Green Bay Packers Defensive Preview
Defense: Past, present, and future
A breakdown of the Green Bay Packers defense and expectations for the 2013 season
“The Green Bay Packers are Super Bowl champions!”
When times were good….
In a weird way, it feels so long ago that Aaron Rodgers was holding the Lombardi Trophy as Clay Matthews hoisted the championship belt onto his shoulder. Images of confetti falling around the players as they covered their jerseys with Super Bowl XLV Champion tee-shirts have been replaced by ones of Hakeem Nicks catching a Hail Mary and Colin Kaepernick out running everyone on the defense.
….and not so good.
On the other hand, it is hard to forget how amazing the offense was in 2011 or how gutty the team was in 2012.
The Green Bay Packers have high expectations for the following season, and for good reason. If healthy, they boast the best quarterback in the NFL, one of if not the best receiving trios, and a pretty strong defense anchored by one of the league’s best pass-rushers. While Green Bay is the class of the NFC North, it is not the best or even second best team in the conference and has some obstacles it needs to overcome to return the Lombardi trophy to title town. To lead up to training camp, I will post the defensive and offensive breakdowns in two articles, starting with the defense. As a caveat, freak injuries obviously can cause any prediction to change. I’m sure the 16-0 Patriots do better in their follow up year with Tom Brady not having his knee torn by Bernard Pollard, even with Cassel leading them to 11-5. With introductions out of the way, let us move to the defense!
Defensive statistics 2010-2012:
2010 Pts/G 15 (2nd), Yds/G 309.1 (5th)
Pass – 3,107 or 194.2/game (5th), 6.5 YPPA, 5th, 47 sacks (tied 2nd)
Rush – 1,838 or 114.9/game (18th), 4.7 YPC (tie-28th)
Opponent Third Down Efficiency: 36.2% conversion (9th)
2011 Pts/G 22.4 (19th), Yds/G 411.6 (32nd)
Pass – 4,703 or 299.8/game (32nd), 7.8 YPPA, Tie-26th, 29 sacks (27th)
Rush – 1,789 or 111.8/game (14th), 4.7 YPC (26th)
Opponent Third Down Efficiency: 42.6% conversion (26th)
2012 Pts/G 21 (11th) Yds/G 336.8 (11th)
Pass – 3,473 or 218.2/game (11th), 6.7 YPPA (tie-7th), 47 sacks (4th)
Rush – 1,896 or 118.5/game (17th), 4.5 YPC (tie-23rd)
Opponent Third Down Efficiency: 38.1% conversion (14th)
The defense proved that 2011 was more of an aberration than a truth after a bounce-back year in 2012. Green Bay was not quite as good as the 2010 Super Bowl year, but the pass defense only gave up an average of 24 yards more per game versus the 2011 season, when the average was 105.6 yards more per game. The Packers also equaled the number of sacks in the 2010 Super Bowl year of 47 in 2012. The third down efficiency was much improved as well, but needs to be back in the top ten to give Rodgers more opportunities to capitalize.
This jump back tends to be the problem trying to justify a large jump forward for the defense though. The numbers are very close in 2010 and 2012, if we throw 2011 out as more of a fluke. If the defense is going to take a step forward in 2013, it will most likely have to come from new blood Datone Jones and a much improved sophomore campaign from Nick Perry. Realistically, I feel the team will be somewhere in the ball park of the top ten pass defense, especially since they were 5th and 11th in two of the last three years. Run defense is a different story.
In the last three seasons, Green Bay’s total run defense appears on paper better than it actually shows. The biggest reason for that is Aaron Rodgers putting points up to fast for the opposing team to establish the run and they try and throw it with him. But when Green Bay is forced to deal with the run, it has not been pretty. The Packers have given up over 4.5 yards per carry every year for the past three years, which is in the bottom third in the league. Green Bay has to face four of the top ten rushing teams, three of which were in the top four (Chicago 10th, San Francisco 4th, Minnesota 2nd, and Washington 1st), and two of them they play twice. Packer fans probably still are wincing particularly from Kaepernick and Peterson running right over and around Green Bay last season. I still do not know why there were images of Packer fans showing Peterson what nine yards looked like after the last regular season game when he was short of the record after he showed them what 409 yards looked like in two games. “Yeah, we showed him!”
Fortunately, Datone Jones looks to be just what the doctor ordered in this area in more ways than one. He had 19 tackles for loss last season at UCLA and hopefully will bring some of that ferocity to Green Bay’s line as well as to B.J. Raji.
“Da Tone Setter” as John Gruden called him on draft day will hopefully help prevent 200 yard rushing performances
Raji has not looked the same since Cullen Jenkins stopped lining up next to him. I do not know if it was the newly acquired spotlight after the post season run, if Jenkins had any sort of leadership or mentor status to him, or if he has simply been exposed since Jenkins departed. If it is the last of the three, then Raji should return to prominence with Jones lined up next to him, and the two of them should help stymie opposing offenses. As good as some of the other players are, the defense’s upside will most likely go on how well the line plays this year as they have the widest gap between floor and ceiling. Jones and Raji will both need to play at high levels, and with Jones being a rookie and Raji being, well Raji, that may be asking a lot.
The linebackers from Green Bay are largely unchanged from last season. If Clay remains mostly healthy, they will be overall pretty good. The interior linebackers barring a surprising season will play above average. Hawk has proved pretty good against the run but liable against the pass. Brad Jones has shown to be average against both, but nothing to write home about. Nick Perry is the wild card. He showed flashes before his season ended prematurely, if he can build on that and hone his athleticism into the player the Packers selected in the first round, the defense could become dangerous. Green Bay had 47 sacks last season without Perry being a major contributor, if he can crack 10 sacks and Matthews is healthy, Green Bay’s defense will be well positioned. Their weakness though is they tend to pin their ears back against the run, and especially breaking contain against running quarterbacks. Outside of Matthews, the Packers linebackers do not do a good job containing running backs or mobile QBs who break from the pocket. Watching tape of the 49ers game in the playoffs, it is painfully clear adjustments need to be made to both scheme and player mentality against mobile quarterbacks. Overall, I expect defenses across the NFL to adjust and all of the young mobile quarterbacks will need to shift to a pass-first mind-set, something only Luck and Wilson have so far shown.
The secondary for the Packers is largely unchanged from a talent standpoint but a glaring weakness at leadership is present. With Charles Woodson being waived by Green Bay in the offseason, there is a hole in both leadership and physicality missing. Green Bay looked like a different team when he returned for game three against Minnesota when they played in the playoffs. Peterson no longer could break out and burst down field with Woodson slowing him up on the outside or just plain making the tackle. This won’t be as prevalent for the first 16 games as Woodson was not a huge factor due to injuries. But he showed important flashes in the run game against Minnesota in the playoffs, although he was a liability in coverage, drawing flags and getting beat which caused his dismissal thanks to three talented corners and a pair of young safeties. Casey Hayward is the best player in this secondary in my opinion. He proved to be a high caliber ball hawk but also showed to be the most consistent man coverage player on the team. Tramon Williams bounced back from a poor 2011 season to regain some of his incredible 2010 form. If he can repeat 2010, the Packers will have one of the better combinations of corners if Hayward continues to progress. Sam Shields is also no slouch at corner, and appears to be poised for a solid season and can be a tough matchup for an opposing team’s number three receiver, especially in the NFC north where no other team has a strong third threat. At safety, both players played well last season and look to be on the rise. MD Jennings emerged as a big play maker, having a huge interception return against Detroit week eleven as well as a “game winning interception” versus Seattle* (this was overturned by the replacement referees). Free safety Morgan Burnett has been a model of consistency since Nick Collins’ tragic injury. While Green Bay would be better off had Collins never went down, Burnett is more than qualified for the role.
The one on the left had refereed division 1 football, the one on the right never was above division 3…why did they listen to him?
Overall, the defense should be around what it was last year with upside from a potentially rejuvenated B.J. Raji with the addition of Datone Jones and continuing progression from Nick Perry and Casey Hayward. Green Bay appears to be a very good potential defense against the pass once again. However, keep an eye on the third preseason game against Seattle. This is the game that teams generally, “try,” the most in during the preseason and it is against one of the best running teams in the NFL. Green Bay needs to drastically shore up its run defense and needs to tighten up on third down efficiency. This will be the first preview of how the season will start for the Packers, as the first two opponents, San Francisco and Washington, were each in the top four for rushing yards in the NFL.
Green Bay’s defense will need to be there for a Super Bowl run. The last two seasons they were absolutely torched in the playoffs and cannot assume Rodgers will carry the team, especially with the problems on the offensive line. If healthy though, this defense potentially would be one of the three best in the NFC and one of the ten best overall, and I expect them to be at that level by season’s end if healthy.