“You are what you are” Bill Parcells once famously said, and Packers fans would do well to take heed, stop worrying and enjoy the ride.
The 2011 version of your Green Bay Packers is an offensive wonderment with a defense that will bleed yardage but keep the opponents score low enough for the offense to either blow out or at least to stay in striking distance. Throw in an excellent punter and coverage unit to win the field position battle more often than not along with a kicker who makes far more than he misses – and that, ladies and gentlemen, is your team.
Yes, the run defense needs to get Ryan Pickett back in the worst way, but his return won’t solve the revolving door at right outside linebacker or give A.J. Hawk the ability to stop ball carriers in their tracks rather than be dragged three or four extra yards.
I hear you out there now – “D.J. Smith needs to play for Hawk!” – and we might even see some of that in the next few games. But one look at Smith’s play against the Chiefs can tell you all you need to know about how far he has to go yet. Yes, he’s a tackling machine, but one who is prone to over-pursuing and easily confused by play-action.
The biggest issue when it comes to the defense is the regression we’ve seen from guys we saw playing at a high level last year when complimenting star players like Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews, almost across the board. Guys such as A.J. Hawk, Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, and Howard Green have all taken a step back in their games. Adding to that effect are the the season-ending injury to Nick Collins along with the departure of Cullen Jenkins, events which led to reliance on Morgan Burnett and Mike Neal, one player whose play has been wildly inconsistent and one who spent the season on the bench and then made minimal impact when he finally saw the field.
Now, this defense still has enough talent to get the Packers to the Super Bowl. Getting Pickett back will help stop the bleeding on the ground, if not exactly be the panacea most are hoping for. Clay Matthews, while not the pass rushing demon we may have thought he was coming into the 2011 season, is an actual all-around excellent football player. B.J. Raji has started to wreak havoc across the line of scrimmage the way he did late in the 2010 campaign. What Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers needs to do is simplify his blitzes, especially on third downs where the offense needs less than five yards. Too often teams are able to use simple blitz-beaters against his fire-zone blitzes that result in first downs.
But the simplest thing Capers can do, and he obviously knows this, is to get the likes of Pickett and Raji to spearhead a turnaround of the run defense, especially on first down. Even the slightest improvement on first down will help Capers open up what he likes to do on third down, which is bring blitzers from all across the field. When the opposing team is constantly facing 3rd and 3 or 4 rather than 3rd and 8 or 9, the degree of difficulty goes up greatly for Capers and his pressure packages.
With all of this said, this Packers team still rises and falls on the arm of Aaron Rodgers, and nothing about the playoffs, playing in the cold, or the other contenders will change this. There has been lots of talk over the last few weeks about how the Packers could be “in trouble” if any number of other teams ended up in Lambeau in January. Both the upstart 49ers and the sizzling Saints have Packers fans quaking in their boots.
Which is just pitiful.
The Green Bay Packers are the best, deepest team in football, and nothing that has happened in the last two weeks has changed that. Their offensive line will be getting healthier in the playoffs, as will their wide receiving corps. Those two position groups, more than any others outside of quarterback, will go a long way in determining the outcome in both the Divisional and hopefully, the NFC Championship Game. The defense simply needs to do “just enough” – in other words, keep bending and not breaking more than they bend and break. There’s no magic fix, no silver bullet in the form of a lineup change, that is going to transform this defense into something it isn’t. What it is, an opportunistic bunch who is trying to paper over a bunch of cracks – will have to do.