Green Bay defense still undefined
GREEN BAY—Three games into the 2013 season, the Green Bay Packers are half the team they want to be defensively.
They have been great at limiting long runs but are among the NFL's worst at allowing pass plays of 20 or more yards.
They rank in the top 10 in fewest first downs allowed on third and 5 or more but sit tied for 29th in passing touchdowns allowed.
They have committed just two competitive penalties (non-personal foul or roughness) but have given up nine touchdown drives of 80 or more yards.
They have played the entire season without safety Morgan Burnett and cornerback Casey Hayward because of hamstring injuries, but they have not missed a start anywhere else on the unit
“I think this group can get better,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said this week, posing the glass-half-full argument he and coach Mike McCarthy are clinging to as they deal with a 1-2 start.
As it has seemed every year since Capers took over in 2009, the defense is undefined at this point of the season. It is a malleable group of mostly young players that might go the way of the Super Bowl XLV-winning defense that blended together nicely after midseason or go the way of the 2011 defense that ranked dead last in the NFL in yards allowed and gave up 37 points at home in a divisional-round playoff loss to the New York Giants.
There are enough pluses to make Capers believe a defensive resurgence is on tap after the bye, yet even in his most optimistic moments he can't deny there are many concerns heading into the team's first NFC North game against Detroit on Oct. 6 at Lambeau Field.
“I think our guys know this. A year ago we were sitting here after one of the most frustrating games I've ever been involved with 1-2, and we turn around and won 10 out of the next 12,” Capers said, referring to a last-second loss in Seattle. “A lot of those guys sitting in that room were involved in that.
“Obviously the young guys haven't, but what I'm hoping is some of these guys that have gained experience over the first three games now, coming off this bye week that that experience is going to pay dividends as we start to get into the meat of our schedule.”
So what has gone right and what has gone wrong?
Increased blitz pressure
After constructing his game plan almost exclusively to take away the running of San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick and getting burned for 404 net yards passing in a 34-28 loss on Sept. 8, Capers realized he needed to get back an aggressive blitzing attack.
After rushing an extra man about 30 percent of the time against the 49ers, he upped that to about 53 percent against Washington and 44 percent against Cincinnati. It has resulted in just five sacks, but the number of pressures and quarterback hits has gone up even without a lot of it coming from the front seven.
Of the team's seven sacks, three are from defensive backs and two are from linebacker Clay Matthews. The other two are from defensive linemen, including zero from their last two first-round picks, linebacker Nick Perry and defensive end Datone Jones.
“It didn't show up in sacks a week ago out there (vs. Washington), but I think we were able to disrupt the rhythm of their passing game and then (against Cincinnati) I think that the sacks and the quarterback hits, that's more like us,” Capers said.
Too few turnovers
After ranking tied for first with 38 takeaways in 2011, the Packers fell to tied for 18th with 23 last season. This year, they were tied for 14th with five when the week began, putting them on pace for 27.
Heading into the Cincinnati gamue they had just one takeaway, but then Matthews forced two fumbles, Brad Jones forced a fumble and Sam Shields had an interception in a remarkable four-series span covering the end of the first quarter and the first 6 minutes of the second quarter.
Surrounding those four straight turnovers—one of which ended in safety M.D. Jennings returning the fumble for a touchdown—were three drives that ended in punts, meaning the Packers went seven straight drives without giving up a score. While that happened, the offense was able to score 30 straight points and take a 30-14 lead.
“I know talking (earlier), one of you guys asked me the question, what about takeaways?” Capers said of a reporter's question. “Because we only had the one interception.
“My comment was when they come, they come in bunches; (that) has been my experience and fortunately they came in bunches right after those first two scores (Sunday) because they gave us a chance to get back in the game.”
Last year, Hayward led the team with six interceptions and Burnett had two, so the return of both should help the turnover numbers increase. But both haven't proved they can stay healthy and play up to previous levels.
Good run defense
This has been the strength of the team.
The base rotation of B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly, Mike Daniels and C.J. Wilson has been outstanding. Pickett has done his usual excellent job of clogging up the middle and Raji has sacrificed himself for the sake of the linebackers by eating up multiple blockers.
The result has been that the Packers rank 11th in rushing yards allowed per game (93.3) and tied for 10th in yards allowed per carry (3.7). They have allowed six runs of 10 or more yards but none longer than 32 yards.
Individually, only Washington's Alfred Morris (13 carries for 107 yards) has rushed for more than 50 yards against the Packers.
“I thought our guys did a good job playing the run, especially the number of times we were trying to double (receiver A.J.) Green during the course of the day,” Capers said of the Bengals game, pointing out the Packers played their nickel defense with two defensive linemen most of the game.
Seeing too many stars
In Week 1, 49ers receiver Anquan Boldin had 13 catches for 208 yards and a touchdown; in Week 2, Washington's Pierre Garcon had eight catches for 143 yards and a touchdown; and in Week 3, Green had four catches for 46 yards and a touchdown.
The Boldin performance absolutely did in the Packers, Garcon's day was reflective of the big lead the Packers had and Green's day is up for debate as to how much impact it had.
Capers did a lot to take away Green and one of the times the Bengals receiver did get single coverage he beat cornerback Sam Shields for a clutch 20-yard touchdown during Cincinnati's big comeback.
Holding Green to four catches for 46 yards isn't something to sneeze at, but it brings into question whether the Packers have a shutdown corner. They used to with Charles Woodson and more recently with Tramon Williams, but they lack a corner with both size and outstanding physical talent.
Even when the 5-foot-11, 192-pound Hayward comes back, that problem will still exist. Williams played well in the slot when it came to blitzing last week, but his coverage was spotty and he hasn't proved to be the stopper he was before injuring his shoulder early in the 2011 season.
Shields battled Green about as well as anybody could expect and made a terrific play for his interception, but he also had help over the top much of the game. The Packers are going to face fast, physically imposing receivers all season and none more talented than the Lions' Calvin Johnson next week
Right now, it looks like they're going to have to continue to double a lot.
“Those guys can change a game around in one play so you're going to try to pay more attention to him to try to discourage them from throwing as many balls to him as they'd like to,” Capers said.
If Burnett and Hayward are able to come back after the bye or sometime soon after it and Matthews' hamstring injury isn't serious, then there's a chance Capers could have a static lineup.
That would help in getting on a run like the one the Super Bowl XLV team did. But that's a big if given the Packers' injury history.
“We had I think a 10-week stretch there where we gave up like 10 points a game, so that's what you hope (for),” Capers said of the 2010 season. “I've seen progress in the last couple of games in terms of our ability to get off the field on third down and our ability to get more pressure on the quarterback.
“Hopefully we can carry this turnover thing to where now we can get that going because it impacts the game so much. You know you try to take and just build off a positive and try to eliminate as many of the negatives as you can.”