There are precious few who will argue that the surface numbers for the Packers defense in 2011 were anything but atrocious. Green Bay allowed a whopping 4,796 passing yards, the highest total in NFL history. Only four quarterbacks threw for more than that total last season, and MVP Aaron Rodgers wasn’t even one of them. The difference between the Packers (ranked 32nd in total defense) and Pittsburgh Steelers (ranked first) was almost 2,300 yards. Yikes.
One could realistically spend hours breaking down the poor defensive statistics from last season. But the numbers weren’t all abominable. The Packers did cause 38 turnovers—31 interceptions (first in NFL) and seven fumbles recovered—good for a tie atop the league with San Francisco. GM Ted Thompson made an interesting observation about the turnovers in his recent Q&A with Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
“You can watch last year’s defense and we can be pretty good at times and force turnovers,” Thompson said. “It’s remarkable how good we are offensively when our defense gets a turnover. We almost always score.”
I decided to put the last part of Thompson’s comment to the test. Turns out he was mostly right.
In examining all 38 of the forced turnovers and the resulting offensive drives that followed, I found that the Packers were remarkably efficient in either scoring points or giving themselves the opportunity.
21 of the 38 (55 percent) turnovers later resulted in a touchdown, field goal or defensive return for a score: Nine touchdowns, seven field goals and five returns. Of the 560 points (second in NFL history) Green Bay scored last season, the defense played a part in 119 via a turnover.
On only eight of the resulting drives—or about one in every five chances—did the Packers either punt the ball back or have a turnover of their own. In comparison, Green Bay punted on 55 of 168 total drives (nearly one every three possessions) last season.
Also, Mason Crosby missed two very makable field goals (29 yards vs. Tampa Bay and 43 yards at New York) that squandered points following a turnover.
On seven other situations, the Packers caused a turnover that either ended the game (Denver, at Atlanta, at San Diego, Oakland and Detroit) or the first half (Tampa Bay, Oakland). Game-enders against San Diego and Detroit came with the opposing offense driving to either tie the game or take the lead. We can only speculate what the Packers would have done on those ensuing drives had they occurred at a different point in the game.
If you take away the end of game and half scenarios, the Packers either scored or gave themselves a scoring opportunity on 23 of 31 (74 percent) possessions following turnovers. In comparison, the Packers either scored a touchdown or attempted (make and miss) a field goal on 91 of 168 (54 percent) total drives in 2011. If you take out the post-turnover drives, the Packers scored or attempted a field goal on 68 of 137 (49 percent) drives.
Of course, percentages should go up when the field is reduced—and that’s almost always the case following a turnover. But the resulting drives weren’t always lay-ups in terms of remaining field, either. On 12 of the 23, the Packers had to go at least 40 yards to set up their scoring opportunity.
Simple synopsis here: Thompson was mostly accurate; the Packers’ offense made the most of their opportunities following turnovers last season. Turnovers, and the Packers’ efficiency on offense following them, played a significant role in the team’s scoring output last season.
For that reason, one could argue that the defense’s contribution last season is still being a little under-appreciated. It was a struggling unit for long stretches, but it also consistently gave one of the game’s best offenses more possessions. And once the offense had the ball, scoring opportunities followed on three of every four post-turnover drives.