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Making sense of the Packers’ 2017 defense and this offseason’s personnel moves

Alternate title: it’s not a good idea to get rid of a bunch of players from a bad defense when they’re among the reasons that it wasn’t even worse.

NFL: NFC Wild Card-New York Giants at Green Bay Packers Green Bay Press Gazette-USA TODAY Sports

Lately, I have been seeing too much of this argument about the Green Bay Packers’ defense:

While Packer fans are as reactionary and hyperbolic as any fanbase out there, I wanted throw out some additional context. What the Packer front office has done is weird, it makes me question their self-scouting, and it makes me question their understanding of what is and is not wrong with the team. Let’s start with this premise:


They weren’t a good team, that’s true, but they’ve been far far worse in the past, and given that the Brett Hundley-led offense repeatedly put them in bad situations, it’s entirely possible that the defense was actually closer to average on the whole.

A good chunk of that was run defense. The combination of Kenny Clark, Mike Daniels, and Blake Martinez made running against the Packers a chore, and their excellent play resulted in a run defense that ranked 8th in DVOA. The pass defense was worse to be sure, ranking 26th, but it’s important to make sure we understand what the problem with the pass defense actually was. While the secondary was partially to blame, the bigger problem was almost certainly the pass rush, particularly in certain situations. Specifically: the Packers did not have a single sack (or force a single turnover) in the red zone in 2017.

That’s almost unbelievable. Red zone pressure has a disproportionate impact on scoring, as sacks in the red zone nearly always prevent touchdowns and force field goals. They are huge plays. Sacks themselves are important, but a lack of sacks is also indicative of a lack of pressure, and lack of consistent pressure undermines any good work a secondary may be doing. That lack of pressure falls squarely on the shoulders of Nick Perry, in the first year of a potentially disastrous deal that makes him unmovable for at least two more seasons, and Clay Matthews, who is still fine as a spot-rusher and playmaker, but not as a consistent edge rusher.

The Packers were actually very good against slot receivers in 2017, ranking 10th per DVOA, and much of that can be credited to Randall’s work in the middle of the season, as well as Morgan Burnett’s coverage when called upon. They were abysmal outside, but when Kevin King was healthy he graded out well. The problems in the secondary were, in short, problems of depth. Even if they had kept Randall they still would have needed corners, but now they need depth AND difference makers. Adding Wilkerson is perfectly fine as he bolsters an already strong defensive line and does add internal pass rush, but he’s a defensive tackle, and the Packers have good defensive tackles already. Making a strength stronger can work, but it’s worth noting that they’ve spent a lot of capital not addressing weaknesses.

As I see it, the problems in 2017 were Perry, Clinton-Dix, every backup corner plus Davon House, Matthews to some extent, and the backup linebackers.

The problems were not, Randall (after his benching in the Bears game at least), King (when healthy), the D-line, Blake Martinez, and Morgan Burnett.

When someone says that people are complaining about getting rid of a “player from a bad defense,” that’s lazy. Burnett was good in run support and in slot coverage, and the team will almost certainly be worse, both in run defense and slot coverage, for having lost him. Randall was their best high-ceiling corner, and again, he did well in the slot all year, and outside late in the season. They will be worse for having lost him. Replacing these two players also requires an expenditure of capital. The corner problem likely could have been solved with new depth, either through free agency or a few mid-round draft picks. That position now requires a large infusion of talent that could have been spent, and may still be spent, on an early-round edge rusher or receiver.

Tramon Williams may help a bit, as he did play well last season even at his advanced age, but older guys are also more likely to miss time with injuries, and while he’s fine as a stopgap, he cannot be counted on long-term.

I hope they have a plan, that is simply beyond my ability to understand it. That’s possible, but I also don’t care for front offices that focus on familiar names. Wilkerson played under Pettine, Williams is a former Packer who also played under Pettine with the Browns, and Davon House may still return for another stint. Truly good organizations scour the league for players, they don’t just bring in their old buddies.

The plan, as I see it, appears to be “Let Aaron fix it.” That plan has worked in the past, but it did not work in 2015 when Jordy Nelson went down, and every year he gets older, the less likely it is to keep working.