10

November

Packers Defense: Identifying Reasons Behind the Unit’s Decline in 2011

Whether you think it is a large-scale problem or not, the Green Bay Packers defense has undeniably taken a step back 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 To be perfectly honest, the sack statistic alone is the most overvalued and outdated stat we have on defensive pressure.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.

Safety miscommunication

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.

Tackling problems

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.

Having leads

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.

——————

23 Responses to “Packers Defense: Identifying Reasons Behind the Unit’s Decline in 2011”

  1. Savage57 says:

    Kudo’s on assembling a data-driven piece that elevates the discussion beyond opinion. Nice work.

    Now, as to the fixes? I guess it comes down to recognzing the stuff you can and can’t fix in November. The tackling, safety communication, and Caper’s schemes are all seemingly correctable right now, with the players that take the field. What the GBP can’t do is make AJ Hawk faster or C Wood younger or Sam Shield more experienced or kidnap Cullen Jenkins.

    This year has exposed the bias of the Packers over the last few years in terms of stocking the shelves of the offense and we’ll have to see if TT and Co are up to the task for the defense with the same degree of excellence in the next few years.

    For now, I think the biggest improvement the Packer defense can make is to do everthing they possibly can to help the offense score at least 34.4 points per game. It’s worked so far.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  2. Dan C says:

    Maybe I’m wrong, but you state:
    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.

    I read those stats the opposite way – this year we pressure every 2.98 snaps, last year every 2.37 snaps. I read that to say last year we were able to pressure the QB more often, i.e. less snaps between pressures.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  3. Dan C says:

    sorry, you lost me on this statement on Raji:

    Raji has played over 1,500 snaps over the past two seasons and fatigue could be an issue.

    How could snaps from September 2010 be a fatigue issue in November 2011? He had the entire offseason to sit on the couch to recuperate..

    Sorry to nit-pick. Overall a good article.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  4. cow42 says:

    i may be old fashioned but i do not feel that hits and pressures are as important as sacks. hits and pressures do not cause fumbles. hits and pressures do not result in loss of yardage thus setting up a more challenging next down.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

    • CSS says:

      Completely disagree. They result in errant throws, incompletions and interceptions. Probably the biggest value: QB is the most important position to any franchise, once your QB starts getting pressured and taking hits you start narrowing your playbook more and more. You go to max protection with TE’s and RB’s, often running only 2 receivers on routes. You neuter the offense and handcuff the coordinator.

      Sacks alone are the most overrated, outdated stats in modern football. They only account for a minutia of the overall pressure/plays on the QB and not the majority that actually effects the playbook.

      It’s like saying, “Jared Allen will only have about 20 meaningful pass rushes this season.” Moronic….

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

      • cow42 says:

        i am a moron – won’t argue with that…
        BUT –
        I never stated that pressures and hits were not important, i just don’t believe that they are as important.

        it’s like saying a player who had 3 sacks and 17 pressures was more impactful than a player who had 20 sacks.

        moronic.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

        • CSS says:

          Didn’t call you moronic, said the concept was. Re-read the analogy and you’ll get it.

          As to your example, depends doesn’t it. Sacks mean the QB went down with the football. You have nothing but a change in down and distance with your 20 sack example.

          Should the 3 sacks and 17 pressures result in two turnovers or more, including a defensive score it matters more. Also, if you’re altering the opposing teams playbook its more impactful. Walk away from the meme, Cow, it’s just intellectually dishonest for the sake of winning an argument.

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

          • cow42 says:

            lot of “what ifs” there. what if all of the sacks ended in fumbles returned for touchdowns?

            i don’t know what a meme is.

            Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

            • CSS says:

              Used the word ‘if’ only once, no ‘what ifs’ anywhere. You managed to respond to nothing I stated only to rail on what if and come back with your own ‘what if.’

              Sorry you hate learning.

              Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  5. Ron LC says:

    Good Stuff Zack!

    MM in his own way is pointing to a Stat that isn’t readily apparent in all the other stats. That is the number of big plays. SD had 7 last week. The big plays are not exclusively Pass. Many are runs.

    To me that points to:

    1. Poor tackling by all. (your stats support this)
    2. Poor coverage (your stats confirm this)
    3. A reluctance on the part of the coaching staff to address this issue, publicly.
    4. If they don’t admitt something is broke, it won’t be fixed. (Disappointed Mr C)

    MM is starting to become somewhat more vocal on this critical issue. That’s an improtant first step. Just because the first 8 games showed that the offense was able to overcome this dramatic step back in points and yards allowed, it doesn’t mean they can maintain their record breaking O for the last 8 games. A good plan requires the D to step up and play with aggresion and skill. In short, get better now.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

    • Michalske says:

      I have been waiting all year for MM to start talking about ‘cleaning it up.’ That’s the first step (in his version of ‘coach speak’) to getting the players to actually do something.

      Hope he didn’t leave it for too late . . .

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  6. ELo says:

    Great article Zach. The drop-off in defensive production and effectiveness is pretty troubling because it does seem to be multiple issues. Clearly, losing Jenkins and Collins is a factor, but we seemed to plug the injury holes so well last year. At some point, the question of coaching has to be addressed. I’m starting to have visions of Bob Sanders and 4th and 26th.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  7. Chad Lundberg says:

    I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. I believe Mike Neal could hold the key to turning the defense around.

    Bringing pressure up front will put less pressure on the linebackers to stop the run, and that altogether should put less pressure on the secondary.

    Everyone is acknowledging that Neal could bring some life to the defense, but to my shock, NOBODY is talking about the possibility of him actually being something like a savior to the defense.

    Look, I KNOW that that’s a lot to put on the kid, and I know that people wouldn’t want to get their hopes up on something like that.

    But when an organization is willing to let a veteran like Cullen Jenkins go, and be replaced by a completely unproven player like Neal, that’s what we should pay attention to. The organization has confidence in him, and therefore so do I.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  8. Good article. Is there any merit in moving Woodson to Safety and giving Jarret Bush more playing time at corner? It seems like Woodson could help make up the loss of Collins as the signal caller. Jarret Bush has come a long way in the last couple years and kinda plays like a less talented Woodson.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 3

    • Marty Tyler says:

      I strongly disagree–do not let Bush anywhere near the starting line up. He’s good on ST and thats it!!!

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

      • David says:

        NOOO Way!!! Do not let Bush anywhere near that Defense!! EVERYTIME that man is on the field the Packers give up a touchdown and its always Bush’s man. Bush is always 5 steps behind the reciever that scored with that stupid look on his face asking what happened!! You happened Bush!!!

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  9. BTF says:

    Nice article Zach.

    1 minor nitpick if I may -this “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” implies that one poor game by the defense and the season is over. Yes if it happens in the post season but we don’t need to go 19-0 to win the Super Bowl. The post season is in sporting terms an age away and worrying about it now is IMO a tad premature. A load of things both good and bad can change before December

    Other thoughts. You say Shields has allowed 24 passes from 39 targets which of course isn’t good but it would be interesting to see how his targets to snaps ratio compares to the other corners.

    I think Woodson is dropping off, but he has had to play 2 games as more of a pure cover corner which exposes his weaknesses more. As for his lack of effectiveness as a blitzer seems that teams are playing a lot of max protect or at least planning for those blitzes meaning he’s coming free less.

    Linebackers in coverage is pretty horrible as you describe. Not sure there is a fix for that. Maybe give Brad Jones a few more snaps in a Chillar type role ?

    Overall -fix the secondary first and the rest will come. Better coverage gives the pass rush time to get home. Hopefully Burnett and Peprah can get their roles sorted (seemed like Sunday Burnett was the FS and Peprah the SS which seems to fit their physical strengths best can Burnett handle it mentally). I’m still hopeful Neal can help the interior pass rush which should help Raji and Matthews. We do have talent in the secondary and in the defense in general. I’m not ready to write them off yet…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  10. Wagszilla says:

    The only two things I really see as credible are:
    - Lack of pressure from front 7.
    - Average play by the Safeties Peprah and Burnett.

    Lack of pressure = more time in coverage.
    More time in coverage = increased likelihood of a completed pass.
    On any other team, average safety play will get you by (except in the red zone perhaps).

    But those are merely symptoms not the root cause which seems to be PERSONNEL.

    The Packers front 7, specifically it’s line, it’s comprised of run-stoppers and we see similar success because of it. Pickett has always been a “run guy”. Raji’s in the nose. Wynn’s just not that good.

    We miss Jenkins and players like him who can generate pressure off of the line. Some people need to swallow their pride and admit it – he is missed. He’s been healthy all year in Philly while we sit here with Neal injured. (That’s fine, I’m not starting a ‘Fire Ted’ campaign or insulting Neal for being injured – Ted’s “gambling” has worked before, but in this case it failed). Let’s call spades spades and be real.

    And for whatever reason, Clay is playing “not good” against the pass – no power in his rush. He has the speed and smarts but missing that power. Sure he’s drawing attention but once again it comes back to personnel. Maybe a rush DE helps open up some holes for him. Jenkins probably made both Walden and Zombo look better than they are (although I do like Frank).

    I discount the points about the Corners. Tramon has been injured most of the season, Woodson seems to be pretty much the same guy, and Shields while a godawful tackler still shows speed and hip-to-hip coverage in the Dime.

    Dom seems to be doing his best to cover up the weaknesses of our D.

    Just some thoughts.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  11. [...] to identify reasons for the Packers’ defensive unit’s decline from All Green Bay [...]

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  12. Jersey Al Jersey Al says:

    AWESOME work, Zach. My main points that everyone should take from this article:

    “the Packers have managed to allow 90 yards and a touchdown more this season than the last.”

    “…the Packers have actually pressured the quarterback with a higher efficiency this season than the last.”

    “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.”

    “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.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  13. David says:

    I agree with the reply about letting Jenkins go was a mistake. We really miss him and like the writer said we took a chance on Neal. We saw him play in two games and to date he’s missed 26 of 28 games. TT has hit on more than he’s missed but the missed tackles are killing us. The LB in coverage is right on too! I still can’t believe we gave AJ Hawk a 5 year contract! % more years of that slow a$$ is gonna give me a stroke!! This next draft we need a Corner, Linebacker and a few D-lineman. TT & MM will get it right. Lets hope Rodgers can keep it up as long as wee need him to this year! Go Pack!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  14. [...] first problem I addressed last week when I dissected the Packers defensive decline was the reduction in pressure. On Monday night, the pressure came and never let up. Three sacks, [...]

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0