Just a year removed from allowing the most passing yards in NFL history and finishing with the worst sack percentage in football, the Green Bay Packers appear to have made massive strides on the defensive side in 2012.
But while the Packers defense is clearly more talented and playing better early in 2012, the breaks need to be pumped on calling this unit fixed for this season.
There is much left to learn about the Packers defense in 2012.
Of course, this is not to take away anything the Packers defense has accomplished early on. There are encouraging signs littering Green Bay’s defensive statistics.
Through three weeks, opposing offenses are averaging an NFL-low 125 yards passing. The Packers also rank second in the NFL in sacks with 12, while recording one on almost 14 percent of drop backs.
In comparison, the 2011 Packers allowed 299 passing yards a game and had a sack percentage of less than five percent. Statistically, the 2012 defense has been night-and-day better.
But before this defense can be crowned as a reincarnate of the 2010 unit that was No. 4 against the pass and tied for first in sacks, let’s put the Packers’ start in a little bit of context.
Here are some things to think about:
Packers have always played well against Jay Cutler
Cutler, who completed just 11-of-27 passes for 126 yards and four interceptions in Week 2, has always struggled against a Dom Capers-led defense in Green Bay. In seven career games against the Packers, Cutler has averaged over two picks and three sacks a game with a passer rating of 60.1. His yards per attempt over those seven games is just 4.46, or over three yards less than his career average.
The Packers obviously amplified those numbers in Week 2 (seven sacks, four interceptions), but playing well against Cutler isn’t some kind of revelation. Even in 2009, when the defense couldn’t stop any elite quarterback, Cutler still threw six interceptions and had a passer rating under 65.
Russell Wilson has played like a rookie
Save for Cam Newton in Carolina last season, the Packers have historically fared well against rookie quarterbacks since Capers arrived on the scene in 2009. And despite all the adulation for Russell Wilson, the one-year wonder at UW who took Matt Flynn’s job, he’s been a fantastically average quarterback through three games.
Wilson has yet to throw for over 155 yards in a single contest, and his completion percentage, yards per attempt and QBR are all in the lower third of starting NFL quarterbacks. The point here: Green Bay’s defense wasn’t the first and won’t be the last to hold Wilson to pedestrian numbers in 2012. Right now, that’s who he is: A pedestrian quarterback who has handed the ball off more times than he’s thrown it. How the Packers fared against him in the passing game isn’t a great barometer of where this defense is.
Forgetting about San Francisco
Most have been quick to write off the defense’s Week 1 performance after Capers pulled Jarrett Bush and M.D. Jennings the next week and replaced them with Sam Shields, Jerron McMillian and Casey Hayward (dime back). There’s some cold, hard truth to that, too. Shields, McMillian and Hayward have each played really well the past two weeks.
But would having those three play more snaps in San Francisco have solved what ailed Green Bay in Week 1? Bush was a liability, allowing three catches. Jennings got mixed up in a communication error that led to one passing touchdown. Maybe Shields and McMillian handle those situations better, maybe not.
The fact of the matter remains that the Packers were out-executed and out-coached in Week 1, especially on defense. 49ers quarterback Alex Smith did what he wanted against everyone in the back seven, and the run game allowed a whopping 186 yards. Writing off that performance against the best offense the Packers have faced seems a little naive.
The Packers get their first real test of the season Sunday afternoon when Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints come to Lambeau Field. Everything the Packers have accomplished the last two weeks will be put to the test, even if Brees has struggled in 2012 and the Saints aren’t the statistical monster they were a season ago.
Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael remains, and the structure and personnel are largely unchanged. This will be a stern test for a young defense that will be and should be feeling confident about their early performances in 2012.
If the Packers defense overwhelms the Saints offensive line and handles Brees—expecting to keep Brees in the 150-yard range passing is asinine, but 200-225 is a realistic goal—maybe it will be time to label this defense a more distance relative to its ugly 2011 cousin. Or maybe Sunday could be a reality check.
Either way, we should have a better grasp on where this defense is by the end of Week 4. But until then, let’s hesitate on calling this a fixed defense for the 2012 season.