What is wrong with the Packers' defense? While the Packers beat the Chargers on Sunday, 45-38, the fact that they gave up 38 points to the previously-struggling Chargers, and that they again needed a last-minute interception (by Charlie Peprah) to seal the win, is causing a lot of teeth-gnashing among Packer fans.
The two best quotes I have heard about the state of the Packers' defense come from Charles Woodson and from the Packergeeks blog. Woodson, after the game, said, "We like to think that we have a lot of playmakers on our defense, especially in the back end. We feel like if the ball is in the air, we'll come up with our fair share certainly. But how many times are you going to have two interceptions for a touchdown? … Yeah, today it played out big for us. But we have to be more sound as a defense throughout the whole game." And the Packergeeks, who provide high quality commentary on the state of the Packers, said, "If our defense didn’t cause turnovers, we would be absolutely awful."
As an aside, I laughed when I heard, in the days leading up to the game, that the Chargers were piping in crowd noise to their practices, anticipating a large volume of Packer fans at the game. But sure enough, the Packer fan crowd noise was a big enough problem that the Chargers used a silent count on offense toward the end of the game. Yes, there are Packer fans all over, and a side trip to San Diego during the month of November probably sounded good to a lot of Packer fans.
But getting back to the Packer defense, what is the problem? There was some discussion this week about "communications problems" in the secondary. But I think the root of the problem is the lack of pass rush of the front 3. The Packers let Cullen Jenkins get away in free agency, signing with the 3-5 "dream team" Philadelphia Eagles. The push by the defensive line has not been the same since he left. Last year, the defensive line consistently got enough push against the offensive line to back them up. Sometimes, the defensive linemen themselves would reach and sack the quarterback. Other times, when a rusher came around the corner (most frequently Clay Matthews), the quarterback could not step up in the pocket, and was frequently sacked by the rusher from the edge. Last year in the regular season, the Packers as a team had 47 sacks, with the starting defensive linemen having 14.5 sacks, and with Clay Matthews getting 13.5.
This year, without Cullen Jenkins, the defensive line is not getting the same push. As a result, sacks by the defensive line have fallen off, and so have sacks by rushers coming from the edge. When that rusher comes around the corner, most of the time the quarterback just steps up into the pocket, and Matthews, or Woodson, or whoever the rusher is goes sailing by behind him. After half the regular season is over, the Packers as a team have only 19 sacks, the starting defensive linemen have 5 sacks, and Clay Matthews has 3 sacks.
This drop-off in productivity of the pass rush seems to have led Dom Capers to make some different choices in making the defensive calls. He knows: (1) that the offense is going to score a lot of points; and (2) that the front 3 are not getting the job done like they did last year. As a result, if he wants a pass rush, he has to add extra rushers, which in turn creates more chances of giving up big plays. It is no coincidence that all three Packer interceptions of Rivers last week occurred on plays where the Packers rushed 5 or more players. Charlie Peprah described the Packers as a pressure defense, and he is right. The problem is, they can't seem to create that pressure this year without blitzing. And one of these weeks, that is going to result in a long touchdown pass, instead of an interception, at precisely the wrong moment.
Monday night, the Vikings come to town for their re-match with the Packers. What with Favre retired again, and with the Vikings at 2-6, the game may not have the same luster as it did last year. But the Vikings almost always play well against the Packers, and Christian Ponder looks like he has some talent. I think the Vikings may keep it close for awhile, but the Packers should pull away toward the end of the game.
Occasional ramblings by Tom Freeman, a life-long Green Bay Packers fan, season ticket holder, and shareholder, now living on the idyllic Central Coast of California. My articles were previously published on the South End Zone web site.