micah Hyde's new role and the addition of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix make that unit at least competent in 2014.)
To start with Hyde, his athleticism leapt off the film as a limited-role player. He strikes me as someone who can be incredibly useful attacking the line of scrimmage and in coverage, while being a liability when run straight at. That's a compromise teams will live with if their safety is both generating sacks and covering fast tight ends and slot receivers.
Jennings was a mess last year. I did not see a lot of McMillian, but I assume he was a similar problem. Safety is the hardest position on the field to isolate and evaluate: when other players look bad, it automatically makes the safety look worse, because he is either trying to save the play or stuck trying to tackle a ballcarrier in wide-open field. So I don't want to bury Burnett. I think Hyde, Burnett, and Clinton-Dix will allow Capers to put together a lot of different packages, perhaps play 3-safety heavy nickel in a 2-4-5 look. That is obviously much more than the team had last year.
APC: A.J. Hawk is a source of much debate among Packers fans, but in the Football Outsiders Almanac you used phrases like "really good" and "borderline awesomeness" to describe his 2013 season. If he keeps performing like he did a year ago, what critical qualities do the Packers need in Brad Jones (or perhaps Jamari Lattimore) next to him to make sure the middle of the defense is sound?
Hawk has been so overrated he is underrated for years. He got a "book" on him from about 2006-08, when he was a big-name college player who was ordinary-at-best in Green Bay. Then he got that big contract, and he became a staple of "all overrated" teams: him and DeAngelo Hall.
I think a lot of Hawk evaluation, even by good analysts who do their homework, is colored by the years when he was a famous guy who always started but never did all that much. So we watched the tape, saw his one mistake, and said "oh, there's A.J. screwing up again."
Last season, he had a difficult, diverse role in the Packers defense because of all the injuries. He blitzed often, and he was a sudden, difficult-to-block pass rusher. He shot gaps authoritatively. And he was in coverage a lot, against running backs of the Matt Forte-Shady McCoy class. Obviously, he got caught a step behind in those situations, but he also shut down second-tier receiving backs.
I think Hawk can thrive as a line-of-scrimmage attacker in the 3-4. That requires a lateral player to complement him: take on some coverage duties, work sideline to sideline, etc. The guys you mentioned can handle that role. Going back to the 2-4-5 look, you get a nose, Daniels, Peppers and Hawk as your default rushers from that look. Hawk would be the guy sliding around and blitzing. Having him attack a gap inside Peppers or Matthews, take away any help the tackle or tight end would have, or maybe try to "win" against a guard: that's good stuff, and it can make the whole defense look better.
Thanks to Mike for the perspective and the great discussion!