(Apologies this took so long. I’ve been laid up with pneumonia and still am not a hundred percent. Offensive grades here.)
Ryan Pickett: B
The elder statesman was by far and away the best performer on the defensive line. His importance to the run defense was illustrated when he was out of the lineup later in the season. As well as he played against the run, offered close to nothing when it came to pushing the pocket. Does so many little things well, his play can be overlooked.
B.J. Raji: C+
Was not the player we saw at the end of 2010. Tended to disappear for long stretches. Had his snaps limited for fear the team was wearing him down, but that didn’t seem to help. Occasionally came up against an offensive line he could take advantage of, but overall took a big step back in 2011.
Jarius Wynn: C-
An opening night starter, was charged with helping provide the push and pursuit that was lost when the team let Cullen Jenkins walk. Just not physical enough. Decent motor that lets him get an occasional sack when coverage is good or his line-mates flush the quarterback his way. A liability against the run.
Mike Neal: D -
Went down in a non-contact drill the first week of training camp and didn’t see the field until the Tampa game. May have come back too early, as he showed none of the burst off the line that he displayed in 2010 before being lost to injury. Needs a healthy offseason and a good camp. Can still contribute and should not be counted out.
C. J. Wilson: C-
Improved as the year went on. Not much more than a body, but gives decent effort. Offers nothing in the pass rush department and not much more against the run, though he can keep lesser offensive lineman off the linebackers.
Howard Green: D
Took a big step back from his 2010 campaign. Everyone remembers the push he got in the Super Bowl to disrupt Ben Roethlisberger’s throw out of his own endzone, leading to Nick Collins’ interception. Push like that was simply non-existent in 2011. What’s worse, he struggled mightily to hold his ground against the run. Set to be a free agent in 2012, will most likely be allowed to test the market.
Clay Matthews: B+
The lone pass rushing threat, missed out on several sacks by a split second. While his sack total may have declined, his overall game took another step forward. Asked to play much more coverage this year, showed good awareness and ability to diagnose plays as they happened. One of the better tacklers on the team (which is not saying much) rarely got caught out of position when teams tried to fool him with motion away from him. Disciplined, athletic and with a non-stop motor, his production would explode if he had any help whatsoever rushing the passer.
Frank Zombo: D
Just could not stay on the field. Started the year by getting hurt in warmups for a preseason game and showed his toughness by playing that same game with a broken scapula. When he did finally see the field, struggled mightily and tried to do way too much. Got caught too often reaching for tackles rather than coming to balance and driving through the ball carrier. Took a big step back.
Brad Jones: C
Despite ending the season by having a sack in the two games where he was called on to start, showed very little rushing the passer when he finally got his chance to start opposite Matthews at outside linebacker. Where Jones has always excelled is in holding the outside edge against the run, and he didn’t disappoint in that aspect in his limited playing time. There is just nothing dynamic about his game.
Erik Walden: C -
If the season had ended prior to his arrest on assault chargers, Walden probably would have graded out as a solid “B” player. But after his arrest, his play took a nosedive, so badly that the Packers were holding open-tryouts for his position during the Week 17 game against the Lions. Began the year showing good hustle and explosion off the edge. While not a dynamic pass rusher, was often around the quarterback, causing movement in pocket. Where he’s always struggled, and where he struggled exponentially in 2011, was when disciplined play was called for, he was too often flying to the football when if he had simply read his keys they would have told him to stay home. Reverses and counters run to his side almost always netted big yards.
Jamari Lattimore: D -
Made a cameo appearance against Chicago, when the defensive staff started holding the open tryouts for Walden’s job that continued the following week against Detroit. Is valued on special teams but showed absolutely nothing from scrimmage.
Vic So’oto: D
The People’s Champ after his eye-opening performance in the team’s last preseason game, never did much with his chances from scrimmage. Plays too high and is too easily taken out of his pass rush by running backs going low. Needs to spend the offseason in his playbook and working non-stop on his technique. If he works hard, he could make some noise in camp next summer.
A.J. Hawk: D
Prior to injuring his calf on Thanksgiving, Hawk was probably headed to a “C” grade. But after sitting out, Hawk was simply terrible. Played one of his better games down in Atlanta, after the defensive staff made a schematic adjustment that allowed Hawk to attack the line of scrimmage rather than read and react. Other than that glimpse, however, Hawk was average at best and a real liability at worst. Having just signed a a five-year, $33.75 million contract last offseason, Hawk isn’t going anywhere next year. But after 2012, his contract makes it pretty easy to release him. Watch for the Packers to mix-in D.J. Smith next year to ready him to take over for Hawk in 2013.
Desmond Bishop: B
Took a big step forward overall. Showed excellent burst through the line when allowed to rush the passer, but also played under control and was rarely fooled by misdirection. Asked to do too much, would probably get more national recognition if he had more help around him. (Not only Hawk, but in front of him on the defensive line as well.) One of the few defensive players whose play improved over his 2010 output, his skill and athleticism are close to being wasted. One area where he needs improvement is in coverage against tight ends who are allowed to work across the field, but even that deficiency in his game can somewhat be attributed to the lack of pass rush. Bishop is ready to be a star with even a little help around him.
D.J. Smith: C+
Did an admirable job filling in when both Hawk and Bishop went down with calf injuries on Thanksgiving. A real headhunter who never met a ballcarrier he shied away from. Can be taken advantage of due to his aggressiveness, but overall did a fine job calling the defensive plays and playing within the defense. Needs major refinement when it comes to rushing the passer.
Robert Francois: C -
Showed his athleticism with a fantastic interception of Matthew Stafford on Thanksgiving when dropping into a deep zone. That same playmaking ability was on display again against Oakland when he intercepted Carson Palmer in the endzone. Those two plays, however, were just about it. Was easily pushed around in the run game and offered nothing when rushing the passer. Still, his interceptions coupled with a forced fumble showed he can make plays at the NFL level. Now, he needs a good offseason and time in the weight room.
Charles Woodson: B
Despite tying for the league lead in interceptions, Woodson took too many chances and showed some dead legs toward the end of the season. After spending two seasons terrorizing teams from the slot in Capers’ 2-4-5 nickel defense, opposing teams did a good job of negating his effectiveness there in 2011. Gone were many of the impact plays the team had come to expect from Woodson out of that alignment and in its place was an aging corner who was too easily blocked and who, when allowed to come free off the edge, rarely made the impact plays we have seen in the past. It’s also troubling to hear him quoted at the Pro Bowl saying that “personnel” was the main area in need of improvement on defense. While there are certainly positions in need of an upgrade, the fact remains that many of the defensive backs have taken on Woodson’s risk-taking persona, and their fundamentals have suffered because of it. Look no further than the infamous Hail Mary in the playoff game against the Giants. If Woodson and the others simply play their technique and fundamentals on that play, the score is 13-10 heading into the half, rather than 20-10. Instead, the tape shows a lackadaisical group that figures their athleticism alone will not allow a miracle to occur. When the Packers were winning the Super Bowl, Woodson’s study habits were lauded for the influence they had on his secondary running-mates. It’s only fair to call out his up and down effort in 2011 for the influence it had on his teammates as well.
Tramon Williams: C -
Was never the same after suffering a shoulder injury in the opening week against the Saints. Perhaps because of the injury or perhaps to protect from suspect safety play behind him, did not challenge receivers nearly as much at the line of scrimmage. Instead, allowed huge cushions off the line of scrimmage which gave receivers free reign to run through the Packers’ secondary unmolested for huge gains. His tackling also took a big step backwards. Never seemed to be on the same page with any of the safeties, including Nick Collins before he was lost for the season due to injury. A truly troubling step back for a player the Packers rewarded late last November with a five-year, $38.148 million contract.
Jarrett Bush: C
The most physical member of the secondary after Woodson, Bush played about as well as could be expected when pressed into duty. His solid tackling actually earned him a rotational appearance in the playoff game against the Giants due to Sam Shields’ horrific tackling. Will never be anything more than average in coverage, did a decent job when called-upon to rush the passer. The trouble, of course, was that opposing teams realized that they could pick on Bush with impunity. That said, it can’t be said he was that much worse than the rest of the secondary in man coverage – that’s how bad 2011 was.
Sam Shields: D+
Took a monstrous step back from his 2010 campaign. Was really hurt from the lack of an offseason. Showed no form or desire when it came to tackling. Truly pathetic when it came to any of the physical aspects of the game of football. Seems to think he’s Woodson without displaying any of the toughness or providing any of the production. Needs a tough offseason of training and of looking in the mirror and asking himself just how good he wants to be. He has the ability to be an excellent corner in the National Football League, but unless he figures out a way to want it – will never be nothing more than an athletic tease.
Pat Lee: D-
Has never shown much advancement from the promising initial training camp he had his rookie year. A body who could be gone if the Packers see any development from Davon House next year.
Nick Collins: I
There’s a good chance Collins has played his last snap of football. He’s young with a loving family, he’s got money in the bank and has a Super Bowl ring. Has said he will let the Packers know in March what his future plans are. Was one of the better safeties in football and the hit to the Packers defense his absence created was there for all to see in 2011.
Morgan Burnett: C -
Has finally played a season’s worth of NFL games, a fact many forgot while watching his up and down campaign. After being lost for the season in 2010, was obviously limited by the lack of an offseason due to the lockout. Also affected by having to play with a club on his hand after breaking his hand in October. Was lost at times when asked to play the deep middle and gave up way too many plays there. Showed promise around the line of scrimmage and when asked to rush the passer. Could turn into a player if he studies hard and limits his mistakes in coverage.
Charlie Peprah: D
Absolutely terrible. Was always a liability in coverage, but was worse than ever in that department in 2011. The only thing keeping him from a failing grade are the few big plays he did make, which were due much more to scheme than any real ballhakwing on Peprah’s part. Peprah is fine as a spot-replacement for a game when a starter goes down. But he was an unmitigated disaster without Nick Collins there to cover for his lack of athleticism.
Mason Crosby: B
Mirrored the team by starting out on fire and then fading down the stretch when it came to his field goal kicking. Was a real weapon on kickoffs and can be credited with the improvement by the kick-coverage unit. Returners simply didn’t have many opportunities to bring kicks back with Crosby booming them deep into the endzone. Was also valuable for his uncanny ability to place onside kicks, the last futile effort against the Giants notwithstanding.
Tim Masthay: B
Another solid season from Masthay. After a slow start, did an excellent job kicking the ball inside the 20 and limiting opponents return opportunities. His excellent work in tilting field position was often wasted by a porous defense. Becomes close to invaluable for his ability to hit the ball well in cold weather.
Brett Goode: Pass
Long snappers are graded pass/fail because, well, they either do the one job they are supposed to do or they don’t. Once again, Goode did it and did it well.