Aaron Nagler gave you his biggest issue pertaining to the Green Bay Packers defense. Now it’s time to give you mine.
And as far as I’m concerned, it’s not just the biggest problem with the defense, it’s the most glaring potential predicament on the entire team. Given that last season the special teams ranked 31st in the NFL by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News and the offensive line gave up 51 sacks last year, I find this pretty darn problematic.
I’m worried about the pass coverage. My colleague Mr. Nagler, among others, is concerned about sack production. For a team that finished No. 2 in overall defense a season ago, the Packers finished only No. 11 in sacks, so there’s definitely room for improvement.
Certainly it appears as if the Packers and, in particular, defensive coordinator Dom Capers is doing everything in his power to generate more of a pass rush:
- He’s moved B.J. Raji to nose tackle to get more of a push up the middle and into the face of the quarterback.
- The Packers drafted Mike Neal and C.J. Wilson who figure to rotate among in the defensive tackle position on nickel situations.
- Cullen Jenkins has practiced taking snaps at outside linebacker from time to time.
- Mike McCarthy has talked about using inside linebackers Brandon Chillar and Nick Barnett rushing from the outside.
- Clay Matthews practiced at inside linebacker this offseason including blitzing packages.
- Projected starting outside linebackers, Matthews and Brad Jones, figure to be better with a year of experience under their belts.
But for all these developments intended to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, I look back to last season and the three games in which the Packers weren’t able to tally a single sack: both losses to the Minnesota Vikings and the playoff loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
Much has been made of how the Packers struggled against veteran quarterbacks last season and deservedly so. Those three losses with no sacks came against Brett Favre and Kurt Warner, two of the savviest trigger pullers in the game.
The trouble as I see it, those two guys have some of the quickest releases in the game. They’re not the most mobile, and they make up for it by refusing to take sacks. Their experience allows them to know exactly where their check-down receivers are, and they know how to exploit areas from where the blitz is coming.
No amount of pressure is going phase Warner and Favre. They’re going to get rid of the ball before the pass rush reaches them, which is why I’m more concerned about pass coverage. I’m worried about facing more veteran quarterbacks in 2010 who know the tricks of the trade like Donovan McNabb when the Packers head to Washington, Tom Brady when Green Bay invades New England and, presumably, Brett Favre twice more.
So who did the veteran quarterbacks expose last season? It wasn’t Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams and Nick Collins. Sure, they might have gotten beat from time to time, and that’s bound to happen when you play nearly 100% of all defensive snaps. It was the nickel and dime guys, and the backups who were forced to play due to injury.
I think everyone will cringe when they remember names like these get burned in pass coverage in 2009: Jarrett Bush, Josh Bell, Derrick Martin, Matt Giordano, and A.J. Hawk. They might be the biggest offenders but others were responsible for their own gaffes in pass coverage including Brandon Chillar, Nick Barnett, and Brandon Underwood.
The Packers have hopefully added some reinforcement at the safety position in the form of third round draft choice Morgan Burnett. But what did they do at cornerback and inside linebacker? Cross their fingers? Hope and pray?
I was personally disappointed the Packers didn’t address cornerback in this past April’s draft. Now they’re relying on guys who are coming off of injury like Al Harris and Pat Lee. Granted, Lee’s injury doesn’t figure to affect his performance, but the Packers are also relying on marked improvement from him and Underwood, who has a rather large distraction of his with which to deal.
Beyond Lee and Underwood on the the depth chart, it’s largely the same cast of characters that didn’t help pass coverage last year: Bush, Bell and a couple other unproven players.
The crew at NFL Network recently broke down the Packers’ deficiencies in their 32 in 32 series. Said former All-Pro cornerback and safety Rod Woodson, “They’re thin in the secondary. The second-tier guys need to step up to the plate when they’re called upon.”
Solomon Wilcotts pointed to the inside linebackers.
“Their inside linebackers need to do a better job of reading and reacting in the match-up zone” said Wilcotts. “I think that’s the vulnerable area.”
Combine all these factors, and that’s why I think they should have drafted a cornerback. Now the Packers are putting a lot of eggs in the same basket. They’re hoping Harris can recover. They’re hoping Lee and Underwood develop. I’m hopeful that all those things can happen, but I’m skeptical at the same time. It those things don’t happen, you’re going to see a gaping hole in the 2011 offseason at corner with a pair of aging starters and a plethora of unproven backups.
As far as inside linebacker goes, the Packers can try to cover up Hawk as much as they can by substituting Brandon Chillar on passing downs like in the nickel, but that’s still not going to stop teams from passing on first down when Hawk is in the game.
Again, I’m hopeful this dilemma can be rectified, but I’m as of yet unconvinced.