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Packers Defense Needs Transformational Change

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Packers Defense Needs Transformational Change

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.

The ingredients

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
So, what might be the best transformation of the ingredients in this kitchen? Let's go get the types of players that are more than "Just A Guy". Haha Clinton-Dix of Alabama might just be the guy to take in the first round this year. While free agents like Donte Whitner and Jarius Byrd will be available, its more likely that Thompson will have to address this need through the draft due to the salary cap crush his own free agents will put him under.

The Cook

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.

The Recipe

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.



C.D. Angeli is a lifelong Packer fan and feature writer at CheeseheadTV.  He is the co-host of the weekly Packers podcast Cheesehead Radio and is the good cop running Follow him on Twitter at @TundraVision

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (47) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

steve's picture

Not being a football coach, I have no idea if changing to a 4-3 would be possible, but you have to believe they could do it on an intermittent basis, wouldn't you? To me the defense is getting thrashed because they are not getting enough pressure on the qb. I really don't care where they stand in the league on sacks. What I see time and time again is on 3rd down, the opposing qb has all day to complete a pass and make a first down. The reason they don't have interceptions is because the qb has all day to find an open receiver. Somehow they got to force the qb's to make quick decsisions and bad throws, that is what is going to make this defense successful.

Great article CD. We hear about how the defense isn't performing, but no solutions or ideas on how to fix it. Finally someone writes something about addressing the issues. Very refreshing. Keep up the great work.

Chad Toporski's picture

But like all dishes, there are variations to recipes. I think it's time to try a new cook, and with him a new variation on the 3-4 recipe.

Stroh's picture

I'm fine moving on from Capers. Hoped they would have considered Ray Horton last year. The pack has been drafting for the 34 and developing the players to play a 34 for 5 yrs. Now is not the time to scrap it! Our best pass rusher would be taken out of full time pass rush.

We basically play a 43 D on passing downs already w 2DT and Matthews and Perry rushing. Only thing it would change is the base D which we only play 25% of the time anyway! Do NOT change to a 43!

Katsuya's picture

Switching to a 4-3 won't imake any difference as long as Capers keeps calling those soft zone coverages all game long. Until he starts challenging opposing WRs with the bmp n run like in 2010, we will continue to see the same results as the last 3 seasons.

Stroh's picture

Do you even watch? Packers play man most of the time. Learn to Watch a little!

Albert Lingerfeld's picture

He can't, our very late round picks were available because they lacked speed. If they stand next to the receiver they will be left in the dust. Capers knows this.

Bearmeat's picture

Unless the defense again turns into the strength of the team - as it did in late 2010 - and thus sparks a deep playoff run - It's time for Capers to go in the offseason.

Stroh's picture

It doesn't have to be a strength as long as it isn't a liability.

Mean Jean's picture

Players are all average. (one exception)
No onfield leadership.
Coaching is average.
Scheme can't fix average.
Drafting results are terrible.
Accountability is poor.

mike's picture

how can i get a refund on my sunday ticket. that was sorry ass football from start to finish

larry valdes's picture

You know what im tired of ted sturbnes we have a need for safety since i dont how long anybody that washed our secondary .still he wont bring anybody he keeps jennins playing tackle 15 yards after the cash or td over his head.

al's picture

wwe said your fired don capers next man up !!!!!!

scott's picture

I like the 3-4 defense but it seems we have drafted defendive lineman last few years that are more suited for a 4-3 worthy and jones and perry

Al Katraz's picture

These three quite honestly are second string reliefers on any other team.

Chris's picture

I agree with the possible 4-3 switch. When the league was more pass happy the 3-4 made sense.But teams that live and die by the passing game have not been superbowl winners the last couple of years... or playoff teams for that matter.

Bal : Ray Rice, screens with the occasional bomb. 49rs : gore and a Mobil QB.. Kaep doesn't throw 370 yrds a game. Even the Saints..who are a passing team still have a hell of a run and screen game ( sproles)

Teams like the Pats and Dallas watched the league morph into more running based teams.. Seattle et al to accommodate fresh out of college QBs so they made the switch back to the 4-3 to roll with the changes. I think GB should do the same.

Tom's picture

As long as Green Bay has A.J. Hawk at inside linebacker, they'll never stop anyone. He is PATHETIC!! Without question, he is the worst linebacker in the history of the NFL. Our corners are average at best. I'm surprised teams don't throw every down. We have a pretty fair defensive line, but they can't be out there all day. Scott will take the fall for the loss yesterday, because of his interceptions, but he still threw for 339 yards. He a good quarterback.
The offense is hurting at just about every position. They need some defensive help, & there isn't any.

packeraaron's picture

<em>As long as Green Bay has A.J. Hawk at inside linebacker, they’ll never stop anyone. He is PATHETIC!! </em>

Don't do drugs kids.

Tom's picture

Those glasses you're wearing, aren't strong enough. You must be watching the wrong station. Hawk is the player that runs &amp; stands next to the pile. Try sitting closer to the TV, maybe that will help.

Anthony's picture

The fact that the Packers defense has given up an average of 28 points per game in the last four games says it all. THE PACKERS DEFENSE IS A FAILURE. It is Dom Capers job to manage the defense. DOM CAPERS IS FAILING IN HIS JOB.

Honestly, the defense has been the Packers downfall for the past 4 years. Three of the past four years, the Packers didn't make it to the Super Bowl because of a defensive meltdown of over 500 years in a playoff game. When it mattered most - it FAILED COMPLETELY.

For those who say that losing Shields has been a big blow, the defense still gave up 28 points - that means his absence made no difference.

Should Capers be fired? Absolutely, and the sooner the better.

Jeff Lawver's picture

The Packers D has been a big disappointment when needed the most. On the other hand, averaging 13 points a game,which is where the Pack is at without Rogers basically means the team can't win without him. To me,that was evident after the Bear game. It has, and will continue to be the case until he gets back. Of coarse that may be too late for this year.

The TKstinator's picture

I think many of the defensive players have been overrated.


Dom is "dumb enough" to call:
1. Blitz but get blocked
2. Let your man get open
3. Vacate your zone
4. Bump with shoulder but don't tackle

Whereas a defensive GENIUS (like any of us) would call:
5. Stuff the run
6. Sack the QB
7. Blanket your receiver
8. Intercept the pass
9. Force the fumble

So the fix is simple: get better players, or, stop calling 1-4 and START calling 5-9.

You're welcome, again. It is exhausting being this brilliant.

The Tongue In Cheekstinator

Evan's picture


The TKstinator's picture

Being so much smarter than the coaches is a burden we all must bear.

jack in jersey city's picture

haha!!! great post TK!

The TKstinator's picture

Thanks brothers.

Ruppert's picture

The defense seems to lack leadership, it definitely lacks in the position of safety, and IMO the overall linebacking corps not named Matthews is anywhere from bad to average. That might be strong, but there is definitely a lack of big plays from that group. I do not want Capers fired. I want a safety (preferably two) who can play football at the NFL level.

Thegreatreynoldo's picture

What's so annoying is that decent to good Free Safeties can be signed for Brad Jones money. A FS with only decent athletic ability but who comprehends schemes and can direct the other DBs should be on TT's FA list if one is available. Not sure I would spend a 1st (Ha-Ha Dixon) or even a 2nd round pick on a safety. GB needs more S talent, but leadership-direction is also lacking. I haven't looked at the draft, but Best Player Available seems right for the first couple of rounds. GB (depending on who walks and who is re-signed) might need a TE, WR (like to have 4 and a prospect in case of injury and I assume JJ is gone), O-line, D-line (position depends on which of the FA - Raji, Jolly, Pickett, Wilson are resigned), ILB, OLB, S, even a CB. This list is not in order of need.

Stroh's picture

Whats so annoying is that fans think they know more than the GM's around the NFL. Rhodes and Huff were the 2 Safeties that were widely discussed. One is a backup to a rookie or at least he was and the other hasn't been on an NFL roster all year! But You KNOW they are better than what the Packers have even tho from what I can tell neither is on an NFL roster right now!

Albert Lingerfeld's picture

I think we play the 3-4 for the very reason, we do not have the speed needed on the line to rush the passer from a 4-3 perspective. I watch the same game everyone else does and I see a lack of speed getting to the QB.
Yes they do have all day to throw and yes receivers are wide open because many times the QB is hitting them in stride.
I think we waste Mathews talent by making a pass rusher out of him but he is the only one with speed.
He would be a monster middle linebacker stopping the run and covering tight ends, not rushing the passer.

Tom's picture

Anyone in the middle would be better than A. J. Hawk. He should have been cut last year. He has to be the worst linebacker in the NFL, &amp; probably of all time. We have a Very Good defensive line, but Nothing up the middle, &amp; our defensive backs are Average at best. Marshal made a joke of Williams. I'd be surprised if they didn't throw to him every down, the next time we play them.
Our offense is hurt at just about every position. Scott Tozein is a Damn Good quarterback. This offense needs defensive help, &amp; there is NONE. This all started when they cut people like Cullen Jenkins. Nick Barnett is still 10 times the linebacker Hawk is. We may make a run offensively at the division. We are Not anywhere good enough defensively to do anything if we make the playoffs. I would agree with all of the comments here, calling for a change at the top, but don't stop there.

packeraaron's picture

Hawk is having his best year as a pro and is playing very well. He is not the problem on defense.

Tom's picture

You'Right!! He's not the problem. He's just part of it.

murphy's picture

"He should have been cut last year."

You misspelled "He is making a case to be a Pro Bowl Candidate this year".

Tom's picture

A.J. Hawk never was, &amp; never will be a tough linebacker. He's had 1 decent game this year. Barnett was better, &amp; so was Bishop. Anyone who thinks Hawk is having a Pro Bowl year, is Dreaming. I doubt if he would start on any other team.

Stroh's picture

Your soo full of shit! You don't know squat!

Tom's picture

1st of all, you're an idiot!! 2ond, you must be watching the wrong linebacker. If Bishop didn't make the tackle on Deshon Jackson, we don't go to the super bowl. Hawk wasn't even in the screen. He's been good for shit since we got him. Most of the time, he's either out of the play completely, or standing next to the pile. What the hell do you see that makes him so great?? I promise you, if they get rid of Dom Capers, Hawk will be cut.

Stroh's picture

Did I say he was great? No. Never in any way! He's good, far from great. And he's playing his best football of his career, but its still just good. But to suggest he wouldn't start for any other team is so Full Of Shit and smacks of someone who doesn't know what the Fuck he is talking about.

Al Katraz's picture

Football is all about exposing the opponents achiles heel to your advantage. Teams have been successful somewhat running against us but they are really concentrating efforts by passing on us.
Maybe I'm mistaken, but I could swear last season we almost set a league record for giving up the most passing yardage in a season? I definitely recall our defense not being able to get off the field and it was our lack of pass defense that was the reason for that.
Did I miss something, I don't recall us drafting anyone to shore that up so why would I expect it to be better this year???

Ho Le Fuk's picture

Is it the coaches or the players? Knoll and Walsh probably coached the two finest NFL teams ever assembled, both loaded with hall of famers. IMHO in a four game playoff both would win two.

My querry, was it hard to coach hall of fame level players or did the coach help make then that?
In fairness to Dom, he can only coach the players Ted brings in.

What kind of D does he call if he instantly had the two best safeties in football and the best rushing end in football?

The TKstinator's picture

If he had those things he'd suddenly get a lot "smarter".

I don't think scheme is the whole answer. If it were, why not just copy KC's, or Seattle's, or Carolina's defensive playbook?

adroge's picture

Clay Matthews and Casey Hayward are two of top five players on this team.

Matthews is an all-pro and one of the better players in the league and Hayward was the 2nd rated cornerback in all of football last year. They are the top two play makers on this defense.

Once the packers moved Perry to the right he dominated. He was playing as good as anybody on the team before his foot injury. He and Matthews combined for 5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles in two and half games before their injuries. They have had one sack and no forced fumbles from there olb's since that.

Matthews has been out or limited for 70% of the season.

Hayward has been out or limited for 100% of the season.

Perry has been out or limited for 50% of the season.

While clearly the other packers defenders have not played well, that still doesn't change the fact that the packers are without what seemed to be there three top playmakers on defense.

This is just a reality of football. You can't lose your best players and expect to good. They don't need a different defensive coordinator or a bunch of different players. They need the players they have to be healthy. That doesn't mean they don't have weak spots or bad players. But your best players cover up problem areas for your team. That's what they are supposed to do.

If you take Tamba Hali, Justin Houston, and Brandon Flowers off of the Kansas City defense, you really think there defense would be anything better than average? You think they would be 9-1 right now. Not a chance. They would be lucky to 5-5 without those guys.

BradHTX's picture

Adroge... You can't go talking logic like that here. This is all about torches and pitchforks, dammit!

RC Packer Fan's picture

no doubt...

Commonsense, is greatly appreciated.

And to add to the defensive woes. You take out the top 3 defenders, also take out your top 3 of 5 offensive playmakers as well. Rodgers, Cobb, Finley, and Jones missed time as well...
That doesn't include Dujuan Harris and Bulaga who has been out all year.

So mark it down, Top 3 playmakers on defense, and top 3 playmakers on offense. That is the reason why the team is struggling.

Take away Manning, Thomas and Welker, are they the same offense? Nope...
If you take Seattle's top 3 players away - Wilson, Lynch and Lewis, they wouldn't be considered the top team in the league.

Injuries are the reason why the Packers are 5-5. Both offensively and defensively they have been hurt buy injuries.

Robbie Henges's picture

Honestly forget mike Daniels let him rotate in here's your 4-3 front seven LDE nick Perry DT b.j. raji DT jerel
Worthy RDE datone jones . LOLB clay Mathews MLB Brad Jones ROLB lattimore you may have to draft a more typical rolb but there are several options in the draft. Also imagine the pass rush with that front four!! Datone would be devastating against the run while being able to get the qb too. And as far as using recipes right you missed the most obvious one NICK PERRY at DE. imagine letting clay Mathews blitzing 15times a game with either a TE or RB or NOBODY to block him. Teams would be forced to leave a te in for fear of his blitzes even when he wasn't coming that taking away a weapon or option for the defenses. And no offense to TEs but when he does blitz, they won't do much good. Oh and can we get back to bump and run coverage? its so obvious it has to be done after the season. Immediately would be a top 5 NFL defense

David's picture

Seems like, if you had a really deep defensive line and a thin linebacking core, you' wouldn't want to play with two down-linemen and 4 linebackers all the time. Seems like, if you ran a 3-4 defense, you'd be able to figure out a way to keep, oh, I don't know, three down lineman in the game more than 25% of the time?

Stroh's picture

In a 43 front the Packers would go w/
Perry at RDE
Jones at 3 tech
Raji at NT/DT
Neal at RDE

Jones isn't a good fit as a 43 DE. He lacks the ability to turn the corner vs OT's. He got his sacks and made his plays in college when he was lined up at DT. He'd be a very good interior pass rusher, but he wouldn't be a very good edge rusher. Jones, Worthy and Daniels would all be 3 tech DT in a 43 front.

Also in a 43 Matthew would most likely be at ROLB away from the TE so he could use his speed and closing burst to make more plays. In a 43 D teams would be much more able to scheme to keep Matthews in coverage. It would take our best pass rusher out of full time pass rush mode and put him in coverage most of the time!

adroge's picture

3-4 outside linebacker = 4-3 defensive end

How many 4-3 teams use three defensive tackles on passing plays?

The packers do use three defensive lineman on passing situations. Mike Neal is just as much defensive lineman is he is linebacker.

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