Much has been made over the last week about the communication breakdowns that have plagued the Packers secondary this season. After watching the defense give up two quick touchdowns toward the end of the Chargers game and after seeing defensive backs looking at each other with a "I thought you had him..." look on big play after big play, its easy to focus the attention there.
There has also been a lot of noise about the lack of pressure being generated by Dom Capers' blitz packages. Be it linebackers or defensive backs, Capers' designs are not getting guys free and they are being stymied in their efforts to get to the quarterback.
All these issues are symbiotic. A pass rush can develop from good coverage in the secondary and it's much easier to cover when the quarterback is under pressure. But if the Packers' defense is going to improve on what can only be described as a disappointing start to the 2011 season, Capers has to focus on a cliche.
It all starts up front. In this case, that means the defensive line.
Simply put - Mike Trgovac's men are not pulling their weight and until they do, this defense will continue to struggle.
A few weeks ago I looked at the number of snaps B.J. Raji was playing and wondered if the defensive lineman's workload was starting to catch up with him. Since writing that post, I've gone back and tried to watch as much of Raji's game this year as I can.
More importantly, I've looked to see how the defensive line has played in his absence.
There's a reason Capers and Trgo have Raji on the field so much. When he's on the sideline, what's on the field is not pretty.
First of all, lets dispel the myth that Raji is not "playing well". The Packers are asking him to two-gap much more than in the past and he has responded by playing very, very well against the run.
What's striking is how the defensive line just loses all explosion when he comes off the field. Take a look at the two plays below.
In the first one, notice how Raji is across the line of scrimmage and holding the guard up waiting to see which way the runner goes. The back thinks about cutting back but sees Raji waiting for him and is forced back to the strong side where he is met by Desmond Bishop (who ended up missing the tackle, but that's another matter)
Now look at the second video. Watch how C.J. Wilson is walked back - BY A TIGHT END. In fact, just watch Wilson's feet at the snap of the ball. He loses the down before he even touches the opponent. Contrast that with the first video, where Raji explodes into his blocker and moves the center of the confrontation across the line of scrimmage.
These two images are a crystallization of why the Packers are having to play Raji as much as they are. There is simply a monster drop off when he comes off the field.
Of course, the focus of the defense's woes has centered around the pass rush. Raji is not nearly the same player in this area as he was last year. Much has been made about the loss of Cullen Jenkins in this area. Yes, Jenkins' presences certainly helped in 2010. You take away a talent like that from your rotation and everyone suffers.
But the loss of Jenkins does not explain Raji's inability to win when presented with one on one matchups. Yes, he has seen a fair number of double teams. Last season, especially during the playoffs, we saw him splitting those with regularity. That hasn't happened this year.
There are those that would point to the switch of Raji from nose tackle to defensive end in the base defense when reasoning his lack of production when it comes to rushing the passer, and this is a fair point. In the base 3-4, he is being asked to do many different things than he was at the nose and that could very well be a factor.
But that doesn't explain the lack of production from Raji when the Packers go to their 2-4-5 nickel. Matched up alongside Jarius Wynn, Raji has seen a fair amount of attention but not considerably more than he did last season. For whatever reason, Raji is just not getting through.
To that end, Bob McGinn did have this a few weeks ago:
In nickel, the starting point is the four-man rush. In Green Bay, that's most often Clay Matthews, Jarius Wynn, B.J. Raji and Erik Walden, from left to right.
When the two interior players are permitted to go after the passer without restrictions, the Packers refer to that as their "Jet" rush.
"I'm sure B.J. would like to have some more 'Jet' rushes," said McCarthy. "There's not a guy that doesn't want to have more 'Jet' rushes. But we're not doing it as much as we did last year. If you want more production from a pure pass-rushing standpoint, put them in 'Jet.'?"
Usually when the Packers pressure, the two defensive linemen are moving sideways in an attempt to tie up blockers and free the blitzers.
"The one thing about 'Jet' rush, you know what you're getting every time," McCarthy said.
With the struggles of the linebackers and the corners to get home on their blitzes, it might be time to see a little more "Jet" from Raji and Wynn.
Whatever the calls from Capers and whatever the struggles in the back end with the linebackers and the secondary, the defensive line, particularly the guys complimenting and subbing in for B.J. Raji, have to step up their game. The possible return of Mike Neal should help. But Jarius Wynn in particular is capable of playing better, as are nearly all the guys along the defensive line.
If the Packers can get even a modicum of improvement in their play up front, I think everything else that has ailed the defense, from the lack of pass rush to the issues in the secondary, will see dramatic improvement.