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NFC Championship Walkthroughs: Defense, defense, defense the focus for Packers’ offseason

APC writers sound off on defensive struggles, the future of the Packers’ cornerbacks, and unusual broadcasting decisions.

NFL: NFC Championship-Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons
Julio Jones ran over, under, and through the Packers defense in the NFC Championship Game.
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Jonathan Barnett on Defensive Strategies

One thing that can be pointed out in this lopsided loss is the style of modern defense. Atlanta and Green Bay have an approach very similar to Seattle. All these teams are built to play with a lead. Seattle is a little different as it leads with the defense to set up takeaways and field position. Green Bay and Atlanta are built to get after quarterbacks and attack the passing game. This really works well when these teams are ahead. When the Packers offense gets up, it changes the value of the defense. When Atlanta is leading, it changes the value of the defense. While there are clearly things that need to change or grow on the Packers defense (remember Jake Ryan, Blake Martinez, Quentin Rollins, Damarious Randall, LaDarius Gunter and Kenny Clark all played pivotal roles and are in their first or second year), it can fairly be said that if the Packers had scored first and gotten a 10-0 lead, the result could have very easily gone 44-21 the other way.

Still, this should take nothing away from what Atlanta did to the Packers. Atlanta and Green Bay had essentially the same plans, but only Atlanta was able to execute.

Paul Noonan on the Broadcast

First, I just want to make it clear that officiating did not cost the Packers the game, and I’m not even really complaining about the officials here. Well, maybe a little. But my specific problem is with announcers not even questioning things that are obviously questionable. For instance, this play:

This play granted Atlanta a first down, and eventually a touchdown, instead of (probably) forcing a punt, and it happened early enough that it made a difference in allowing Atlanta to dictate gameflow. I know that when I saw this play live I first cheered that the Packers had gotten a stop, got very angry with the spot, angrier still that no measurement came, and super angry when no challenge came. When no announcer even bothered to mention any of these things I had to take a break in a different room for a minute, and this happens far too often.

It happened again on the Ripkowski fumble being ruled a touchback. In this case I believe the correct call (probably) was made, though it would be nice to see a reverse angle on it to know for sure. Fox not only failed to show a decent replay — Buck and Aikman never even broached the subject of a possible safety, or offered an explanation as to what may have happened. It was a confusing play and a better explanation - with supporting video - was warranted. The NFL then offered conflicting statements on the rule with Dean Blandino eventually offering this clarification.

This is quite a bit different than Mike Pereira’s original diagnosis.

Confusion about the rules is nothing new to the NFL or broadcast booths, but when a controversial play arises, the announcing team’s first inclination is often to protect the zebras. This does a disservice to the viewer, and calls into question their - and the league’s - credibility.

Jon Meerdink on Sam Shields

I don’t know if any Packers player has more on the line this offseason than Sam Shields. His name kept popping into my head with every catch Julio Jones made on Sunday, wondering if he’d have held up any better than Ladarius Gunter. He may have, but I don’t know if we’ll have the opportunity to see what he can do again.

Shields is still dealing with symptoms from a concussion sustained in Week 1, and he’s on the books for more than $12 million against the cap next season. He may also be facing a suspension of some kind for his drug related charges. If I’m the Packers, that confluence of circumstances has me thinking long and hard about Shields’ future in Green Bay.

If he has indeed played his last snap for the Packers, it brings to a close one of the signature stories from Ted Thompson’s time in Green Bay. An undrafted rookie out of Miami just over a year removed from playing wide receiver, Shields became a key player during the 2010 Super Bowl run. His path to stardom (and others like it) helped pave the way for other undrafted contributors, like Geronimo Allison this year. I don’t know if this is the end, but if it is, it’s been quite a run.

Bob Fitch on hindsight during the offseason

Ah, the offseason. Rife with hot takes and overreaction, it typically turns negative. Every team enters the season with the Super Bowl in their sights (except maybe the Browns), but as the tired trope goes, only one team can win the Super Bowl. Falling short of those lofty, occasionally unrealistic expectations leads to heads rolling. Mike McCarthy, the third-longest tenured head coach, is again having his acumen scrutinized to the nth degree. Dom Capers may (and probably should) be on his way out after failing to put together any semblance of a defense.

Let’s play devil’s advocate here for a second. Imagine if Aaron Rodgers & Co. had managed to get to the Super Bowl, beating the Falcons by the score of, say, 35-28. Would Packers fans still be calling for Ted Thompson to give up the reins? Would the narrative shift from “horrible defense and too many undrafted free agents” to “a passable defense given the depleted secondary and finding gems in overlooked guys”? Would Dom Capers still be considered a bad defensive coordinator?*

*yes, a thousand times yes

Either way you look at it, this offseason, I urge you to not let hindsight come up in your discussions. No one can accurately predict the future no matter how hard they try. So when the discussion inevitably turns sour, refrain from saying “I told you this wouldn’t work out”. Unless you want to lose friends and be the joke of the sports world.

Evan “Tex” Western on the future of the cornerback position

Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins regressed in 2016, without a doubt. We didn’t see enough of LaDarius Gunter in 2015 to know if he regressed as well or if the 2016 edition of the player is simply who he is, but he was far too inconsistent this year also. The question now becomes what can be done about the second-year players?

Like Casey Hayward before them, both Randall and Rollins worked through significant muscle injuries in their second years, which sapped them of their speed and quickness. The 2013 Packers were lucky to have Sam Shields, Tramon Williams, Davon House, and Micah Hyde to help pick up Hayward’s slack; however, the 2016 Packers had simply Gunter, due to Sam Shields’ concussion. Expect that lack of depth to be rectified with at least one draft choice, and it would be an appropriate time for a surprise free agent signing as well.

Will Randall and Rollins rebound to become the tandem that Thompson envisioned when he drafted them back-to-back? The physical ability should return once the players get healthy over the offseason, but Randall in particular looked like a broken player over the second half of the season – particularly mentally, not just physically. The coaches will need to rebuild his confidence entirely to get him back to being a useful player.

Making matters worse is that Ted Thompson has to prepare for 2017 as if Shields is never coming back to Green Bay – in fact, he may never play football again, which might be the best thing for him in the long term. As long as he has taken care of his money, Shields should be set; from 2013 through 2016, he has made more than $33 million.

Luckily, this is a good year to need cornerbacks, since the draft class is deep at the position and there are a number of intriguing players set to hit free agency. With the Packers likely to lose a handful of free agents of their own, Thompson should be able to land a compensatory pick or two for 2018 while still making a signing or two on defense.