The Packers' defense is not the worst defense in the league. Let's just get that out of the way first. There's a lot of defenses that are far more pathetic than the Green Bay version that is presently giving up 24 points a game.
But the jury is out on this Packers defense that, fraught with injuries, has not held up its end of the bargain compensating for the loss of Aaron Rodgers. Two straight games of allowing the opposing team, with a lead, to fritter away nearly all the time remaining in the fourth quarter has fans screaming for Dom Capers' head, screaming for a safety, screaming for something--anything--to get this defense back to even a semblance of its 2010 form.
But, even as the defense gets injured players back from injury that we presumed would spell the difference between mediocre play and solid play, the defense continues to simply look flat and without spark. Casey Hayward, Morgan Burnett, and even Clay Matthews were supposed to jump-start this defense, and the results have been the same.
Regardless of where you want to place the blame--the talent, the coaching, the scheme--one thing is clear: the Packers need a transformative change to turn this defense into what they once were. The version that is taking the field today is more reactive than proactive, content to knock down a pass rather than make an interception, and less assignment-sure than we've seen in several seasons.
When Capers was first hired, I made the analogy comparing a defense to a cook's kitchen, as I wasn't completely sold on the 3-4 defense. Today, we can revisit that analogy and try and diagnose where the Packers need to make their fixes.
In the kitchen, there are several things that make the meal. The meat and all of the ingredients that the kitchen has at its disposal are the talent the team has to work with.
The cook is the person who has to put all of those ingredients together and make a palatable meal out of them, so he equates to being the coaching that the team has.
The scheme is like the recipe that the cook reads from. On the recipe is a list of the ingredients that you need to make your meal, and a list of instructions on how to put it all together.
It's amazing that a defense that boasts names like Clay Matthews, BJ Raji, Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, and Ryan Pickett would ever need to have its talent questioned. Unfortunately, some of the players who have had tremendous seasons in the past are not reaching those same levels in 2013. Certainly, Hayward isn't the ball-hawk he was last year (hampered by injury), and Morgan Burnett isn't the quarterback of the defense many claimed he was going to be when he came back from his hamstring pull. But, perhaps more importantly, veterans like Sam Shields and Tramon Williams simply haven't shown the spark they had during the Super Bowl season.
Complicating the issue is the add-subtract ratio of talent from the front office. Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette aimed both barrels at Ted Thompson for failing to give Dom Capers the talent he needs to be successful. While its always dangerous to point any blame at Ted Thompson in this town, it is worth noting that Vandermause was Thompson's staunchest supporter in the media when both Shermangate and Favregate went down, when criticizing the GM was a lot easier.
Failing to adequately replace Nick Collins is always the easy talent drop-loss, but perhaps more importantly might be the loss of Charles Woodson. Yes, he wasn't the player he once was, and it was easy to justify that the talent was there to replace him in Shields, Williams, Hayward, and House. But since Woodson's departure, there hasn't been a glue that has held the defense together. Woodson was more than just a solid player a few years ago, he took on a similar role that Reggie White once had--inspirational leader and the guy you didn't want to let down.
Who takes on that role on the defense this year? As defensive coaches defend the defenders (saying they're not worried about the number of turnovers) it makes me wonder how Reggie or Charles would react to a coach saying they are content with simply stopping the big plays, instead of making the big play yourself.
But, the biggest loss was, of course, Nick Collins, a guy who developed into a true free safety and quarterback of the defense, able to put guys in the right position and took the right angles to the ball. Drafting or acquiring a true free safety prospect has been something I've harped on for years, even writing about it before the draft this season:
With the departure of Charles Woodson, I would definitely place at top priority bringing in that free safety the Packers have been missing since the departure of Nick Collins. We really saw how important it is to have a "quarterback of the defense", a smart, rangy, athletic safety who can not only see the whole field in front of them, but make the critical calls to get the players in front of him in the right place.While there's a huge need to upgrade the talent along the defensive and offensive lines, a strong free safety could transform the entire defense, just as Collins did for the '10 Packers and Eugene Robinson did for the '96 Packers. Kenny Vaccaro (Texas) might fall to the Packers at #26, otherwise the Packers should be able to pick up Eric Reid (LSU)--even trading back a few picks and still coming away with the next LaRon Landry. Link
Certainly, no coach has come under more consistent pressure lately than Dom Capers, so much so that when Mike McCarthy alluded to "recurring issues" in his post-game press conference last week, many assumed it was Capers that was the ongoing issue.
Look, the ability of the "Cook" is essential in this mix. Going back to the analogy, a great cook can take inferior ingredients and make something palatable out of them. Certainly, you only need to look as far as Kansas City to see the impact Andy Reid has had on a franchise that always boasted plenty of Pro Bowlers but never seemed to be able to put it all together.
Conversely, a terrible cook can take the finest filet mignon and burn it beyond recognition on the grill. is Dom Capers in that scenario right now, having a boatload of talented players that simply aren't playing to even the sum of their parts?
One thing is certain: despite still having many of the same players from that 2010 Super Bowl season, there are basic fundamentals that the players are no longer executing: making plays on the ball, communicating coverage to each other, stripping the ball on every hit, wrapping up and making fundamentally sound tackles.
Execution generally falls on the coaching. As Mike McCarthy says, "availability and accountability" are the two things they measure their effectiveness on. The life cycle of any coach is about 5-7 years under typical scenarios, and after that, its just time to make a change. Perhaps the players have gotten too comfortable and need a shake-up, so you fire the coach and bring in a fire-and-brimstone replacement that wakes everyone up. Certainly, that might have been the case in 2009 when Bob Sanders had his torch snuffed and Capers was brought in the change the entire scheme.
The result: a 2010 Super Bowl that rode on the game-changing plays of the defense.
So, what will be the transformative change that will alter the direction of this listless defense? Certainly, firing Capers mid-season would send a message, but that option is neither realistic or prudent. During the offseason, that will likely be strongly considered, especially if the Packers miss the playoffs. But for right now, Capers needs to jump start this team.
For one, I think he'd be prudent to start introducing some of his exotic formations, putting players in the position to do the most with the talent they have. Remember the "Psycho" and "Big Okie" defensive formations, how they captured the imagination of the fans and made us look forward to seeing it in action? We don't see that creativity from Capers anymore, and it is time to bring it back.
Also, it might be time for Capers to stress accountability. It can't be "okay" for the Packers to pass up opportunities for turnovers, patting themselves on the back for simply not allowing a big play. This defense needs to become game-changers and play to their potential. Why is Jonathan Franklin not getting touches? Because he can't hang on to the ball. Maybe it is time to start rotating secondary players out when they don't execute their tackles correctly or watch a potential interception go through their hands.
Regardless, if Capers doesn't hold his team more accountable, it will be he who is on the chopping block this offseason.
I was a critic of the move to the 3-4 defense when it was rolled out. Why would you be the last on a train of a fad scheme? You want to the first to innovate the scheme, not the 18th team to adopt it after the NFL has had time to start adapting to it.
But Capers demonstrated his ability, at least in his first few seasons, to not let the scheme dictate the talent, but to adapt the talent to the scheme, modifying and creating a hybrid formation that played to the best advantage on the team.
But maybe, the time has passed for the 3-4. What's interesting is that I theorized at the time that the move to the 3-4 was, at least in part, predicated on the fact that the Packers had a stable full of linebackers all trying to share three positions in the 4-3. Nick Barnett, AJ Hawk, Brandon Chillar, Desmond Bishop, Brady Poppinga, and newcomer Clay Matthews could easily make a four linebacker set work. Conversely, the talent along the defensive line in 2008 was pretty sparce, with Ryan Pickett, Cullen Jenkins, and Johnny Jolly as the only sure things on the roster.
It kind of made sense. Adopt the scheme to get the most talented guys on the field.
Today, however, it is a different story. Linebacker was already thin before the Packers started the season, and the onslaught of injuries have made it a liability. When AJ Hawk has been the only consistent performer throughout the season, you know that you've been dealt a pretty shaky hand.
Meanwhile, the Packers defensive line has quietly been one of the best we've seen in years. Ryan Pickett, BJ Raji, and Johnny Jolly have made a solid starting three, while Mike Daniels and Datone Jones have been solid in rotation. Of all the positional groups on the team, this is the only one that hasn't been adversely devastated by injury this season. *
So, if you're looking for a transformational change, one you could even make mid-season, why not switch back to the 4-3? Get Mike Daniels in a starting role, and rotate in a solid Datone Jones and Mike Neal as a pass-rush specialist. In this way, you're getting your strongest and deepest positional group on the field where they belong, and reducing the impact a injuries have taken away from the four linebackers you start.
Would it be easy to make such a schematic change midseason? Of course not. It would be borderline impossible. But right now, we've got card in our hand we're not playing, and this defense needs to be shaken up. Being able to play Clay Matthews, AJ Hawk, and [insert best option here] maximizes our linebacking talent, and also maximizes our defensive line talents.
*Yes, I know I jinxed it now. Sorry.