Here’s our report card for the Packers’ first four games on defense and special teams.
The Packers offensive report card can be found here.
Note: All snap counts are courtesy of Pro Football Focus.
DEFENSIVE ENDS (B)
LDE Ryan Pickett is playing some of the best football of his entire career. Teams are finding it necessary to get two hats on him for every run play because Pickett is blowing up plays against single teams. He doesn’t play on many pass downs (just 49) and rarely gets much inside pressure, but his impact is more than felt in the running game. There’s a reason A.J. Hawk has had a bunch of free runs at ball carriers early on. RDE C.J. Wilson has started three of four games, but his snap totals (51 plays) do not suggest he’s a starter. He plays exclusively in the base 3-4. That said, Wilson was active against the run in Seattle and delivered quite possibly the best inside pass rush the Packers have seen this season during a fourth quarter sack of Drew Brees. Rookie Jerel Worthy (154 snaps) is getting plenty of on-the-job training. While he’s been pushed into duty, there hasn’t been much in the way of results so far. He had a coverage sack of Jay Cutler in Week 2, but there hasn’t been anything particularly special about the way he goes after the passer. Against New Orleans, Worthy ran a nice stunt with Clay Matthews that resulted in Matthews getting a free run at Brees for a sack. There’s just not enough in terms of explosion or strength for Worthy, but this is all new to him. Philip Merling played 29 snaps against the 49ers but appears to be losing favor. He wasn’t as stout against the run as the Packers thought and his roster spot will be in serious question with Mike Neal back in the mix. Rookie Mike Daniels has showed some flashes, especially against Chicago. On his first career sack, he left the Bears left guard in a heap as he took down Cutler. Daniels’ stupid encroachment penalty against the Saints late could have been costly.
NOSE TACKLES (B-)
B.J. Raji is still playing a ton of snaps (192/269). Most still come from the nickel, where he’s one of two down lineman playing a two-gap. While he rarely leaves the field, his pass rush has again been nothing more than average. How he doesn’t split more double teams inside is beyond me, and you’d have to assume it drives the Packers coaches crazy. Raji has, however, been a factor against the run, especially against Chicago. It might be time to accept Raji as what he is: A wide, light-footed nose who struggles collapsing the pocket but can maintain a gap in the run game.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS (B+)
If we’re just grading Clay Matthews, this group gets an A+. He’s been DPOY good. His motor is non-stop, especially in backside pursuit. Against the Saints, Matthews exploded down the line to stop a third-and-short run before the sticks. The pass rush remains his best asset, however, and plays are finally ending in sacks for Matthews this season. He’s second in the NFL with seven. Matthews has always been elite with moves and counter moves at the point of attack, and his hands are so violent when he needs to keep tackles’ arms off his chest. He could easily get to 15 sacks by the time this season is said and done. Rookie Nick Perry is still a work in progress. There’s no question he’s a strong young man. He’s setting the edge in the run game, and his bull-rush power move has worked on occasion. But that’s the problem with Perry: There’s no counter move to offset the bull rush. Predictable pass rushers are the easiest to block, even for below average tackles. Perry has also been a train wreck in coverage, but that was to be expected. Because Perry still has a ways to go, 2011 starter Erik Walden has become a more full-time player at LOLB. In three games, Walden has 125 snaps, including 56 in Week 4. Perry has 146 in four. Walden looked like he could be a rejuvenated rusher early, but the Saints made him a ghost Sunday. Right tackle Zach Strief had little problem on an island against Walden and Perry. Dom Capers has tried to keep rookie Dezman Moses in the mix, but he’s played just 37 snaps. Two hurries against Chicago are all Capers has gotten out of the still raw rusher. To survive, this defense has to have contributions from who ever plays at LOLB.
INSIDE LINEBACKERS (B)
You have to wonder how good this unit would be playing had Desmond Bishop not tore up his hamstring in the preseason. A.J. Hawk, the resident beating boy for Packers fans, has played four above average games. He has seamlessly taken over Bishop’s job as the physical leader inside and continues to attack the run downhill. Sideline-to-sideline Hawk has covered the flats, too. His biggest mistake in coverage this season was in Seattle, where Anthony McCoy smoked him down the seam and safety Charles Woodson had to vacate his deep half of the field. The result was Golden Tate getting an easy touchdown against the outside contain of Tramon Williams, who expected Woodson to be inside. Second-year linebacker D.J. Smith has been up-and-down. You still worry about him in coverage, and there are times when guards just engulf him in the running game. But he’s working through the issues and looks like an improved player every week. A second-year player making the calls and running a defense isn’t an easy assignment, mind you. No linebacker has been asked to drop into coverage more (116 pass-coverage snaps) than Smith. Rob Francois has two special teams tackles, which is tied for the team high. Jamari Lattimore and Terrell Manning have only been active three total weeks.
Tramon Williams is back to his pre-2011 self. The shoulder no longer appears to be an issue, and the confidence in his entire game looks to be intact. Quarterbacks have just a 69.8 passer rating throwing against him this season. Sam Shields is an enigma. He was glued to Alshon Jeffery and Sidney Rice in back-to-back weeks, then reverted back to peeking into the backfield against Drew Brees in Week 4 and had a terrible performance. If technique consistency ever comes along for Shields, this secondary will be fine. But the bone-headed mistakes continue to haunt him and you wonder if they will ever be eradicated. He has been more physical, however. Rookie Casey Hayward has handled himself just fine in the slot since taking over as the dime corner. Brees attacked him more than quarterbacks in Hayward’s first two weeks, but he allowed just five catches for 37 yards and a long of 14. The Packers will take that. Hayward is also a sure tackler in the open field. In Week 1, Jarrett Bush showed why he can’t be on the field for this passing defense. He played 42 forgettable snaps. He’s played just three on defense since and likely won’t see significant time moving forward unless there’s an injury. Promising second-year player Davon House is still rehabbing an injured shoulder. He looked like he could be a real asset in the preseason, but playing with a harness on his injured shoulder may limit him for most of 2012.
Charles Woodson is playing a bunch of snaps at safety, which is a good switch for him because his man-to-man coverage skills continue to fade. He’s still just as grabby but with another step gone, which is going to eventually lead to more and more of the same penalties we’ve seen from him over the years. He’s also getting more and more willing to just chop at the football trying to get a strip then tackle a ball carrier in space. That said, he’s been mostly strong in run support and a few of his blitzes have gotten home. There’s no smarter football player on that side of the ball, either. Morgan Burnett is so hot and cold. He makes some plays against both the pass and run and you think he’s on the verge of becoming a Pro Bowler. A play later, he’s lost in coverage or playing soft in the box. It’s baffling. There’s so much potential that still needs to be tapped in to. One pleasant surprise at safety has been rookie Jerron McMillian, who is embracing a large role (175 snaps) on a young defense. He’s very instinctual and frequently puts himself in the right position. Brees played some mind games with him in Week 4 but he held up OK. McMillian also brings a thumper attitude to the secondary that hasn’t really been there in awhile. He could really become an asset as experience continues to aid him in playing faster. M.D. Jennings will forever be remembered for Fail Mary. He intercepted the final throw. But Jennings was overmatched when he got some snaps against the 49ers, and the staff pulled him mid-series for McMillian. He then got a few more snaps in the Packers “Dollar” package against the Saints, but Capers was quick to pull the plug after communication issues ate the look up. Undrafted free agent Sean Richardson has yet to be active.
Tim Masthay continues to revelation at punter. Of his 19 punts, 11 have been downed inside the 20-yard line. He has a 46.1-yard average and 42.1 net. Of the six Masthay punts that have been returned, only 37 yards in returns have resulted. Credit both Masthay and the coverage unit for that low number. Heck, he’s even thrown a touchdown pass on a fake field goal. Mason Crosby is 5-for-5 on field goals, connecting on at least one kick from 20-29, 30-39, 40-49 and 50+. His long was 54 yards. Touchbacks are a common theme when Crosby is kicking off. Randall Cobb’s 15.4 yards per punt return is good for sixth in the NFL. His 75-yard touchdown against the 49ers should have come back, but that’s none of Cobb’s concern. His ball security in catching punts could be better, and no returner has called more fair catches than Cobb’s eight, which may be partly due to field position but also because of just average return blocking. The big play in the kick return game hasn’t come, but there’s been close calls. His long is 34 yards. LS Brett Goode has been flawless. Coverage units have also been active. The Packers have even got tricky on special teams twice, calling a fake field goal and fake punt that were both smashing successes. To kickoff the Saints game, Shawn Slocum had Sam Shields run a fake reverse, but Cobb kept the ball and picked up 25.
Zach Kruse is a 24-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covers prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.