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Are the Packers the worst situational defense in the NFL?

The numbers suggest a bleak outlook for Dom Capers in high leverage moments, despite some successes overall.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Cleveland Browns
Even against a winless team like Cleveland, the Packers defense can’t get stops on third down or in the red zone.
Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Get sacks, create turnovers, bend but don’t break. That’s the Dom Capers mantra, or at least it’s supposed to be.

The Packers defense ranks sixth in takeaways this season. They’re 11th in adjusted sack rate. Kenny Clark, Mike Daniels, and Blake Martinez form one of the most formidable inside run-stopping trios in the game, lifting Green Bay to the seventh-best run defense in the league by DVOA.

In fact, they’re 16th overall in weighted DVOA. That’s not nearly as bad as Packers Twitter would have you believe.

But in terms of bending and not breaking, they’re bending plenty: Green Bay is 26th in yards allowed overall.

It’s the breaking part that should trouble the team and its fans.

Situationally, Capers’ unit has been an unmitigated disaster and statistically speaking, there’s a clear case that it’s the worst situational defense in football.

Here’s the list of third-down defenses at the bottom of the league. Green Bay is in some pretty sorry company.

28. Oakland Raiders (43.8%)
29. Dallas Cowboys (43.9%)
30. Green Bay Packers (44.4%)
31. Indianapolis Colts (44.6%)
32. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (48.3%)

The Buccaneers and Raiders are the worst defenses in football by DVOA, and the Colts — who the Packers only barely edge out for second-worst in the league -- are a 3-10 disaster zone.

Green Bay is down there with the worst, most undisciplined defenses in the league.

Life isn’t any better in the red zone, where the Packers have been mucking it up in the cellar all season. Here’s the bottom of the league in points per red zone trip:

28. Washington Pro Team
29. Arizona Cardinals
30. Miami Dolphins
31. Cleveland Browns
32. Green Bay Packers

There’s only one common name on those two lists.

In other words, not only are the Packers the worst situational defense in the league, they’re easily the worst.

Even the atrocious Raiders and Buccaneers defenses are in the top-20 of red zone defense. Miami has one of the best third-down defenses in football (sixth) and the Browns are 22nd on third down.

The closest team is Arizona who is 23rd on third down and 29th in the red zone.

Capers would kill to be 23rd.

Against the worst red zone offense in the sport, the Packers gave up three touchdowns in three trips on Sunday to the Browns. Cleveland, the second-worst third-down offense in the league, went 7-13 on the money down against Green Bay.

It’s the Packers defense in microcosm: even the worst teams in the league are better at situational football. But pointing this problem out isn’t going far enough. How does it happen?

There’s two central concerns for the Packers.

Look at the teams at the top of the list in third down and red zone defense you see a pattern emerge: Bill Belichick, Mike Zimmer, Wade Phillips, Marvin Lewis — who, for whatever else you want to say about him, is a great defensive coach. Also names like Jim Schwartz, a proven defensive coach, Todd Walsh (who will coach his second straight top-10 defense in Jacksonville), and Joe Woods (who won a Super Bowl as an assistant coach to Wade Philips) pop up.

New England, for example, has been mostly terrible defensively. They’ve been a bottom-five defense by DVOA and on a per play basis all season. However, they’re top-3 in red zone points per drive. They’re 16th in third downs.

If the Packers were just average in getting off the field on third downs and in the red zone, they’d be an above average defense because they are getting turnovers and sacks.

You want good situational defense? You need top tier coaching.

It should be clear by now the Packers don’t have that. And if failing to stop the worst offense in the league by (literally pick any metric) on a consistent basis in Cleveland isn’t enough; If being out-coached by Hue “Hasn’t won a Sunday game in his Cleveland Browns career” Jackson isn’t enough to make the Packers concerned about their defensive coaching, then just give Dom Capers tenure in Green Bay and let him coach until he’s 100.

But the second issue is personnel.

Green Bay has a talented defense overall, with versatile pieces to play with multiplicity. What it lacks is field-tilters.

On third down, when the offense has to call its best play, the Packers don’t have a playmaker who can just will his team to a stop either by talent or by sheer force and determination.

Clay Matthews is no longer that player, though he can still do it in spurts as we saw with the forced interception in overtime against the Browns.

Nick Perry was supposed to be that guy, the consistent edge rusher, but injuries once again derailed his season; even when healthy Perry simply hasn’t been a major factor.

The aforementioned Clark and Daniels are outstanding interior players, but aren’t pass rushers inside like Geno Atkins or Aaron Donald.

And though Damarious Randall has been much better the last two months, he’s not yet in the conversation with players like Jalen Ramsey, Patrick Peterson, Chris Harris, Richard Sherman, Xavier Rhodes and the top corners in the game.

The top situational defenses have at least one guy, and most of the time multiple guys, who can overwhelm an offense with their ability when they need to. New England, as usual, is the lone exception and they have the greatest schematic coach of all time.

In a different defense, this Packers group is talented enough to more more effective than it is. The issues with defending quality quarterbacks has long suggested Dom Capers may be watching the league pass him by.

There are indisputably better defenses with less talent. I’d put the Packers player-for-player up against a team like the Bengals and insist Green Bay has more talent, but Cincy’s defense is light years better.

Even if there’s a disagreement there, it’s hard to argue this defense is the least talented in the league by a long shot. But that’s what their situational numbers say they are.

That onus is on Ted Thompson to hit big on another defender (and that player may already be on the roster with young talents like Josh Jones and Kevin King still far from fully formed) and on this coaching staff to understand changes likely need to be made to move forward.

The defense is too good to be this bad.