2011 Packers Defense: Where Does The Buck Stop?

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I have been watching a lot of football these past two weekends, and I think the only NFL game I didn’t watch at least part of was Denver vs. New England. (Really, was there a point to seeing that one?) And while I’ve cached away a lot of observations, there are a couple big things that have stuck with me. The most impressionable of these, I believe, was the way the San Francisco 49ers defense handled the New Orleans Saints.

If any of you watched this game, you should know what I am talking about. To put it succinctly, I rather enjoyed watching their physical play, discipline, and unrelenting attacks on the ball.

But if you asked me to name more than three players from that unit, I don’t think I could do it.

Which made me think . . . what is wrong with the Packers’ defense, then? They have what I believe to be a group of fairly solid players that compliment some big talent, yet they never played like it this season. Last season they did, and it won them quite a few games where the offense sputtered.

Now, we could easily turn this into a “blame game” and start pointing fingers, and I guess I will be depending on how you look at it. What I really want to know, though, is where and how this group needs to improve.

After Sunday’s loss to the New York Giants, I noticed a significant number of fans voicing their extreme displeasure with Dom Capers. Let him go. Reggie McKenzie can take him to Oakland. Or just let him be on his way.

Of course, others retaliated to this, mostly mentioning his lack of playmaking defensive linemen and linebackers.

Now, both sides do have valid points. On the one hand, the loss of Cullen Jenkins and Nick Collins could have been the right recipe for disaster. Take away your biggest asset from the line, then subtract your best safety valve in the secondary, and what are you going to end up with? Nobody was really able to replace either of these two like some of the injured players were last year. Their loss was felt all season, and it was extremely painful to watch the amount of time Eli Manning had in the pocket.

And yet there’s still a part of me that thinks this could have been overcome with better coaching. I’m not even talking about the play-calling here, I’m talking about the actual coaching of these players.

As I mentioned earlier, I find it difficult to name some of the players on the San Francisco 49ers defense. Maybe I just haven’t followed them as closely as other teams, but I don’t think that’s really it. When I was watching them play this weekend, I couldn’t help but notice how the cornerbacks and safeties were almost always in a position to make a play on either the ball or the receiver. Can that be said about the Packers’ secondary? Hardly.

So in many ways, I do believe this comes down to coaching. There is some legitimate talent on this defense; unfortunately, they did not play up to their potential. These guys are good at studying their opponents and doing their homework. They push each other in practice and the veterans serve as positive role models to the younger players.

But like it or not, their (dare I say it) fundamentals have been way off.

Matt Bowen of the National Football Post recently posted some thoughts from Sunday’s game, and had this to say about Eli Manning: “I saw a QB that exposed a secondary that looked confused at times, gave up far too much cushion (distance between CB and WR) and couldn’t defend the middle of the field.”

To me, this comes down to coaching.

With that said, though, there is still one quandary to sort through. Does Dom Capers carry the brunt of this, or is it the assistant/position coaches who should be responsible? Or is it a combination of the two?

Quite honestly, I’m not sure of what the answer is. My gut tells me that the assistant coaches should be the ones disciplining these guys on leverage and footwork and angles in covering the field. I also believe, though, that it is ultimately Capers’ responsibility to make sure these things are getting taken care of.

Regardless, I don’t believe it’s time to give up on Dom Capers or his staff.

Things will probably get shuffled around this offseason with so much coaching movement around the league. Super Bowl champions are usually the ones picked apart first, so it would be no shock to see a different set of coaches come next season. So maybe that will breathe some fresh air into this unit.

We also need to see if Ted Thompson can acquire some more talent up front. Despite the pleas from fans last year, he didn’t really find a good replacement for Cullen Jenkins or a capable OLB to complement Clay Matthews. Last year’s draft was pretty offense-heavy, so I can only imagine the defense will get some of the focus in 2012.

Jumping the gun in looking for a new defensive coordinator is a very risky move and, quite frankly, an unnecessary one. But this unit can play better, and it’s up to Dom Capers and his staff to make it happen.

I want to see a team that is focused, fundamentally sound, and communicating well.

I want to see a defense that is physical and always has a bead on the ball.

I want to see players who are sure of their assignments and know the right angles to take.

From the players on up to the coaches, let’s see some positive changes during this offseason. The buck stops with all of you, so make it happen.

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Chad Toporski, a Wisconsin native and current Pittsburgh resident, is a writer for AllGreenBayPackers.com. You can follow Chad on twitter at @ChadToporski

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  • JimR_in_DC

    I’m not sure what to think of the coaching staff. Jenkins was not all that impressive a player this year, so if we would’ve retained him there’s not necessarily a stronger pass rush. The loss of Nick Collins was a blow for sure. I think Hawk is destined to be as great a player as Poppinga or Colledge. :D

    If we lose Winston Moss to the Raiders, we might not even notice. Mike Trgovac did well last season and I’m not sure he had enough talent to work with this season, besides Raji and Pickett. I’m not sure how effective Darren Perry and Joe Whitt were this season, perhaps having to respond to the reality of / making up for a weaker front seven. All I know is we can’t have a defense like this next season. Not if we want to make noise in the playoffs.

  • Mr. Bacon

    Dom Capers was the one that revitalized the D after going through so many bad years.

    The 3-4 is just specialized for the Linebackers. You have Matthews, and Bishop who are playmakers but then who is the other two. Hawk is a great tackler but nothing much else and Matthews has no help on the other end.

    The key in the end is too find players that will make a system for Pass Rush. I keep on gawking at the Defense of Houston and Denver. Tim Tebow should be saying big time praises about how Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil are keeping the team in the game.

    I love interceptions, but watching Eli standing in the pocket is just heartbreaking because Eli is elite and we weren’t touching him mostly before he threw the ball.

    Next year, I just want to see a couple of things.

    Increased RB carries for Starks & Saine… Grant if he comes back, and not in that spread formation at the side. I am talking about pure I-Formation. Too gimmicky looking with the spread.

    Top 10 unit in pressuring the Quarterback. Sacks, and Scrambles for life.

  • Mojo

    I believe it’s a combination of two things. First a lack of pass-rushing talent on the front-line and OLB positions(sans Clay). I know the job of 3:4 defensive lineman is to clog things up, but couldn’t they get some pressure occasionally? Losing their best pass-rusher(Cullen) really hurt.
    The other is just a lack of either intelligence or awareness in the secondary. I don’t think Burnett, Shields or Bush could pour water out of a boot with instructions on the heel. Shields shows no willingness to tackle. Losing Collins was a major blow, not just because his physical abilities, but because the secondary seemed lost without him.

    It also didn’t help when CWood did stay on his feet, he was constantly trying to undercut routes and get that pick-six record. I don’t know how many times his man was wide-open after CWood guessed wrong.

    A.J. Hawk seems like he went through taxidermy. Raji is worth keeping, but he underperformed this year. CM3 and Bishop are good. No one else really jumps out at me. As Capers said earlier this year, “you can scheme all you want, but from time-to-time it’s up to the players to make plays”.

    The inability of the players to carryout their assignments or tackle combined with a lack of overall talent led to one of the worst defensive seasons in NFL history.

    It’s not all lost though. Get a pass-rush and all the defensive units will look much better.

    • Art Rosen

      You said: “It also didn’t help when CWood did stay on his feet, he was constantly trying to undercut routes and get that pick-six record. I don’t know how many times his man was wide-open after CWood guessed wrong.”
      Perfect! I have been saying this for two years. The picks he makes doesn’t come close to offsetting the completions and yards after the catch when he guesses wrong. He is given to much credit. He is not the CWood of three years ago. Manning snapped the ball while CWood had his head turned talking to a Packer DB. The Giant receiver made his cut and it was an easy conversion because CWood was not concentrating. And too often the receiver makes his cut leaving CWood on his ass. Also AJ Hawk leads the team in yards “dragged” with grass marks on his ass.
      Good post Mojo.

  • Scott

    The loss of Nick Collins hurt the most I think. That devastated the heart of the defense and he was Tramon Williams, Sam Sheilds, and Charles Woodson’s safety blanket back there. His range in unbelievable and all three of those guys knew that he was back behind them ready to make a play, which allowed them to gamble more last season. That being said, increased pressure from the front seven would go a long way in bettering this defense.

  • Bearmeat

    Some of the other commenters have said this as well, but my thought is that the 3/4 is based off of creating confusion for the OL and QB.

    I read a piece by McGinn right before the game in which he interviewed several of our opponents. They all said they knew what was coming – and that is normally the case with Capers’ units in their 3rd year.

    However, I think this is more a result of Dom not trusting his pass rush.

    1. Tramon is a bump and run – man up corner. He was never “right” after that shoulder injury, and after awhile, Dom started playing him off the line.. Why? Because he knew no one covers top WR’s for 6 secs a play.

    2. CM3 was doubled or more half the time I watched this year when rushing.

    3. Peprah is slow. Not a starting caliber safety over the long term – certainly not at FS – which he played some this year.

    4. Burnett is young. He will get better. Remember how Collins looked in 07? Up and down. This is essentially Burnett’s rookie year.

    5. Hawk plays only to the level of the players around him. Not higher, not lower. Last year, when the DL was keeping him clean and giving him good looks, he did fine.

    6. Raji – needed more help on the DL. He’s not at the point in his career that he can dominate a whole line himself.

    7. ROLB – Sucks.

    8. C – Wood – is getting older and slower. No surprise. He’s at the point of his career that he will make everyone shake their heads for 3 quarters, and then he’ll do something brilliant.

    9. Shields is young. See above for Burnett. He’ll be better next year.

    If Capers gets more help on DL and ROLB, you’ll see this unit dramatically improve next year IMO.

  • Bearmeat

    Addendum to the 2nd line:

    Opponents knew what was coming. However, if you execute, it doesn’t matter. Better players (improvement from within, as well as adding new talent) will help this unit execute just fine down the road.

    Again, I’m not going to overreact here. This unit needs improvement, but GB does have the deepest 53 in the league. They are young. They’ll improve.

  • Chad Lundberg

    I have a theory.

    Remember Mike Singletary in San Francisco? He may not have been a coach, but he sure motivated his team to play disciplined, and I’ve heard some Niner fans say that they believe that a lot of discipline side of the players was something that was rubbed onto to them by Singletary.

    The Packers however didn’t have this because of the offseason. There were no offseason workouts or OTA’s or anything of the sort.

    The lack of discipline may be because the Packers coaches are one of the heaviest believers in working out in the offseason. Without that, there’s almost no way of making up for it.

    Next season, I won’t be a bit surprised to see a complete 180 turn. If, my theory is true of course.

  • Jim – Kbk

    I have never managed / coached a football team, and admit I would be a complete failure at it. However, I have been a manager in business for a long time. If my team is not performing to year-end goals I do not approach them in December and say “let’s review our performance, because we really need to improve.” I was surprised to read that they had a come-Jesus-meeting the week before the playoffs. After the beatings the defense took from New Orleans, Carolina, Tampa Bay (Blount ran all over them), San Diego (Rivers threw for 385), KC, then Detroit – Gee, think they may have needed to have a similar meeting before then???

    Last year Dom was a genius and I was on board. I still think he is the best DC and would not be happy to see him go, but would like to see some more fire in him and his assistants. Were they complacent due to the ring, or the record that was developing all due to AR and O-crew? Did they actually try, but could not get into the players big heads? I can’t say, but 1 week before a do-or-die game is not the time for a meeting as was described. They sucked all year. Something needed to be done sooner.

    The odd thing is I was pleased with some of their performance in that game. They exceeded my low expectations. They took away the run game, and although only sacked Ellie once, they were very close a number of times. There was more heat than I saw in other games. It was stated many times the week before that EM gets the ball out quick and that’s what I saw. I need to qualify this, because I often read blogs after the game and find I’ve missed many things. Must come with age.

    Granted – Collins and Jenkins (maybe), turned out to be big loses. It’s possible they tried everything and there was nothing they could do. But after watching that SF game, I’m not so sure. At least they could have demanded better fundamentals. At this level, there is no excuse for the sloppy play / tackling we have been watching for a few years. During 2009 every experienced quality QB picked them apart. It was painful for us all to watch. Unfortunately it has not gotten any better. TT is a better man than I. I hope he can fix this, because I cannot stand to watch this shyt. Last year the draft was mostly O, and they acknowledged it. I hope this year is all D.

    (Sorry, I needed to vent, Sunday really hurt)

    Go Pack Go

  • JimR_in_DC

    Is 2012 the year that Woodson moves to Safety?

  • Dan

    I kept saying all year that this defense looked ‘soft and confused’ , they made some very bad to average offenses look great. I knew in the back of my mind that if the O had a bad day, the D wouldn’t be there to bail them out (especially in the playoffs). The NFC champ game against the bears last year was a perfect example. Some People on this blog (and other blogs) argued with me that because D was getting turnovers and that because the team was winning as a whole, it didn’t matter.

    Well, it did matter.

    It was amazing to me how much this unit regressed. The lack of a pass rush all year was extremely disappointing. A team can not make it far in the NFL playoffs with out a pass rush. but what was harder to watch was the constant lack of coverage. what happened to Shields and Williams. I know we missed Collins but come on.

    TT needs to spend 90% of his draft picks on D, and the top 4 picks. if he signs Wells and franchises Finley we are ok on O. It sucks that Sherrard and Green got hurt because we need them to develop to compensate if we lose Clifton and Grant. But for the most part the O is set.

    Draft picks typically take a while to develop, so to be competitive next year on D I think TT needs to loosen up and pick up a free agent or 2.

    I agree that some of this could have been coaching. So let’s get that straighten out too.

    Go Pack

  • Dan

    Are the packers picking at no#1 28? With a late picks we may have to trade up to get an impact player. Have to get some pass rushers. The DBs will look better with a pass rush. I hope Collins can return.

  • http://AllGreenBayPackers.com Since ’61

    The title of this post is “Where does the buck stop?” The buck stops with the Head Coach McCarthy. He is ultimately responsible for the team’s performance in all phases and responsible for the coaching staff. Having said that he can’t go on the field and play. But he needs to get his team back to fundamentals for 2012. In the draft, after focusing on the offense for the last few seasons, they need to draft, if availble, 1. An impact pass rusher, 2. A shut down corner (ala Terrel Reveis NYJets) 3. Safety with more speed than what they have now. 4. Speed in defensive backfield. 5. Another OL 6. A power running back
    Many will say that we need another OLB for the right side but we may already have that with Brad Jones if he can get a full season healthy. Remember regardless of the 2011 defensive woes, I like our chances to still be playing this weekend if we can get Rodgers errant passes and the 6 drops back against the Giants. Go Pack Go!
    Thanks,
    Since ’61