Packers Defense: Identifying Reasons Behind the Unit’s Decline in 2011
The numbers don’t lie. Just a season ago, the Packers defense finished ranked No. 5 in total yards (309.1/game) and passing yards (194.2/game) and No. 2 in points (15.0/game). Eight games into 2011, the Packers rank No. 30 in total yards (399.6), No. 31 in passing yards (299.6/game) and No. 17 in points (22.4).
Somewhere along the way, the Packers have managed to allow 90 yards and a touchdown more this season than the last.
What has caused this sharp decline?
Let’s take a look at some of the potential reasons:
Lack of pressure from front seven
Everything from a defensive standpoint begins up front with pressuring the quarterback, so let’s start here. In terms of sacks, the Packers have 19 in 2011, or roughly 2.4 a game. In 2010, the Packers had 47 total sacks in the regular season, or almost 2.94 a contest. That’s a drop off of almost half a sack a game. Measurable, but not an eye-popping number. To be perfectly honest, the sack statistic alone is the most overvalued and outdated stat we have on defensive pressure. You have to look deeper into the Packers ability to pressure the pocket to get a better idea.
The guys from Pro Football Focus can help shed some light on the situation. According to PFF, the Packers had 337 sacks, quarterback hits and quarterback pressures in 20 games (16.85/game) during the 2010 season. This season, the Packers have 124 (15.5/game). Again, there is a drop off of over one a game, but it’s not like the pressure from a per game standpoint has dropped off the face of the earth.
What about per passing play? The Packers played somewhere in the ball park of 800 total snaps in pass coverage in 20 games last season. With 337 “pressure plays” the Packers averaged one every 2.37 snaps. This season, the Packers defense has played somewhere near 370 total snaps in pass coverage. Average out the 124 pressures and we get one every 2.98 snaps. If you trust these stats, then the Packers have actually pressured the quarterback with a higher efficiency this season than the last.
While stats are usually the most objective way you can look at something like this, I won’t claim that these alone tell the complete story on how the Packers are pressuring the quarterback. Not all quarterback hits and pressures are created equal. A quarterback hit like Howard Green’s in the Super Bowl is much different than say, Erik Walden hitting Philip Rivers after he’s had all day in the pocket.
You also can’t forget that Charles Woodson and B.J. Raji, two of the Packers best pass rushers from a season ago, have had almost no impact (14 total pressure plays) this season in getting after the quarterback. That duo had 68 total last season. Raji has played over 1,500 snaps over the past two seasons and fatigue could be an issue.
Cullen Jenkins is also playing in Philadelphia, and he took his 46 total pressure plays from a season ago with him. Jenkins’ replacements—Jarius Wynn and C.J. Wilson—have combined for all of 8 pressure plays in 2011. Mike Neal, whom the Packers put a lot of confidence in by letting Jenkins walk, hasn’t played in 2011 because of a knee injury suffered in training camp. Clay Matthews is still the most consistent provider of pressure for the Packers, but there’s been stretches this season when he’s struggled to win one-on-one matchups. Not having Jenkins along the defensive line could be a factor in that slow down.
Regression from the top three cornerbacks
No one seems to want to say it, so I will: All three of the Packers starting cornerbacks—Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams and Sam Shields—have taken pretty noticeable steps back in 2011.
Woodson’s decline is the most obvious and also the easiest to track. This season, Woodson ranks in the bottom 25 of cornerbacks in yards allowed (380), yards after catch (155), touchdowns (3), penalties (7) and missed tackles (6). His production from blitzing off the slot, which Woodson has become known for in Dom Capers’ defense, has all but dried up. In 53 pass rushing attempts this season, Woodson has just one quarterback pressure and one sack. Woodson also isn’t making as many plays near the line of scrimmage. After making 80 “stops,” or tackles that constitute a failed play for the offense, in the two years from 2009-10, Woodson has just 11 this season. Most still give Woodson a pass for his five interceptions (four of which have come against rookie quarterbacks), but I won’t. His regression as a player has come much faster than anyone could have anticipated, and the Packers defense is suffering partly because of it.
He isn’t without company in that blame, however. Williams has hardly been the player he was during his breakout 2010 season. After giving up just 523 yards and three touchdowns in 16 games a year ago, Williams has been toasted to the tune of 418 yards and three scores in seven games this season. Part of that is due to a shoulder injury he suffered in Week 1, but that excuse no longer applies.
Shields has also been a mystery in 2011, and his regression might be the worst of the bunch. Quarterbacks have thrown at Shields just 39 times this season, but they’ve completed 24 of those passes for 358 yards. If you watch some of his cutups in man-to-man coverage this season, it isn’t pretty. It’s mostly understandable for a guy that’s still in the infant stages of learning the position, but Shields’ emergence last season put some high expectations on him for 2011. Let’s also not forget that Shields has seven missed tackles, which is an unacceptable number for a guy that doesn’t play every down.
Figuring out Capers
If you look at Dom Capers and some of his stops in the NFL, there’s a trend that shows his defenses peaking early on in his tenure and then tailing off. With Carolina in the mid-90′s, Capers got the Panthers defense to No. 2 in the NFL in points allowed in 1996. During the two seasons following, Capers’ defense fell to 13th in ’97 and then 27th in ’98 in scoring. Same thing happened in Jacksonville (No. 1 in scoring in ’99, 16th in 2000) and Miami (No. 5 in scoring in ’06, 30th in ’07). Could the same be happening again in Green Bay? As Aaron Nagler and I discussed earlier this week, teams have found ways to limit Capers’ blitz packages in the 2-4-5 defense. Blitzing Woodson from the slot has been successfully gameplanned for. Most of the blitzes that Capers has thrown at offenses simply haven’t been as effective in year 3 as they were in the two seasons before.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy talked at length on Monday about the communication errors that have been occurring in the secondary. It was fairly obvious to see on Sunday, as two of Philip Rivers touchdown passes appeared to be clear coverage breakdowns between the players in that unit. Charlie Peprah and Tramon Williams were seen jawing at each other several times.
While McCarthy said that Nick Collins’ absence wasn’t the quantifiable reason behind the errors, it’s not hard to speculate that having Peprah—a guy who deferred to Collins all of last season—and Morgan Burnett, who is essentially a rookie after losing 12 of 16 games last season with an ACL injury, as the starting safeties has complicated matters in the secondary. The adjustment period from Collins to those two is taking time.
Part of this has already been documented with the cornerbacks, but it applies throughout the defense. On the season, the Packers have a grand total of 46 missed tackles. Do the math. 46 missed tackles comes out to nearly six a game. For an NFL defense, that is completely and utterly unacceptable. After Woodson (6), Williams (6) and Shields (7), Burnett and A.J. Hawk have 5, Desmond Bishop and Clay Matthews 4 and Charlie Peprah 3.
It’s a widespread problem that needs to be addressed.
Linebackers in coverage
Desmond Bishop, A.J. Hawk and Erik Walden have all been major liabilities in coverage, and that might be putting it nicely. Among linebackers this season, Bishop has given up the third most receptions (30) and yards (347), and quarterbacks have a 123.8 passer rating when throwing his way in 2011. Hawk has been poor in this area too. Targeted 26 times, Hawk has allowed 16 catches for 194 yards—180 of which have come after the catch. That stat tells me that Hawk has allowed short plays in front of him that turn into big plays down the field because of his inability to stay with the receiver. The film backs the claim 100%.
Then there is Walden, who has given up the second most receptions (11) and yards (142) this season among 3-4 outside linebackers.
Another factor to consider in the Packers defensive woes this season is that Green Bay has been in the lead in most games this season. Theoretically, this puts pressure on the passing defense as teams attempt to catch up. But don’t forget that the Packers never trailed by more than seven points last season and held big leads in plenty of games. In blowout wins over the Cowboys, Vikings and Giants, the Packers defense put the nail in those teams. Too many times this season, the defense has kept opponents in games.
What does it all mean?
I’ve said all along that the problem with the Packers defense isn’t one big thing. It’s a whole bunch of little problems that manifests itself into a bigger-picture problem.
The odds say that a team will eventually come along that can make life a little more difficult for the Packers offense and continue to expose a leaky defense. That could cost them a chance at repeating down the road, as banking on Aaron Rodgers to be play perfect for 19 straight games—the amount that it will take to win another Super Bowl—is playing with fire. The Packers defense needs to right the wrongs presented here so that when that time comes, it’ll be the one with the ability to put out the flames.——————
Zach Kruse is a 23-year-old sports journalist with a passion for the Green Bay Packers. He currently lives in Wisconsin and is working on his journalism degree, while also covering prep sports for The Dunn Co. News.
You can read more of Zach's Packers articles on AllGreenBayPackers.com.Follow @zachkruse2