For a team that finished second in fewest points allowed per game last season, the Green Bay Packers defense seemed out of sync in the 42-34 win over the New Orleans Saints. The defending Super Bowl champions picked up where they left off on offense, but the defense that was once instrumental in closing out playoff games allowed Drew Brees to pick them apart for 419 passing yards and three touchdowns.
While the game was certainly exciting to watch, it left some Packers fans wondering whether or not the defense could become a liability this year. (At least in the face of a high octane offense like the Saints.)
We must then ask ourselves:
Will the defense be able to recreate its success from last year, or are they taking a step backwards?
In bringing back our “Packers Beer Mug Perspective” series for another season, we’ll take a look at the issue from both angles, then determine whether our mug is really half empty or half full.
THE MUG IS HALF FULL
Yes, the Packers defense seemed out of sorts at times during Thursday night’s season opener. Despite starting out strong by forcing and recovering a fumble, they did little to stop Brees and company from moving the ball down the field. The Saints only punted twice the entire game, scoring on 5 of their 10 possessions.
Hidden in those facts, however, lie some important distinctions.
First and foremost is that Green Bay’s defense is a “bend but don’t break” unit. They will give up yardage on a drive, but more often than not they will stop the opponent from getting into the end zone. Last year, the Packers ranked 1st in Opponent Red Zone Scoring Attempts per Game and 2nd in Opponent Touchdowns per Game, meaning they forced offenses to settle for punts and field goal attempts.
While they did allow New Orleans to score three offensive touchdowns, they also forced them to settle twice for field goals. By comparison, the Packers’ offense never had to settle for a field goal and was 4-for-4 in red zone attempts.
Plus, you have to remember that the defense made two gigantic stops in the second half.
With 3:10 remaining in the third quarter, Saints head coach Sean Payton decided to go for a fourth down conversion on the Packers’ 7-yard line. With only one yard to go, they dialed up a play-action pass in an effort to catch the defense off guard.
It didn’t work.
Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers responded with just the right call, and the players had Brees running for his life. His desperation pass landed at the feet of Pierre Thomas, who was immediately blanketed by Desmond Bishop anyway. Aaron Rodgers and the Packers running backs marched down the field for their sixth touchdown on the ensuing possession.
Then, of course, you have the final play of the game.
Down by 8 points, the Saints find themselves on the Packers’ 1-yard line thanks to a pass interference call on A.J. Hawk in the end zone. With no time left on the clock, this “bonus” play had the potential of sending the game into overtime, giving New Orleans a chance to win it.
To the delight of Packer fans everywhere, that never happened. Rookie Mark Ingram was stuffed at the line by Morgan Burnett and Clay Matthews.
So while the defense made their share of gaffs throughout the game, they made the plays when it mattered most. A forced fumble plus two key stops were the big difference-makers, and New Orleans’ 20% red zone efficiency rating puts the defense’s “bend but don’t break” style into perspective.
THE MUG IS HALF EMPTY
But what if they don’t make that stop on the final play? Would fans then be singing a different tune about the defense?
The disheartening reality is that the defense gave up 27 points, 419 passing yards, 81 rushing yards, and had three penalties for 28 yards and two first downs. The Saints had eight plays of 20 or more yards, two of which were over 30 yards and two of which were also for touchdowns.
And we’re not even going to count the number of missed and broken tackles by the unit.
In short, there were some clear problems with the team’s communication, fundamentals, and concentration. On Brees’ first touchdown pass of the game to Robert Meachem, Tramon Williams was trailing far behind with no safety over the top. It was an easy completion for an elite quarterback to make.
Nick Collins appeared to be calling either a timeout or a change at the last second, but there was clearly some miscommunication.
Of the three “starting” cornerbacks, last year’s undrafted rookie sensation Sam Shields seemed to be having particular trouble during the game, especially when he was burned for a 29-yard touchdown pass to Devery Henderson. The safeties also made a handful of mental errors throughout the game and weren’t always in good position to make a play. Green Bay’s heralded secondary suddenly seemed less shiny.
Finally, the tackling (or lack thereof) was simply atrocious. The worst of it came on a 21-yard run by Pierre Thomas in the first quarter. From my count, he broke five attempts to take him down, and it wasn’t until three Packers defenders swarmed on top of him that he finally fell.
So while the Packers did make their stops, they were pretty rough around the edges. They weren’t getting enough consistent pressure on Brees, the Saints receivers were finding all the soft spots, and the running backs were just bowling people over.
There’s no reason the Saints were left in a position to send the game into overtime. While the offense could be expected to take more time off the clock at the end, it’s hardly fair to place any real blame on their shoulders when they scored five of the six Packers touchdowns in the game. That should have been more than enough offensive firepower to build a comfortable lead, yet the defense kept letting Brees get New Orleans within striking distance.
If Capers and his defensive unit can’t step up their game and get some of these fundamental errors corrected soon, it could be a down year for them.
GETTING THROUGH THE FOAM
Look, I’m not going to give the Green Bay Packers defense any passes for what they failed to do against the New Orleans Saints. There were clearly some issues that need addressing in weekly practices.
But after just one game, this mug is still half full.
Drew Brees is an elite quarterback and currently one of the best in the game. He had over 4,600 passing yards last season, ranking him behind only Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning. His quick decision making and release of the ball make him frustratingly difficult to get to on a blitz. Add to that his relationship with head coach and offensive mastermind Sean Payton, and you can see why the Saints have won 24 of their last 32 regular season games, winning a Super Bowl in the process.
Despite the ability of Dom Capers to confuse opposing quarterbacks with his schemes, it’s less effective against the smarter ones, and heavy blitzing becomes increasingly risky.
For some comparison, just look to our own Aaron Rodgers. The Saints were blitzing him in heavy yet random doses all night, and still he was able to pick them apart. It’s what good quarterbacks with a quality receiving corps can do to defenses.
So when you get right down to it, stopping an elite quarterback is dependent on getting a good pass rush with just three or four defenders.
That’s one area the Packers certainly need to improve on, but we also have to remember that Cullen Jenkins is gone and Mike Neal was out of the picture. The front line will most likely feel the loss of Jenkins; however, the (hopeful) return of Neal should be a boost to the line’s ability to pressure the quarterback.
We saw Matthews get close to Brees on a number of occasions, and he did register two quarterback hits on the night. Jarius Wynn did an admirable job throughout the game (even making a sack), but he is not enough to create his own havoc or draw a lot of attention away from Matthews, which is hopefully what Neal will do more of.
The season has a long way to go yet, and the defense will only improve with time. Sam Shields is still honing his cornerback skills, Morgan Burnett has only played 5 regular season games in his NFL career, and the conditioning of the players will get better as the weeks go by. Plus, it’s hard to gauge a defense so early in the season against a powerhouse offense with a significant amount of unscouted looks.
After what they accomplished last year, it’s hard to imagine them regressing by any substantial amount.
Green Bay’s defense will be heavily tested again in the future by the Falcons, Chargers, and maybe even the Lions, but as we saw on Thursday, they will still make the plays when they matter most. Creating opportunities and forcing mistakes is what they live by.
It did still earn them a win, after all.——————Follow @ChadToporski