And the winner for most clickbait title in APC history is ...
Ok, but seriously.
There’s that apocryphal Mark Twain quote (no evidence he actually said it) about how if we judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, he’ll spend his whole life believing he’s stupid. The Packers defense was trying to climb a lot of trees last season and has been for years.
Mike Pettine may finally return them to the ocean, and we’ll finally have an idea of who is shark bait and who’s not.
Be prepared for those answers to surprise.
Ted Thompson came under a tsunami of criticism for his decision to let Casey Hayward walk. That amplified this year as the secondary again struggled and Micah Hyde, not even offered a contract as a free agent last offseason, went to the Pro Bowl with the Bills.
Here’s the problem with blaming Thompson: those players being much better for another team than they were in Green Bay isn’t his fault.
That falls squarely in the lap of Dom Capers.
Let’s look at the same numbers used to show what a dummy Ted Thompson is, and look at them another way. Casey Hayward since leaving Green Bay has 11 interceptions, leading the league in 2016, and has been a Pro Bowler and All-Pro in each season with the Chargers. But as Bob McGinn pointed out during the 2016 season, that wasn’t the player we saw in Green Bay.
He used a stat called “ballhawks” which are interceptions, passes defended, sacks, and forced fumbles to measure impact players by corners. Here’s what he wrote comparing Hawyward’s last season in Green Bay to his first with the Chargers:
Last season, Hayward played 86.9% of the defensive snaps in Green Bay. His total of seven (seven passes defensed, nothing else) tied him for 122nd place in the NFL.
Of the 22 players tied with seven, Hayward’s playing time ranked second. Of his teammates, Damarious Randall led with 17 followed by Sam Shields (16), Micah Hyde (10), Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (nine) and Quinten Rollins (nine). Morgan Burnett also had seven.
Through Week 12 this season, Hayward ranks second on the Chargers’ defense in playing time at 89.8%. He also has 22 ballhawks, which gives him the NFL lead by one over Kansas City’s Marcus Peters.
In a nutshell, Hayward is a player with the Chargers that he wasn’t in Green Bay. McGinn concludes Thompson was thus correct for allowing him to walk.
Here’s the unspoken and underlying problem there: why the hell wasn’t he more productive in Green Bay?
The answer comes down to utilization. Yes, Hayward went to a more friendly scheme -- at least in Year 1 with the Chargers — so there’s already an inherent improvement in his situation, but why couldn’t Capers find a way to utilize Hayward?
Micah Hyde is somewhere in upstate New York nodding. In 2016, Hyde played 285 snaps in the slot according to Pro Football Focus. His four touchdowns allowed were second-most in the league, and his 113.5 passer rating against was the fourth-highest. In Buffalo, Hyde played more deep safety for the Bills, and suddenly became one of the best ballhawks in the league, posting five interceptions.
Playing twice as many snaps, he allowed fewer touchdowns (three) than he did as a slot defender for the Packers and his 71.2 passer rating when targeted represents an enormous leap.
His role better fit his talent and his limitations.
That this team couldn’t find a way to make productive two of the most productive defensive backs in football last season, directly indicts the defensive coaching staff. Too often we saw examples of Capers putting his players in a position to fail, insisting on calling his defense rather than adapting it to the skills of his players.
Why is Josh Jones playing deep when he was supposed to be a dime linebacker? Why aren’t the Packers playing press man when they have three big, physical corners who excel in man coverage?
Davon House came back to Green Bay to play more man coverage, then Capers stuck to zone, ditched most of his press man calls, and played a ton of soft coverage. When he played man, as he finally did against the Vikings late in the year, the defense played its best game of the year even short-handed.
We’d see glimpses, like allowing Randall to play man coverage in the slot even if the rest of the defense was playing zone, something he’s only really done for Charles Woodson in the past.
Given what we’ve seen from Hayward and Hyde after leaving Green Bay, the switch to Mike Pettine could represent the same type of tectonic shift.
Every defensive player won’t instantly be better or become an All-Pro, but playing for a coach with a track record of putting his players in the best position to succeed represents a much better gauge of their quality than constantly playing out of position.
This is less likely to matter for a player like Kenny Clark or Mike Daniels, though changes in fronts could also be advantageous to them. We’ll see the difference most in the back end with coverage calls, and with blitz calls.
Putting Randall and Kevin King in a position to play to their strengths could reveal very good players. There’s no guarantee it will, but at least give them the best chance to succeed. Maybe all Ha Ha Clinton-Dix needs to break out of his funk from last season is a scheme that allows him to get back to playing instinctive football and be in a position to actually make a play once in a while.
That’s all it took for Micah Hyde. Even House excelled his first year in Jacksonville.
It turns out Ted Thompson was actually really good at identifying talent (shocker). The person making these moves look bad was Capers all along.
One of the novel concepts the Eagles brought to their offense with Nick Foles was determining what he actually did well before making a gameplan for him. Sean Payton is famous for doing the same with Drew Brees when he first got to New Orleans.
Think about that. He’s famous for asking his quarterback what he’s good at and designing his playsheet around that.
Given what we know about Capers, what we’ve seen for years, his adaptability and skill putting guys in the best position to succeed simply wasn’t strong enough. As a result, we don’t really know how good almost anyone on this defense actually is, or how they’d look in a defense that catered to their strengths.
The hope is that under Pettine, this Packers defense will no longer be fish out of water.