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It’s time to end the narrative of Dom Capers’ ‘bend-but-don’t-break’ Packers defense

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That cliche is still used about the Packers’ defense from time to time, but the results from the past few years disprove it.

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Green Bay Packers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

A common refrain from Green Bay Packers fans and writers is that the team’s defense under Dom Capers has a “bend but don’t break” mentality. This phrase has been used to describe Capers’ units in Green Bay all the way back to the Super Bowl year in 2010, but has also come up in 2015 and as recently as last November.

In general, the idea seems to be that Capers’ defenses give up lots of yardage to the opposition, but somehow are able to avoid giving up large point totals to opponents. A similar assumption there is that the team gets timely sacks or turnovers or has success stopping opponents in the red zone and holding them to field goals instead of touchdowns.

This analysis will not look to assign blame or responsibility to Capers for his scheme or to general manager Ted Thompson for his personnel moves, but rather we will simply look at the results that the team has put up.

Let’s take a look at the numbers to show why this narrative is just plain false.

Yards and Turnovers

The first item that we will examine is the correlations between points allowed versus yards allowed and turnovers, using the league rank in each year as the data point.

Packers’ Defensive Rankings

Year Points Allowed Yards Allowed Turnovers
Year Points Allowed Yards Allowed Turnovers
2016 21 22 11
2015 12 15 19
2014 13 15 8
2013 24 25 21
2012 11 11 18
2011 19 32 1
2010 2 5 6
2009 7 2 1

As you can see, yards allowed correlates very closely to points allowed, with only one instance where the two rankings differ by more than five spots and only two years differing by more than three. On the other hand, turnovers are all over the map, and have no significant correlation with points or yards allowed.

The R-squared value is a statistical measure of how good a correlation there is between two data sets. Without getting into the weeds, a number close to one indicates that there is an extremely close correlation, while a value near zero says that there is little correlation.

The R-squared for points allowed vs. yards allowed is 0.775, while for points vs. turnovers the value is just 0.124.

Red Zone Defense

If the defense truly fit the narrative outlined at the beginning of this article, one would expect to see that the percentage of red zone opportunities that become touchdowns is fairly low. Good rankings in this stat would suggest that the defense gets tough closer to the goal line and holds opponents to field goals or empty possessions instead of touchdowns.

This is absolutely not the case for the Packers over the past decade.

As you can see below, the Packers have actually done a terrible job of holding opponents out of the end zone once they get inside the 20-yard line during Capers’ tenure. Here are their rankings:

Packers Red Zone Defense

Year Red Zone TD% Red Zone Attempts Yards Allowed
Year Red Zone TD% Red Zone Attempts Yards Allowed
2016 27 9 22
2015 13 20 15
2014 23 10 15
2013 20 24 25
2012 28 13 11
2011 18 28 32
2010 15 1 5
2009 29 14 2

The interesting part here is that there is virtually no correlation between red zone touchdown percentage rank and points allowed rank - that R-squared value is a minuscule 0.008. Where there is some slight correlation is in the number of red zone attempts per game, which comes in at about 0.408. That makes some sense, because if you’re bad at keeping teams out of the end zone when they get close, the best way to keep teams off the scoreboard is to not give them those opportunities in the first place.

One reason the 2010 Super Bowl-winning Packers defense was so good — again, they finished second in points allowed and fifth in yards allowed — was that they simply didn’t bend. They allowed the fewest red zone opportunities per game in the NFL, and it wasn’t even close. Opponents got inside the 20 just twice per game, while the second-place team, the Chiefs, allowed 2.5 such opportunities per game.

You can see, however, that the Packers break frequently, finishing in the top half of the league in red zone TD percentage just twice and never ranking better than 13th in a single season.

What are the potential reasons for this? Well, the lack of run defense is probably one factor. One narrative that does hold true is that the Packers tend not to worry much about stopping the running game on defense, focusing more on defending opposing quarterbacks. In Capers’ eight years as Packers defensive coordinator, the team has finished 25th or worse in opponents’ yards per carry six times — every year between 2010 and 2015 inclusive. The exceptions are in 2009, when the team was an impressive third, and in 2016 when the group finished 14th.

However, this does not correlate well to the performance in the red zone, with a relatively weak R-square value (0.302). Perhaps Capers’ willingness to take chances with his blitzes in an effort to force turnovers contributes as well; when those gambles don’t pay off, it more than likely ends in a touchdown for the offense.

Conclusions

Whatever the underlying reasons, it is clear that the Packers’ defenses under Dom Capers don’t fit this bend-but-don’t-break narrative much, if at all. Turnovers do not have a good correlation with the team’s success overall in keeping points off the board, and the red zone defense has been, simply put, bad for the last decade.

With that said, Capers’ defenses have still been reasonably effective overall, finishing in the top half of the league five out of his eight years. However, the two worst seasons in terms of points allowed have come in the last four years and the team has not fielded a truly great defense since Capers’ first two years in Green Bay. It seems to be no coincidence that the Packers have not made a Super Bowl appearance since that unit was indeed elite.