Packers Defense Not Built to Stop the Run
Colin Kaepernick killed the Green Bay Packers defense on Saturday night. It was a one-man show, and he was unstoppable.
“We thought that passing-wise, we would be alright, regardless of how he was throwing,” said veteran safety Charles Woodson, as quoted by Jason Wilde of ESPN Wisconsin. “What we didn’t anticipate was him running and getting out of the pocket the way he did. Those things killed us. Broke our backs.”
He also seemed to break their souls, sucking the hope right out of the defense. Every time the defense would make good stops on first and second down, Kaepernick would come right back and burn them on third-and-long. The 49ers were 8-of-13 on third down, for a 62% conversion rate.
On the eight third down conversion, each play went for at least 12 yards. In total, the 49ers made 153 yards for an average gain of 19.1 yards. Five of them were running plays, and two of them went for touchdowns. And in looking at yards-to-go, five of those eight third downs needed at least 8 yards to convert.
The big question on everyone’s mind is: Why couldn’t the Packers stop Kaepernick and his running attack? Whether it was the option read or a scramble, he gashed them repeatedly for gigantic chunks of yardage.
Many people are pointing the finger at Dom Capers, and rightly so. His play calling and game plan did nothing to stop what the 49ers were doing. In fact, it almost seemed like he was completely unprepared for what Kaepernick was capable of. Spies were used minimally, and when the blitz was called, there was no one left on the back end for clean-up duty when Kaepernick escaped.
But was it all Capers’ fault? Our own Adam Czech suggests that this problem goes beyond the defensive coordinator. San Francisco, he writes, was simply “bigger, stronger, faster and tougher than the Packers.” And he’s right. The 49ers out-muscled Green Bay’s defense the entire game.
Let’s take a trip back in time, though. Think back to last season and what we were saying about the Packers defense. While the offense was having an historic season, the defense was struggling to be even mediocre. They kept getting burned by veteran quarterbacks and made the rookies look like veterans. The defense relied on the turnover to make their stops and was otherwise a sieve through the air.
The season came crashing down on this fact when Eli Manning and the New York Giants took Green Bay to task in the Divisional playoff game. In that game, Manning threw for 330 yards, three touchdowns, and just one interception.
When the offense struggled, the defense didn’t have the ability to keep the game in reach.
Thus, the offseason was ripe with fans who wanted Ted Thompson to add some talent to the defense, in particular some pass rushers. Bring in an outside linebacker to pair up with Clay Matthews, pick up a defensive lineman that could get some push up the middle, and grab a couple other players to round out the unit. Improve the pass rush, we said, and the rest would fall into place.
And to our delight, Thompson delivered. In the first two rounds he signed Nick Perry, Jerel Worthy, and Casey Hayward. Not stopping there, he added an extra lineman in Mike Daniels, a hard-hitting safety in Jerron McMillian, and a linebacker prospect in Terrell Manning.
This was exactly what the fans were looking for. Despite some question marks about “effort,” these players showed great potential.
Here’s the problem, though. Immediately after the draft ended, people started analyzing Thompson’s moves as a desire to add more “speed” to the defense. Additionally, people questioned whether the players were right for the scheme.
Jerel Worthy epitomized these questions. Would he be able to handle double-teams and eat up blockers like 3-4 lineman are supposed to? He was scouted as having a quick first step, which caught glimpses of this year, but did he have the strength and size to make it count?
Then there was Nick Perry, who many saw as a better 4-3 defensive end than a 3-4 outside linebacker. He was also given credit for his initial burst off the line, though unlike Matthews, his strength lay more in the bull rush.
The kicker, of course, is that very few of these draftees were playing on defense during Saturday’s embarrassment. Nick Perry was placed on injured reserve earlier this season, and Jerel Worthy was ruled out for the playoffs after an injury in Week 17. Mike Daniels played just 30 of 80 defensive snaps against San Francisco, Jerron McMillian had three snaps, and Terrell Manning had zero.
Casey Hayward saw the most action as the third cornerback with 32 snaps.
So while this year’s draft class had little impact on the Packers’ final game of the season, it still illustrates the larger picture. The Green Bay Packers have been bolstering their defense in response to the league’s increasing focus on the passing game. Dealing with division quarterbacks like Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford is only the first concern when considering guys like Drew Brees, Eli Manning, and even Tony Romo in the NFC. Then there’s the AFC, who among others has the top two quarterbacks of their generation in Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
The focus of Dom Capers, especially in response to what happened last season, was certainly on the passing game. In fact, this trend can be followed all the way back to 2009, when despite boasting the top rushing defense, the Packers were eaten alive by veteran quarterbacks. Ben Roethlisberger and Brett Favre gave them fits during the regular season, and few will forget the way Kurt Warner surgically cut them apart in the Wild Card game at Arizona.
Here is a quick look at some statistics from the past four years when it comes to the defensive production:
|Green Bay Packers Defensive Production, 2009-2012|
|Year||Avg. Passing Yds./Game||Avg. Rushing Yds./Game|
|2009||201.1 (5th)||83.3 (1st)|
|2010||194.2 (5th)||114.9 (18th)|
|2011||299.8 (32nd)||111.8 (14th)|
|2012||218.2 (11th)||118.5 (17th)|
With the exception of 2009, the Packers’ rushing defense has stayed fairly average. This year took a bit of a drop, but if you consider Adrian Peterson’s two games against them, it might actually be a bit skewed.
What this chart really highlights is the change in passing defense. In 2009, the passing defense was great against average quarterbacks but had a lot more trouble against the good ones. Things got significantly better in 2010, which was a big reason for their push in the postseason and Super Bowl victory. Then 2011 came along, and with it the calls for Dom Capers’ firing.
Now here we are in 2012. The passing defense has improved significantly. A better pass rush combined with the increased performance in the secondary (particularly Casey Hayward and Sam Shields) has made it tough for quarterbacks to rip apart Green Bay through the air. Turnovers have been down in comparison to recent years, but overall play has improved from last season.
The only problem is that we have been so focused on fixing the passing defense, that the running game has been left vulnerable. It’s almost like 2009’s version of the pass defense. The Packers have actually done well against most running backs, but big hitters like Adrian Peterson and Frank Gore have gashed them.
And now we’ve also seen the true Achille’s heel of this defense during the postseason. Not only have strong running games been problematic, but Dom Capers and his unit have had no answer to the option quarterback. Minnesota’s Joe Webb had some good success in the Wild Card round running the option reads, and of course there’s no forgetting what Kaepernick was able to do in the Divisional round.
If this is going to be the new breed of quarterback, then the Packers will need to find an answer – and quickly. They’re unlucky enough to be in the conference that is really grooming this style of offense. Cam Newton and the Panthers, Robert Griffin III and the Redskins, Russell Wilson and the Seahawks, Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers. Green Bay will be dealing with them all in the coming years, whether in the regular season or postseason.
Future success will be dependent on their ability to handle these offenses, as well as building on their success against the passing game. They might be able to handle a loss or two during the season against the option offenses, but when it’s “one and done” in the playoffs, they will need an answer.
Unfortunately, we now have a couple more weeks of offseason to start figuring it out.——————Follow @ChadToporski