Inspired by Bob McGinn's Sunday column in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that lamented the Packers' lack of speed on defense and similar criticisms of the team's relative lack of size and bulk in columns from February and April, my tongue-in-cheek response is that the Green Bay defense doesn't suffer from a dearth of size or speed––it's deficient in talent.
But that's not entirely true. The players that make up the Packers defense generally have one god-given talent, a solitary trait that makes them among the best in the NFL in that single unique facet of the game.
Think about Ryan Pickett and his ability to stuff the run or Sam Shields and his speed. It's qualities such as these that makes the player stand out in a crowd and very likely drew the attention of general manager Ted Thompson when he first acquired these players.
One problem with the Packers defense, however, is that it has an abundance of these one-note type of players on their roster, those who offer one above-average characteristic but too many below-average attributes.
That's not to say players like Pickett and Shields don't have their value or can't play a role on this Packers defense. The issue is that the entire defense is constructed of too many of this type of player.
I'm reminded of watching the Packers take on the San Francisco 49ers back during Week 1 of the season and being in awe of inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. On display were a pair of damn-near prototypical inside linebackers needed for a 3-4 defense.
These are the type of players that have elite all-around athletic ability that allows them to make plays from sideline to sideline against both the run and the pass.
The Packers are missing players like Willis and Bowman on their roster, not just at the linebacker position but at every level of the defense.
It's fine to have role players like Pickett and Shields on the Packers defense, but they need to be surrounded by several three-down playmakers in the trenches, at the second level and in the defensive backfield.
Clay Matthews is a rare talent. There's no doubt about that. He's arguably the one complete player on the Packers defense and a building block around which to construct.
But this Packers defense needs a few more Clay Matthews, Pro Bowl type players on this defense if they want to get back to the promised land. And the onus falls on Thompson and the player procurement process.
What follows is a breakdown of several players, their "one-note quality" and an analysis of their incomplete game.
Defensive Lineman Ryan Pickett, run stuffer
The poster-child for this column, the wide-bodied Pickett has made a living out of stuffing the run for the better part of his 13 professional seasons. Thankfully for the Packers, there's enough depth on the defensive line that they don't need him on passing downs any more. That's good, because he doesn't have a sack since 2010.
Defensive Lineman B.J. Raji, run stuffer
Raji has become the next incarnation of Pickett, which is disappointing because there was a time he could rush the passer. Save the excuses that he isn't asked to rush the passer in Dom Capers' defensive scheme. Raji had 7.5 sacks (!) in 2010 (including playoffs) in the same system. It's now been two years and counting since Raji's last sack.
C.J. Wilson, run stuffer
Wilson's ability to play the run has been admirable, but what happened to the player that had 45.5 sacks in college?
Jerel Worthy, quick-twitch
In his limited time, Worthy has given almost no indication that he can be trusted to be in the game in favorable run situations, whether it's first downs, short-yardage or on the goal line. Worthy has shown to be almost exclusively a player that relies on quickness and little else.
Datone Jones, upfield rusher
In a first round draft choice, you want a three-down player. The book on Jones has yet to be written, but in his rookie year, he's been strictly a subpackage player on passing downs, not able to play in the base 3-4. He needs core strength that will help him anchor and be on the field more often.
Mike Neal, phonebooth player
Neal's conversion to outside linebacker has been remarkable, but he still has an incomplete game. He's fine when asked to pin back his ears and rush the passer or hold his ground against the run. But the moment he has to drop into coverage or use his lateral agility to chase a stretch play to the sideline, fuhgettaboutit.
A.J. Hawk, smarts/leadership
Maybe Hawk has two outstanding qualities, along with an ability to somehow stay remarkably healthy. He's has missed just two games in eight seasons, providing the Packers with admirable level of consistency. Unfortunately, none of his superlative characteristics have to do with athleticism. If paired with a playmaking linebacker beside him, like Desmond Bishop circa 2010, Hawk would look a lot better.
Brad Jones, leverage
At 6-3, Jones has plus-length at the inside linebacker position. But that's all I've got.
Sam Shields, speed
While his willingness to tackle has improved, Shields will never be Charles Woodson. Shields is also good for three or four interceptions per season, but he's not the type that's going to come up with seven, eight or more you might expect from one of the top seven paid cornerbacks in the NFL, which appears to the range he's seeking in his next contract.
Morgan Burnett, straight-line mobility
Burnett came into the NFL with a reputation as a ball hawk with 14 career college interceptions. He's done better than anticipated in the NFL in his ability to come up and fill running lanes, but he seems to only do good things when he's flying forward. He's been less than adequate when moving backwards or toward the sideline, especially in 2013, which certainly isn't good for the last line of defense. Burnett sure looked a whole lot better in a secondary that also featured Nick Collins and Charles Woodson.
M.D. Jennings, competitiveness
No one can ever blame Jennings for not trying hard. He's a willing tackler, but he just gets run over. And did you see Dez Bryant toss him like a ragdoll on his touchdown in Dallas? Jennings' talent is on par with players in the Canadian Football League, not the NFL.
Obviously not every player on the Packers defense was included in this list.
For example, Tramon Williams was a complete player in 2010 before a shoulder injury set him back. Based on his play the past month or so, he may finally be getting some of that ability back.
But at 30 years old, how much time does Williams have left? With top-notch play the past several games, Williams may have avoided the indignity of a restructured contract in the offseason, the last year of his deal. The Packers will be lucky if they can get one more good year out of Williams.
Players like Casey Hayward and Nick Perry also show the potential to be well-rounded players, but through two seasons, they've been too injured to get a good gauge on their ceilings as football players.
And as for the rookies, it's just too early to tell.
Now it's up to Thompson, the personnel department and the Packers scouts to identify players with better all-around talent, complement the players with outstanding one-trait characteristics, build around Clay Matthews and force out those with marginal faculty.
Brian Carriveau is the author of the book "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor of Cheesehead TV's "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email [email protected].
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