Saturday, August 3, 2013

Green Bay Packers Season Preview - Defense

The Best Defense is a Good Offense

For whatever reason, it seems the Green Bay Packers have given it their all in proving this long heard football axiom. The 2011 and 2012 seasons saw the offense rank first and third respectively in points scored while the defense was dead last in yards allowed in 2011. Last year the defense improved to a solid 11th in yards allowed, but after watching the 49ers run rampant in the NFC divisional playoff round I don’t think anyone is scared seeing the Packers D on their 2013 schedule. Since letting DE Cullen Jenkins leave via free agency after the 2010 season and losing S Nick Collins to career ending spinal injury in week 2 of 2011, the Packers defense has allowed just under 260 yards passing and 2 TDs a game(including playoffs). Since both absences were nearly simultaneous it is impossible to point to one as reason for the decline of the pass defense. I tend to lean more toward the Collins injury as the most important but both pass rush (or lack thereof) and pass coverage has been missing. Let’s explore a little more shall we?

The Culprits

Ted Thompson has made a lot of brilliant moves during his tenure as GM of the Packers, but letting Cullen Jenkins sign with the Eagles after the 2010 Super Bowl was not one of them. Following his blueprint of letting older free agents go and relaying on more economical(read cheaper) younger players, starting defensive end opposite Ryan Pickett in 2011 fell to a combination of Jarius Wynn and CJ Wilson. In 2010 while playing alongside Jenkins, who tallied 14 QB hits and 9 tackles for loss, Wynn and Wilson combined for 10 QB hits and 4 tackles for loss. Without Jenkins in the mix in 2011 Wynn and Wilson’s productivity plummeted, combining for just 3 QB hits and 9 tackles for loss.  The evidence was overwhelming enough; Thompson spent three of his first four draft picks in 2012 on defensive front seven players trying to find someone capable of taking pressure of Clay Matthews. With the Eagles in 2011 Jenkins registered 11 QB hits and 11 tackles for loss and while those numbers do not necessarily translate if he had stayed in green and gold, Jenkins certainly would have provided more firepower than anyone else on the roster that season.

The case for replacing Nick Collins is not quite so cut and dry statistically, however the falloff was much greater. While a solid player, Cullen Jenkins is not an All Pro level player. Collins was a three time 2nd team All NFL player at safety from 2008-2010 and a ball hawk, generating turnovers via interception and forced fumble. Collins most iconic Packers moment, his Super Bowl 45 interception returned for a TD best exemplifies his free ranging and big play ability. Yet despite all the turnovers and defensive touchdowns, Collins best attribute was recognition of offenses and ensuring the rest of the Packers defensive backs where properly aligned and understood the coverage for each play. In the NFL where physical ability only takes you so far, preparation through film study and on field recognition and adjustment is what separates the great players from the average. Replacing the understanding of 7 year veteran Collins with second year player Morgan Burnett and journey man Charlie Peprah was a gigantic task, particularly when combined with a less effective pass rush.

The Answers

2011 was rock bottom defensively for the Ted Thompson Packers. This led to the first six picks of the 2012 draft focused on the defensive side of the ball. Combined with 2013 first round draft pick Datone Jones from UCLA, the defense is loaded with young players ready to prove themselves. Odds are one or two will separate and become a difference maker this season. Here are the favorites in terms of impact in descending order:

#1 S – Morgan Burnett
– fresh off a 4 year $25 million dollar extension, Burnett is entering his fourth season in the league and third as an entrenched starter. If you’re a fan of history, 4th year safeties in the Packers organization are primed for break out seasons. Predecessors Leroy Butler, Darren Sharper and Nick Collins all became Pro Bowl players during their fourth year.  All this points to a good omen for Burnett, who has shown flashes the past two years defending passes and as an occasional blitzer. Look for defensive coordinator Dom Capers to use Burnett in a more flexible roll (similar to Charles Woodson) to roam in coverage or attack the QB off the edge.

#2 DE – Datone Jones – a lot of pressure has been put on the rookie from UCLA to liven the defensive line that has been awfully stagnant since Jenkins departure. Early reports out of training camp indicate Jones to be impressing with both his strength and speed, something the Packers are hoping will combat the trendy ‘read option’ offense that terrorized them against the 49ers in the playoffs. The Packers think so highly of Jones he has even taken some reps on kickoff coverage, a rarity for defensive linemen.

#3 OLB – Nick Perry – his size and speed are rare even by NFL standards(between Perry and Jones they are definitely looking for a Jenkins-like replacement) That combination was on full display last season when the power generated in sacking Andrew Luck caused the referees (non-replacement even) into thinking he had helmet to helmet contact with the Colts QB. Like Jones and any other pass rusher, Perry has to show the ability to consistently beat one on one matchups while teams concentrate most efforts into slowing down Matthews.

#4 S – Jerron McMillan/ MD Jennings – one of these two players has to emerge and warrant all the first team defensive reps. Thus far in camp they have been splitting opportunities practice to practice. While the competition surely brings out the best in both players, it hampers the cohesiveness the defensive backfield needs to prevent assignment and alignment issues of years past. Both players saw action last year as rookies but were inconsistent in performance. McMillan has been making a few more standout plays disrupting the offense early on and seems to be the front runner.

Just missed the cut – CB - Davon House , CB – Sam Shields, DL – Mike Daniels.

Note - For what it’s worth, Casey Hayward has already broken out and is probably the 4 or 5 most important defensive player already but it would be nice to get him healthy and back on the practice field sooner rather than later.

The Verdict

The defense has taken a beating these past two seasons. Earlier than expected playoffs exits put everyone on notice, but especially Dom Capers who battled rumors and speculation his time as defensive coordinator should end. Mike McCarthy quickly ended those thoughts and gave Capers the dreaded ‘vote of confidence’ in a feisty post season press conference ensuring Capers would be back this season. The bottom line is Capers has been provided with plenty of young, defensive talent over the past two years and is now in a make or break season. They have already lost two seasons of Aaron Rodgers sublime career and cannot count on too many more windows of opportunity. Hopefully 2013 is remembered as the season the defense rose to meet the quality of play from the offense, if not Dom Capers might be looking for work in the offseason. And who even knows, maybe the Vikings are looking for more castoffs?

Until next time, Beer, Brats, and Championships.

- Neal Olson (@olewr7)

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  1. Does sound like Datone has been a beast. The more I hear about his performace at camp the better that pick seems to be. Should be able to command some double teams and open up things for Clay and the LB crew a bit more this year. While the early Bulaga news is not promising, you still can't beat this time of year when all NFL fans have hope! Here's to a fantastic 2013-14 campaign for the Pack!!!

  2. Call out to Neal Olson for another fantastic article about the Packers. Great analysis and breakdown of the defense!