Despite years of unwavering calls for the removal of defensive coordinator Dom Capers from the Green Bay Packers’ fan base, I have stood firm in my belief that there is more to fixing the Packers’ defensive woes than firing the coordinator.
Green Bay has been among the most injury-burdened teams on that side of the ball over the past several seasons and has been playing short-handed with undrafted free agents at notable moments. Should the organization have added bigger pieces in the offseason? Should players be expected to understand their assignments? Should individual position coaches be held more accountable for the development of their players? Those have all been fair questions.
But there becomes a time when excuses are no longer acceptable. In week seven, Green Bay’s defense was about as healthy as it has been all season (only missing one starter in Morgan Burnett). Although New Orleans has a strong offensive attack, the unit still allowed 485 yards of total offense and broke down at key moments. A couple of turnovers each game won’t be able to offset the issue of situational defense.
And the situational defensive numbers, ones that are among the most significant and influential to the outcome of a game, speak for themselves.
Simply look at the percentage of three-and-outs forced by the Packers’ defense. According to Football Outsiders, Green Bay ranks 29th in the league at forcing such series, doing on on just 16.7% of all drives. Green Bay didn’t fare much better last season when it finished 30th in the league with a 17.4% three-and-out rate. The eye test and stat lines agree: Green Bay has been prone to allowing extensive drives. Not only do they tire out the defense later in the game and allow the opponent to drive into scoring position, they negatively impact the battle for field position from an offensive perspective.
When the defense is allowing a 41.9% overall third down conversion rate like it is this season (which is actually slightly improved from an alarming 43.1% last season), not being able to make the initial three-play stop becomes an even bigger issue. The past two seasons, the Packers have been in the bottom ten of the league in this category. And it doesn’t end there. Longer drives are allowing opponents deeper into Green Bay territory to the point they are willing to go for fourth-and-manageable opportunities even when Green Bay is able to hold on third down. The Packers are dead last in this category as well, giving up a whopping 85.7% conversion rate on fourth downs so far this season.
Of course, the inability to get off the field has translated to a poor percentage of punts. Last season, Green Bay only forced punts on roughly a third (35%) of opponents’ drives, a stat that ranked the team 29th in the NFL. This season hasn’t been much more friendly to the Green Bay defense, ranking 29th once again with a 36.1% punt per drive rate. It’s difficult for the Packers to win time of possession with these numbers.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, when a defense is failing to prevent long drives and force punts, it is doomed to allow red zone possessions. In the “bend but don’t break” defensive world, a team can still come out victorious if it holds the opponent to field goals. Unfortunately, Green Bay hasn’t been able to do so, a fact we discussed earlier this season.
Nearly midway through the season, Green Bay finds itself 31st and 32nd in the NFL in key red zone categories. The Packers have allowed touchdowns on 73.7% of opponents’ red zone drives, which is ahead of only the winless Cleveland Browns. Meanwhile, they have given up an NFL-worst 5.95 points per visit inside the 20. Again, Green Bay’s defense just cannot get off the field at critical times.
While Brett Hundley and Mike McCarthy can be scrutinized all week for the Packers’ offensive performance against New Orleans, Capers and his defense cannot escape blame. It has been difficult in the past for even an Aaron Rodgers-led offense to make a deep postseason run due to the consistent struggles of the defense in areas such as tackling, pass rush, and receivers running open across the middle of the field. All of these factors together contribute to letdowns in key situational moments on a yearly basis despite the Packers’ annual investment on the defensive side of the ball in the draft.
If now, with two weeks in between games to prepare, is not the right time to make changes to staff or personnel in Green Bay, then I’m not sure it will ever be time.