In recent weeks, a good amount of print, virtual print, and watercooler talk has been dedicated to the Packers defense, or seeming lack thereof. Unfortunately the memory that burns brightest is their performance in the shootout in the desert in the playoffs last season. This despite an overall solid year. Many fans are currently panic stricken, believing wholeheartedly that any decent QB will tear the Packers defense to shreds. Of course there are a few example games, but really if those games are typical of a average performance, the Packers could in fact have one of the worst defenses that has ever been fielded in the NFL.
Of course the fear has been pampered by months of bombardment in the press, no obvious major moves made by the team to address the perceived weakness, and a preseason that seemingly played right into the storyline of fear that has been written.
However, I don’t agree with this reality. Dom is playing things close to the vest. I think that we’ve seen figments of things to come here and there, while at the same time lacking a complete whole to judge. We are left looking at trees; left to try to estimate the look of the forest. Fortunately for the Packers, so are their opponents.
The first place to look is the pass rush. Or perceived lack thereof. Last season, beyond week 5 or so, the strength of the Packers normal pass rush was clearly the outside rush, the interior rush made very little impact last season. However the Packers pass rush was pretty good overall last season. It’s failure was not season-wide, instead isolated to a couple of key games.
This summer in fact we saw the direct opposite during preseason games. The outside linebackers provided very little rush while the interior rushers did a nice job play after play of driving the pocket backwards. To my eyes at least, our interior rush has notably improved. However with the outside linebackers, the Packers starters have yet to see the field in much capacity. Fans have seemingly forgotten their play. But the starting OLB’s are back and ready to go for the regular season.
Combine the outside rush of last season with the inside rush that we’ve seen thus far this summer, and things have seemingly tremendously improved. To me the outside rush gets sacks and breaks plays, the inside rush steal’s the QB’s time and sets the throwing clock. While the Packers have not shown fans the whole yet, an improved pass rush, they have shown that they have the parts to assemble a significantly better pass rush than they have shown at any time during Dom Capers’ tenure.
In base sets I don’t think that the rush has improved that much, mainly due to Pickett’s presence. At the same time though, a base set implies a lack of WR’s, facing 21 or 12 personnel, and if 12 personnel is on the field against our base D, we aren’t treating an athletic TE as a WR schematically (as will be done to Finley this season). When facing teams in our base, opponent offenses aren’t optimized personnel-wise to throw the football anyway, and our nickel back isn’t on the field.
One schematic development that we have seen this summer is an in-stance under shift while in base defense by the defensive line; shifting from a 3-4 to a hybrid under 4-3. With that shift, we are largely in a Bob Sander’s D with Raji at UT and Clay in Kamp’s place (standing, hence the hybrid label), Jones in Hawk’s old place and Hawk in Pops’ old place. I think that shift was schemed to counter run personnel that align in a pass alignment, as it should eek more pass rush out of our base personnel, while at the same time weakening our run front. The nice thing about the shift as executed, being an in-stance shift late on the play clock, the O isn’t left with time to audible back into a run play. When Dom Capers was Miami’s defensive coordinator, a similar shift was extremely common and effective (their top pass rusher went on to earn DPOY honors). I would assume that if it proves to be effective, the shift would become a defensive audible (if it isn’t already) to be used if presnap “tells” give away a pass to Barnett/Hawk (whichever ILB calls D audibles). Interestingly enough, playing Pickett at LDE and Raji at NT makes this shift much more effective than if the opposite were true.
I do see the interior of the defensive line this year in nickel defense a cut above what was on the field last year. Raji pushes the pocket better than Jolly did. Raji-Jenkins is pretty much what we’ve seen thus far out of the starting defense. Given how good he has looked, it is almost a given that a Neal-Jenkins nickel interior exists, or is in the works. Mike Neal is a much better pass rusher than Jolly was, clearly already the 2nd best among the big men. I think that Neal really is one of the keys to improvement this season. He is so much better already than even the most optimistic among fans thought possible. Defensive lineman typically take a long time to adjust to the pro game. Mike Neal already looks like he will one day be a star. The Neal-Jenkins interior this season can be every bit as threatening a pass rushing group as the Williams-Jenkins interior DL that the Packers fielded in ’07. The biggest worry that I have is that Neal could hit the rookie wall late season. Hopefully staying in more of a situational/rotational role will prevent that in him.
I think that the decision to release Toribio is based heavily on the performance of Mike Neal. The question of how Raji is going to be rotated was answered by that cut. If the Packers kept Toribio, obviously Raji would be rotated on base downs. Dropping Toribio tells me that Raji will be rotated on nickel downs, Neal is the obvious rotation man (though we could see some Harrell too). This tells me the coaching staff thought that Raji’s nickel rotation is a better pass rusher than his base rotation was a run stuffer.
This then brings me to one of our biggest flaws in preseason up front. Aside from the lack of outside pass rush, our OLB’s had a rather severe lack of outside pocket contain. Twice TD’s were given up due to a lack of pocket containment. This is one place where our starting OLB’s are a significant cut above our backups. Jones and Matthews both have really good play awareness, and both have an exceptional short area burst. A QB that gets out of the pocket doesn’t nearly have as much time outside when our starting OLB’s are in the game. Both disengage their blocking faster than the backups do, and both are much faster than the backups at chasing a QB to the edge. I’m not sure that either of the TD’s that Collins gave up in coverage during the preseason would have occurred if our starting OLB’s were in the game.
And then the coverage. Collins clearly wasn’t giving it his all until the 3rd preseason game. The first two games he seemed to be giving a token effort at best. Elite safeties do a lot for a team’s pass coverage, and in the first two preseason games, we were playing without an elite S. In the 3rd game, Collins tried, we clearly still have our elite S. There was a pretty big difference. Unfortunately Peyton Manning took advantage of some of the on-field coaching that Collins was giving to rookie Morgan Burnett, but that’s fine as long as it doesn’t carry over to the regular season.
Tramon Williams is really one of the key defensive players this season. He’s shown continuous growth throughout his career so I’m not really concerned, but should he take his game to the next level, the Packers defense will be a whole lot better off. Not that he is bad, but elevation of his play will really put the finishing touch on the defense. His play, in my opinion, can be difference between an above average defense and an elite defense. Sam Shields as a nickel corner is very intriguing. Unlike all the times in the past few years where Bush at nickel, Shields can actually catch the ball (unlike punts, but that is a different story). Most people forgive Charles and Tramon in coverage when they give up plays, because they make so many big plays as well. Bush doesn’t really give up that many more plays, however a complete lack of big plays on his part leaves fans with a purely negative taste. Shields adds an additional ballhawking element to our D compared to the past, as does rookie safety Morgan Burnett. Even moreso than the Packers had in the past.
The Packers starting defense was pretty good in the preseason at two key things, big plays and on 3rd downs.
The Packers pass defense did give up a lot of passes in the preseason, but none of them would be referred to as bombs. The defense was able to contain the passing to short and intermediate routes. They were effective at breaking up deep plays, partially due to the coverage played much of the time on first and second downs. But the players executed and did not get burned deep.
The Packers starting defense had a very good 3rd down performance throughout preseason. Two years in a row the starting defense’s 3rd down performance in preseason is very overlooked, and 3rd down performance is perhaps the best barometer stat that exists to judge team performance. In 2009 the Packers defense was horrendous on 3rd downs in the preseason (by far the worst in the league, way over 50%), despite giving up very few points. In 2010 their defense gave up a lot more points, but the 3rd down performance drastically improved to a borderline elite number (33% against starting QB’s). Last year I was very cautionary because of our bad 3rd down performance, basically I felt that we were seeing a mirage that wasn’t going to carry over to the regular season; 3rd down performance doesn’t lie. And the Packers defense struggled at first during the 2009 regular season. This year I think that we are seeing a mirage as well, but in the exact opposite way, they are actually performing much better than they appear to on the surface. Holding the Colts starting offense, who have been one of the league’s top 3rd down performers on offense for many years, to less than 30% on 3rd downs, is pretty darn good play by the Packers defense.
There are a lot of questions with the Packers defense, but overall it has been a collection of trees that really doesn’t look a whole lot like a forest. But the forest is there, I think that the defense is going to be much better than it is given credit for right now. We got a lot of look at the underbrush in preseason, and a look at some bark, but most of the time, the redwoods in the forest were hiding, and the light was to dim to make out any shapes. But there is a forest there, when the lights are turned on in the regular season and all the biggest trees are visible, fans will see that there is a very fine forest there indeed.