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Defense the Common Denominator in NFC Finalists

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Defense the Common Denominator in NFC Finalists

After a satisfying weekend of divisional round football, punctuated by Minnesota’s miraculous victory over the Saints on Sunday evening, four teams remain in contention for a trip to Super Bowl LII.

For the Green Bay Packers and their fans, it undoubtedly hurts to see the Vikings advance to the NFC title game, even if recent history suggests they will fall short of reaching the Super Bowl. What compounds the pain even more, perhaps, is that Minnesota has managed to put together a remarkable season with Case Keenum, who began the year as the back-up to Sam Bradford, at quarterback.

Opposite the Vikings on Sunday will be the Philadelphia Eagles, with Nick Foles, also a back-up, calling signals. Granted, Philadelphia didn’t lose Carson Wentz—who very well may have been the league’s MVP if not for his knee injury—until late in the year, when their playoff fate was all but sealed. Still, in a league where quarterbacks are inexplicably pitted against each other each week, the Eagles were able to overcome last season’s MVP, Matt Ryan, and the Atlanta Falcons to advance.

The prevailing narrative around the league is that as long as the Packers have Aaron Rodgers under center, they will be legitimate contenders. Obviously, Rodgers’ value to the team can’t be overstated. But when you take a step back and look at how the two remaining NFC teams have gotten to this point, as well as Green Bay’s recent playoff history, it seems clear that the two-time MVP can only carry the team so far by himself.

There are multiple avenues one could travel when trying to determine what exactly has set Minnesota and Philadelphia apart. Offensively, neither team tries to make superstars out of their personnel, nor do they ask them to do too much. They both rank in the top 10 in rushing attempts and rushing yardage, as well as scoring offense—a combination that makes for efficient use of possessions.

To me, however, the driving force behind both Minnesota and Philadelphia’s success comes on defense.

That the Vikings have a top-tier defense is not groundbreaking information. The Eagles, for as much success as they’ve enjoyed to this point, come into the game unheralded by comparison, though they may be just as impressive.

Take a look at a side-by-side comparison of the two units:

In 10 of the 14 categories listed, Minnesota ranks either first or second. The Eagles rank in the top 10 in all but three categories. Sure, each has their weaknesses—the Vikings don’t take the ball away often and Philadelphia occasionally breaks in the red zone—but both dominate the “bread and butter” categories: total yards, scoring defense and third down percentage. On top of that, they are both dominant against the run, forcing opponents to play how they want them to play.

By comparison, the Packers ranked 22nd, 26th, and 28th in the bread and butter statistics, as well as 17th in rushing defense.

Green Bay has already begun work on a new defensive direction for 2018, parting ways with Dom Capers and bringing in Mike Pettine as defensive coordinator. Historically, Pettine’s defenses have been more aggressive than anything the Packers put on the field over the past handful of seasons, which bodes well for the chances of some kind of turnaround.

To be clear, it would be absurd to expect Green Bay’s defense to suddenly be on par with the likes of Minnesota in 2018. They’re short on true game changers on that side of the ball, and a paradigm shift doesn’t happen in one offseason. But if the use (or re-purposing) of current personnel, as well as the addition of outside resources—particularly some veteran help—parlayed with Pettine’s scheme results in even modest improvement, it might be all the help Aaron Rodgers and the offense needs.

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (73) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

Handsback's picture

As a reference, Rodgers has had some very average and even bad games in the playoffs. Without a defense that can change the field position or put pressure on the other team's offense....it's going to be an uphill climb for the Packers to win the SB.

The TKstinator's picture

Astounding that these two were only middle of the pack in sacks.

pacman's picture

And if it wasn't for AR's injury, nothing would have changed. Except that we would have a playground.

Houndog's picture

Pacman,
You gotta admit, sliding down that hill on an inner tube looked like fun.
Now, a little bit taller, a little bit steeper and a lot more speed, hell, I might give it a try!

4zone's picture

They should try saucers on it. . .

4zone's picture

I hear Seattle may have a few top shelf FA's available for the taking this off season. Richard Sherman rings a bell. . .

mnklitzke's picture

Or that guy named Jimmy Graham when paired with an elite QB was nothing short of being the best in the league.

4zone's picture

Alright, who gave the thumbs down? Show yourself you gutless naive!

Bearmeat's picture

That guy has been around since 09 here. He's a former Packer fan who followed Favre to Minny. He's a coward and a tool. Let him be.

Rossonero's picture

I see 4 common denominators:

1) The underlying factor is these teams have a fierce pass rush. Want to help the secondary? Rush the QB then! We are terribly short on pass rushers.

2) These teams actually have a back-up plan at QB. Twice in 5 years we've had no plan, but Minnesota, Philly, New England and even Jacksonville all have veteran QBs ready to step in, or they have stepped in already (i.e. Foles and Keenum) due to injuries.

3) These teams are way more aggressive in free agency than us.

4) 3 out of 4 manage the cap the same or better than us. According to spotrac.com, assuming a $178M cap this year, they will rank as follows:

Vikings, 6th with $60M
Jaguars, 18th with $25M
Patriots, 24th with $19M
Eagles, 31st with $-4M

Packers are ranked 22nd with $21M.

croatpackfan's picture

Ok, add 30 mil salary for elite QB and suddenly Jags, Vikings and Eagles are not that good as it looks like...

Doug Niemczynski's picture

Trade aaron rogers

Doug Niemczynski's picture

We can't give him another Super Bowl. If you love something, then you have to let it go. Packers have wasted 7 years of this man's time. Its time to give him a chance with another team.

Rossonero's picture

Doug: Not that the Packers will trade Rodgers, but hypothetically if they did, what would you trade him for?

mnklitzke's picture

A lot if you remember what the Bears gave up for Cutler. They got a young Culter but not nearly as good and they got 2-1st, 2-2nds. I would have to say 3-1sts, 3-2nds, 3rd, 4th.

dobber's picture

He can't--and won't--answer that question. He's been asked more than a couple times.

The TKstinator's picture

They have no “aaron rogers”.

dobber's picture

Is he the guy who wrote the thesaurus?

Rossonero's picture

Croatpackfan: Maybe this also shows us another denominator:

you don't even need a franchise QB to win it all.

Foles, Keenum and Bortles certainly are not elite.

D.D. Driver's picture

...and none of them have won a ring...

4zone's picture

Trent Dilfer did.

Doug Niemczynski's picture

Jeff hostetler also won with the Giants

dobber's picture

Arguably, only five "non-franchise" QBs have won SBs since 1990: Jeff Hostetler (1990), Mark Rypien (1991), Brad Johnson (2002), Joe Flacco (2012) and Trent Dilfer (2000). Some might call Flacco a franchise QB...he's paid like one, at least. Since then, the losing QB column is filled with such stellar names as Kerry Collins, Jake Delhomme, Rex Grossman, Colin Kaepernick, Matt Hasselbeck, Stan Humphries, Neil O'Donnell, Drew Bledsoe, Chris Chandler, and Rich Gannon.

I would argue that the odds of winning a SB without a franchise QB aren't much different than the odds of winning a SB without a top 10 defense (just a guess...I haven't run the numbers).

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_quarterbacks_with_multiple_Super_Bowl_starts

Coldworld's picture

Of course there are lesser QBs who have intermittent flashes of great play, it can happen, but that is horrible odds if you ask me. Flacco is one who got paid as a Franchise QB because of just such a flash.

HankScorpio's picture

In 2002, Brad Johnson played like a MVP QB. Check out the numbers, they were outstanding. Without him elevating his play for that single year beyond anything resembling the rest of his career, I don't think TB wins that one.

To a lesser degree, Flacco did the same thing. He got hot at the end of the year and carried it through the playoff run. For 6-8 games, he played like a MVP QB.

Rypien was the last of a long line of guys that Joe Gibbs got to play way above their norm for a year or two as the Redskin starter. I would argue that the "Hogs" o-line and the "Fun Bunch" group of WRs made things very easy on a QB. Those Redskin teams proved the point that an outstanding team around a QB can elevate the play of the QB just like an outstanding QB can elevate the play of a lesser supporting cast. A lot of HoF/All Pro caliber players played on that offense, none of them at QB.

Hostetler used that SB to secure a FA deal with Oakland where he performed reasonably well. That opportunity came later in his career so he's not given his true due as a QB, IMO. He was pretty good.

Dilfer is the only one from the list that really defies any logic as a SB winning QB.

baldski's picture

Backup plan at QB?? Why did Taysom Hill almost block a field goal for the Saints? Why is he not a Packer? Saints coach says he will replace Brees. Packers management definitely had to go.

dobber's picture

Taysom Hill is a 27-year-old rookie who will be 28 when the season starts next September. Brees will likely play at least 1 and likely 2 years, yet, in which case Hill becomes your starting QB as a 30 year old? If they liked Hill that much, they wouldn't be risking him on special teams.

Can we stop romanticizing Taysom Hill already? If the Packers really want him back, I suspect they'll get a crack at him, yet.

Rossonero's picture

Drew Brees has already said he wants an extension. So Taysom Hill won't get a chance anytime soon.

Tarynfor12's picture

We're off to a great start in the rebuild of our defense....finally accepted the fact that there is no defense ( excuses ) for our defense. That itself doesn't make for better play on the field but it should open the eyes of those who decide who does play on the field. Though the contract of one will still be a hindrance and will continue a weekly search for he who disappears the best. : )

The TKstinator's picture

"No defense for our defense"...nice!

D.D. Driver's picture

All this being said, the Vikings defense wilted in the second half on Sunday, giving up a 17 point lead and couldn't stop the Saints when it mattered most. The Saints defense was just a little worse.

Doug Niemczynski's picture

Since 2013, Thompson has used 10 of Green Bay’s 15 picks in the first three rounds of the draft on defensive players. Still, he hasn’t unearthed a pass rusher, which remains the team’s No. 1 need.

As bad as the defense has been, though, the offense has just as many holes. Maybe more.

4zone's picture

Maybe not as many holes, but equally important.

Our TE position is nearly non existent and in a West Coast style offense, is critical.

At WR Adams is going to be good for years to come but Jordy and Randall are slowing down and aren't what they used to be, we NEED someone as lethal or more so opposite Adams both to make him more effective but to also insulate against an injury to Adams and against loss of production from Jordy and/or Randall.

RT is another real need. Sprigss got better but not great so for now, I regard as only a decent backup. McCray and Murphy are still works in progress and may be better G options than RT. Bulaga may come cheap but may not be as effective as in the past so this position is one I would put in the Critical category, especially if we want to keep AR healthy.

And lastly, as everyone knows, backup QB is an absolute need. We have to be able to keep being competitive if AR goes down again which can happen on any given play. We can draft more QB prospects to develop, but we have to get a veteran backup who can at least manage the team with some expectancy of success if needed..

pacman's picture

My guess is that we take a QB in the later rounds or not at all this year and hope that AR doesn't go down again. We need all the picks for D, TE and RG. Unless there is some player that we just cannot pass on.

Hundley was a disaster but he did improve somewhat. At the end, he might have even been salvageable but there were so many drops so it is hard to tell. Just don't let him throw deep.

I don't think Packers will pay for a backup QB unless he is really cheap. For a laugh - who would you rather have as a backup: Hundley or Cutler?

4zone's picture

Cutler, At least he can throw touchdowns at home. When he's just managing a game instead of trying to win it, way ahead of Hundley.

Since '61's picture

I'd rather just have a laugh and forget both of them. Thanks, Since '61

Razer's picture

...Since 2013, Thompson has used 10 of Green Bay’s 15 picks in the first three rounds of the draft on defensive players....

This says a lot about the failings of our GM and our scouting. Ted struggled to fix known weaknesses then move on to the next area of need. Linebackers and safeties have been a problem going back for 5 years. Now we are struggling with pass rushers and corners and I still don't think we are very good at the linebacker or safety positions. Too many misses in the draft and little relief from FA. Gute has two years to right make the repairs or we are into a rebuild.

4zone's picture

How can our OL coach make pro bowlers out of 4th rounders but Whitt can't do squat with 1st and 2nd rounders?

Coldworld's picture

Because he was given players who were safeties not corners. Randall came on a lot as did pipkins.

Coldworld's picture

Sadly true Razer

Worztik's picture

The Packer fanatics in my circle have been espousing the need for TT and Crappers to be gone for a few years! Finally, someone (BoD) saw the team for what it was/is, that being the misguided follies of TT’s drafting below average physically talented players. One problem that I rarely see mentioned, if at all, is the Draft, Develop and then lose said player in free agency! We first saw it with Aaron Rodgers and Brett! We made a choice and luckily it worked out but, this has been an exception in the overall picture! A bit more activity in free agency would potentially alleviate this as players could be given 3 years and either resign or adios amigos!!!

4zone's picture

Yessiree Bob. The Green Bay Packers, farm team to the NFL.

dobber's picture

"One problem that I rarely see mentioned, if at all, is the Draft, Develop and then lose said player in free agency! We first saw it with Aaron Rodgers and Brett! "

Usually if the Packers really want to retain a guy on his 5th contract, they get it done, dammit!

To be technical, they traded Favre to the Jets. He wasn't a FA.

Coldworld's picture

I don’t think the BoD did anything except pass the gun and tonic

4zone's picture

On the defense side of the ball I tend toward a bit of a different leaning than most probably, but not entirely.

The cry is for more 'pass rush', and I agree. I don't agree however that it has to come from the outside. I believe we need to start on the inside instead. With Daniels and Clark we have 2/3rds of top tier DL. Lowry adds good depth but not that third starter we need. Adams is still a total unknown.

We need a guy that can play the run and yet still collapse the pocket. We could have one of the best DLs in the NFL. That in and of itself will make the OLBs we already have more effective, and subsequently make our cover guys more effective as well. I am not against a beast on the outside either. I just think it is harder to get an Aaron Donald kind of guy than it is to get another T.J. Watt.

We will have enough draft picks to be able to pull off another trade back up into the first round like 2009 when we got Raji and CM3. We have similar draft picks this year where we could do it again. And we got Lang in Rd 4 that year as well.

I think we need more players this year, but if we could pull three guys in at those levels again this year, I would call it a success.

Razer's picture

... I believe we need to start on the inside instead. With Daniels and Clark we have 2/3rds of top tier DL. Lowry adds good depth but not that third starter we need...

I like this thinking. Solid line play makes the other positions better. Then again, I still believe that football is won or lost in the trenches. Whether it is O-lines that can protect their QB and open lanes for running OR D-lines that can't stuff the run and collapse the pocket, the game starts with controlling the LOS.

Coldworld's picture

We need Lowry to take the step he looked like taking in August. We also need a big mountain in there to anchor and rotate Clark and Daniels in when not both out there. We need a Howard Greene or Grady Jackson type for the center.

On the outside, we are overdue for a high pick. Perry and Matthews in 13? Years is not a major commitment. If it is not a reach, OLB in round 1 unless there is a six something burner of a receiver (unlikely at 14). I would probably cut Fackrell, give Biegel and Gilbert a chance at snaps to prove themselves.

RobinsonDavis's picture

Totally agree with this point of view 4zone and Razor. I am sure other's have noticed how often opposing QBs either got the ball off in rhythm or simply stepped-UP in the pocket against GB. I believe, a large part of this was Daniels' injury. He was a beast to start this year, until he got hurt, and did not appear to be the same upon his return. Clark really thwarted the run, but needed that half step more to cause disruption in the passing game MO. Seems Dom's scheme with our Defensive Line was gap responsibility first. Thus, besides another stud here, I would not be surprised if a different philosophy and scheme may help our pass rush numbers. A fast, consistent push up the middle will drive QBs back setting up our edge rushers and help our secondary alike.

Razer's picture

Seems to me that Chip Kelly all but destroyed that Philly team. Two years ago that defense was not good and the purge continued up to the start of this season. How they turned it around so quickly is beyond me. Maybe with a new DC and a new GM making non Datone Jones picks we too can be a top ten defense.

I doubt that Aaron Rodgers will take us to the top again without a much better defense. Despite his heroics these last years, we were never really a threat to teams that had balance and talent on the defensive side of the ball. Even the Brady led Patriots rely on defense to force teams into submission.

Too bad Ted and Mike didn't make the right moves 2 or 3 years ago so that our defense was carrying this team to the playoffs.

stockholder's picture

You want to compare defenses. Compare the 3-4-4 first. Minn. & Philly don't run it. Were still trying to make a 10 year old defense work. Were still Trying to replace All-pros Collins,Woodson, Raji, and the youth of Mathews,Hawk, Bishop, Wilkins. ETc. We have pieces to keep us competitive. Break down the 3-4-4. You still need more than Clark and Daniels on that line. Pass rushers? Gone before the #14 pick. And did anybody really see a ANGEL at #14? (You got baggage with these guys. ) The packers never spend all their money to worry about the cap. Cobb , Nelson Mathews will be needed. Name the free agent that is Reggie White like. Who pushes the pocket up front like Raji did in 2010? Until we see the secondary step up to the 2010 standards. The defense will always be out of the top 10. Instead of being like the 2010s.

Coldworld's picture

We don’t really play 3-4. In any case, I don’t think it’s the scheme but I do agree with your comparison of the player quality.

4thand10's picture

I agree with Rossonero. In addition to how poorly back up QB has been handled in the past. Going into the season with rookie RBs was extremely risky. I'm mean sure it appears they are panning out somewhat but man...thats a gamble. Especially if you have playoff/SB potential with a HOF QB.

Other teams aside from my beloved Packers help out their veteran QBs A LOT more with RBs. I don't remember to many times Brady, Manning , Roethlisberger didn't have a decent run game and when they didn't... they struggled mighty. We missed chances on Lynch, Murray, Ajayi and many more with a crystal clear need at RB ...and even if they were not a need...trade bait.

The Packers have had a crap defense for years now. Nobody was worried about it. I'm optimistic it's going to be elevated with this change at DC. I have seen defenses move up 10 spots in rankings in ONE season. One thing for sure, nobody in the NFC North wants to see a drastically improved Green Bay defense. Even if this defense improves only a little we're right in the thick of it.

4zone's picture

If I'm THE GUTE, and want to put fear in the rest of the NFC, I draft the best WR and TE and a boat load of OLs. Then I go out and sign two top shelf FA defenders at CB and Edge or DL.

Adams and Ridley out wide, Cobb or Nelson in the slot and TE of choice on the line with Jones in the backfield. I double dog dare ya!

stockholder's picture

The TEs. First no TE should be taken above rd.#3. Especially with the packers needs on defense. #1 has diabetes. # 2 can'T block. #3 Not first or second round material. So - That leaves 2 TEs will be drafted Rd. 3 or later. And I bet their slower than what we have now. So far the Wrs are all 45.5. Hardly first round. But I'm sure the Wrs don't have some of the off field issues that the pass rushers have at 14. Still, TT was going to take a RB last year with issues , as they brought him in for a work out. Guess anything can happen.

Coldworld's picture

How about Monty in the slot? Cheaper and MM can do his receiver to HB thing with some credibility.

Jonathan Spader's picture

Lynch came out of retirement to play for the Raiders the Packers didn't miss out on him. Murray isn't better than Monty, Williams, or Jones. We didn't go into the season with juat rookie running backs you somehow forgot Tye who played well before injury. Ajayi has been ok but will need to be paid soon. There's plenty for you to criticize about the Packers decisions in 2017. RB was the one bright spot other than Kenny Clark, Blake Martinez, King, and maybe Jones.

4thand10's picture

My point was they got kinda lucky on that. If the fans knew that Monty was kinda injury prone at that position, the coaches probably should have. And at that point in time, nobody knew what Jones or Williams offered.

Houndog's picture

"Too bad Ted and Mike didn't make the right moves 2 or 3 years ago so that our defense was carrying this team to the playoffs".

And, too bad Murphy (a former NFL player) couldn't see it! Nearly everyone else did!

Razer's picture

Mark Murphy is a populace type guy. He hears fan howling and reaction to missing the playoffs then reacts. If Rodgers would have got us close and numbers eliminated us, I doubt there would have been much change. If all Ted really wanted to be was a scout then I think the decision to make changes could have happened 3 years ago. Failure to improve over the last 3 years was only acknowledged after missing the playoffs.

Coldworld's picture

Can’t see what you aren’t looking for.

4thand1's picture

Every team in the playoffs has a good defense. Usually every team has a great QB. This year is the exception. Jacksonville got torched by a great QB for almost 600 yards of offense. The 2 turnovers got them the win, also dumb coaching by Pitt. The Packers need to be respectable, I'll take a top 15 D and high powered offense. It should be enough, it works for NE.

4zone's picture

Agree 4th. Grrbrrrggggfffgrrrtyttt. This is the best part of the year, end of year speculation season. YEA!

The TKstinator's picture

NE is way near the bottom in defense in yards allowed (29th) But 5th in fewest points given up. How the hell do they do that? Cheap passing yards in garbage time?

4zone's picture

How many 2018 starters can we realistically get out of this draft? free agency?

4zone's picture

In 2009, we got Raji, Claymaker and Lang. Can't remember if Lang started that year or not. So I think we get max, two from the draft, two in FA.

4zone's picture

Thumbs down gutless naive strikes again. You better go check yourself, I think you missed one a ways back.

Bearmeat's picture

2 in the draft and 2 in FA. That could change the defense if they're the right 4....

We're not going to be a top 5 unit next year. But we could be top 12 if everything goes right, and that is MORE than enough with ARod to win it all.

4zone's picture

The naive WITH guts agrees.

Bearmeat's picture

haha

Coldworld's picture

Tends to go by position as well as pick number. RB maybe at any point, but we don’t need one. No cover player. Very low odds at receiver or TE. ILB uncommon. OLB possible — especially if used solely to rush initially. D line, especially big run stuffers. Maybe guard or center, tackle unlikely.

For that reason I would look to draft an OLB if there is one at value and look hard for a speedy receiver with some size in FA and a TE upgrade.

I’d consider trading back into the back of the first or top of the second too. We need quality prospects not more projects. Then we pick up the gaps with FA vets who fill a role, like the Patriots.

nigrivasilayesrej's picture

Top 5 scoring DEF in the NFL this year -
1) Minn
2) Jax
3) SD
4) Phil
5) NE
And to those saying it's a 1-year outlier, Brady has NEVER won the SB without a top 12 scoring DEF.

OldTimer's picture

If they use all of these picks to move up and pick quality over quantity I think we could get as high as four or five contributors. Not all starters, but quality depth is getting to be more important than ever. A couple of impact free agents, a good mix of veterans and young players, a new scheme (on both sides of the ball) and some new energy, and good things will happen.

Jonathan Spader's picture

Do you think we'll get a new scheme on offense with MM staying and Aaron coming back? I can't wait to see what Aaron is able to do with a RB trio. Something he hasn't had before. Closest was Lacy/Franklin.

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