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Packer defense in a funk

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By Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
November 8, 2013

GREEN BAY--During a four-game winning streak that began with a 22-9 decision over the Detroit Lions, the Green Bay Packers’ defense climbed up the charts, going from 28th in the NFL in yards allowed all the way up to 11th.

In those four games, it allowed 15 points per game and let only one team to top the 100-yard rushing mark.

It seemed like the defense had come out of its journey into the abyss, a two-year dark period for coordinator Dom Capers in which his unit ranked 22nd last season and 32nd in 2011. There was even lots of talk about how much more physical the defense was even with key members such as linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry laid up with injuries.

Then came the Chicago Bears bombshell Monday night.

Playing against backup quarterback Josh McCown, the defense crumbled, wilting under the force of big receiving targets Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffrey and Martellus Bennett. The defense allowed the most yards in a game (442) since the season opener against San Francisco (494) and was of no help to an offense that badly needed it.

Maybe it was an aberration or maybe the onion was being peeled back.

“It was just one of those days,” defensive tackle Mike Daniels said. “I think I would just describe it as one big, giant bad day, collectively, as a whole.”

Possibly, but consider the Packers’ opponents through the four-game span.

Detroit without receiver Calvin Johnson, Baltimore with a horrible offensive line, Cleveland with now benched quarterback Brandon Weeden and Minnesota with quarterback Christian Ponder at the lowest point of his career.

It’s true the defense did what it needed to do in those games, but the Bears game conjured up many of the misdeeds that had afflicted it over the past two years: no pass rush, poor pass coverage and shoddy tackling. Yes, the unit’s best player was absent, but if it was ever going to overcome his absence it would be at home against the rival Bears.

“After watching the film we have a lot to build off of,” rookie corner Micah Hyde said. “At the same time, some of the mistakes we made are easy to fix. Minor things. We were in the right defense, it was just matching up with the receivers a little tighter.

“We know that. That’s what this week is about, challenging the receivers and quarterbacks a little bit more. Try to mess up the timing. I think we understand what we did.”

On Sunday, the Packers will be facing the fast-break offense of the Philadelphia Eagles, who are in the middle of the pack in average plays per game but rank dead last in time of possession because of how quickly they run plays. The Eagles rank fourth in offense and average 34 points per game on the road.

Matthews will be back, albeit with a large club on his right hand to protect his broken thumb, and Perry has a chance to play also. But psychologically this defense took a big hit against the Bears and with quarterback Aaron Rodgers sidelined for a month or so, there’s tremendous pressure on it to carry the team.

“As sick as it was, I think it was a good wake-up call in a sense and it’s like we got sat down, we didn’t get knocked down, so that’s good,” Daniels said. “Sat down to see ourselves, re-evaluate some things and just get ready for the rest of the season because we know what we’re capable of. That’s evident.

“Maybe we were getting a little ahead of ourselves, but all I know is that you can definitely tell the focus is back this week.”

Really good defenses can take the body blows the Bears were throwing and still emerge the winner, but it requires a game-changing play or two.

The offense contributed Eddie Lacy’s 56-yard run and James Starks’ 32-yard touchdown run, and the special teams contributed a blocked punt and a successful onside kick. But the defense had one sack, no forced turnovers and no goal-line stands.

Only three teams have fewer takeaways than the seven the Packers have this season.

“You sit down and watch the film, a lot of times people might not see it from your perspective, but I’m like, ‘How did we lose that game?’” cornerback Tramon Williams said. “Sometimes guys just make good plays.”

And sometimes guys don’t.

On Marshall’s 23-yard touchdown over Williams, linebacker Mike Neal had two hands on McCown and had a chance to sack him, but McCown got his arm free and tossed a perfect pass into the corner of the end zone.

In the fourth quarter, with the Bears at their own 26, McCown threw over the middle to Bennett and Williams dived in front for the interception, but the ball went right through his arms. If he makes that play, the Packers would have had the ball at the Chicago 35, trailing, 24-20.

“Agh, right here,” Williams said, recounting the play. “You’re not going to catch everything, but at times like that, after a loss, you’re thinking, ‘Man, if I would have made that play …’ But I’ll make plays.”

Williams hasn’t had an interception in 24 straight games, including playoffs, and the defense has just three all year, one in the last five games. Since recovering three fumbles against Cincinnati—two caused by Matthews—the Packers have recovered just one in the last five games.

It’s possible the return to health of cornerback Casey Hayward, the leader in interceptions last year, as well as Matthews and Perry, who have a combined six sacks and four forced fumbles, will be all the defense needs to turn things around.

But expecting instant impact is asking a lot. Someone is going to have to chip in because Matthews has missed four games and one half of another and Perry has only played in 11 of a possible 24 regular-season games in his two seasons with the Packers. Their presence isn’t a given.

“We need to get more takeaways,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “We talked about it as a football team. I mean, it’s a daily emphasis.”

Getting back to doing what it did during the four-game winning streak is another emphasis because with each performance like the one Sunday, the probability of this defense being significantly better than last year or the year before probably diminishes.

Good defenses don’t suffer many blips.

“That’s what we were working toward and are still working toward it,” Williams said of being a top defense. “We put together a good string of games and we had a bump in the road. There are going to be bumps in the road, you just have to keep going. So we’re still working; hopefully, we bounce back.”



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