For many Cheeseheads, it will never be enough. The Packers have squandered Aaron Rodgers’ prime with mediocre defenses and the blame lies flaccidly at the feet of Dom Capers.
No one has banged the “Defenses have let down Rodgers in the playoffs” drum louder than yours truly. The best defense Rodgers ever had gave up 45 points in a playoff loss.
An unmasking of my texts would reveal I’ve long believed the Packers would be better served with someone else at the controls of this defense, someone more forward-thinking, more adaptive.
But if you asked me in October of last year, I probably would have said the same thing about Mike McCarthy and this offense.
Things can change in a hurry.
One of the reasons 2016 was so disappointing defensively was that Capers actually appeared to be adapting. Morgan Burnett was going to play a hybrid linebacker position, covering up some athletic deficiencies the group otherwise had. Defending tight ends and running backs has been a bugaboo for the Packers for what seems like the entirety of the Rodgers era.
That plan worked. Green Bay finished seventh in DVOA against tight ends and 13th against running backs. This safety group is legitimately very good.
Fast forward to the 2017 draft: Ted Thompson tabs a freak athlete corner and safety, the latter of whom is immediately announced as a de facto linebacker.
Josh Jones, by 40 time, is the second-fastest defensive player the Packers have (Only Josh Hawkins is faster), and the team’s first thought was “let’s play him at linebacker.”
To steal a phrase from the news, this is what NFL evolution looks like. Capers struggled to adapt his scheme to lesser corner talent last season, but going on two seasons in a row, he has shown the ability to adapt his scheme in terms of personnel planning.
This should not be ignored. Capers, with talented defensive backs, can create a highly effective defense. Let’s not forget how outstanding the Packers were defensively when healthy early oh last season.
In fact, let’s take one step further back. After the debacle that was the 2013 defense, Thompson snagged Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and the trajectory of this defense changed.
The following season, the Packers finished 18th in total defensive DVOA (up from 31st the year before), and 11th against the pass. In 2015, Capers’ unit was 14th in DVOA, sixth against the pass.
A defense built around Sam Shields, Clay Matthews, Mike Daniels, Clinton-Dix and Burnett can and has flourished.
For all the struggles of the secondary last season, the Packers were eighth in adjusted sack rate thanks to Nick Perry’s breakout season. Imagine how much better this defense could have been if Perry had been able to stay healthy his whole career.
To be sure, losing Shields dealt a major blow to this defense, but there are plenty of other talented players to buoy this group.
We’ll find out this season if the same can be true of Quinten Rollins and Damarious Randall, players who showed promise as rookies, but slumped as sophomores thanks to injuries and shot confidence.
Capers, meanwhile, continues to experiment, and not just with cool names like “Okie” and “Nitro.” The Packers’ base defense at this point (which isn’t technically base, it’s closer to nickel), features three safeties. Their preferred dime defense includes no true linebackers at all.
They have packages with just one or sometimes no natural defensive linemen. Get the athletes on the field and let them work.
It’s easy to get bogged down worrying what position Clay Matthews is playing, but in this defense it hardly matters. He’s going to line up everywhere. That’s how he should be used.
Capers will still drive fans (and APC writers alike) nuts with passive three-man rushes, prevent defenses, and wonky zone blitzes like the one that finally allowed Washington to score last week — aren’t we all glad Christian Ringo was in coverage for that? — but there are signs of life. Signs of evolution and progression. It may not justify the faith McCarthy has in Capers, but it’s fair to be excited about the prospects of this defense in 2017, with its athleticism, versatility, and modern feel.
If they need Morgan Burnett to cover in the slot, he will. Green Bay learned he could handle that out of necessity, but now it can become a luxury.
Kevin King, the most physically gifted corner the Packers have had since ... when? Prime Charles Woodson? ... might not even play many defensive snaps this year because suddenly Green Bay has speedy athletes all over the field.
None of this may translate to a better defense, but at least they’re trying something new, something that feels of the modern age even if its architect isn’t.