Previewing the Packers defense in 2014
This story appears in the September 2014 issue of Packerland Pride magazine. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Okay, so, there are a lot of things you could say about the Green Bay Packers defense a year ago. And you, like me, have already read, thought, or said most of them. It wasn’t always pretty, that’s one measured way of saying it.
For all the questions that 2013 left us with when it ended, though, a good portion of last season won’t factor much, if at all, into 2014. This is mostly exciting. With returning players, new additions, the same defensive coordinator with a re-tweaked approach, and, fingers crossed, some good luck on the injury front for a change, the Packers defense should be easier, quite possibly even entertaining, to watch this season.
See, the thing about watching is that usually it is easy, maybe too easy, to watch a play happen and judge it based on the outcome. In an instant reaction to a play, it’s almost always focused on the player nearest the offensive guy with the ball, right? The Packers will without a doubt need better outcomes on more plays, to be sure, but getting there will require that plays get better starts.
Starts can be forgotten after you’ve seen the finish. But think about it like this: Any defensive play essentially starts as a clean, empty windshield. From the second the ball is snapped, though, little pellets, debris, giant bugs, maybe a bird, fly into its surface at high speeds. The windshield takes on nicks and dings, until one hits hard enough to start a tiny crack in the glass. Once that initial crack is set there is only so much time. It spiders out, spiking from that starting point as it stretches across the surface. You can try to make a temporary fix or wait as long as possible, driving on with a windshield still usable though the damage is visible. Eventually it gets hit in just the right spot by a final pebble and shatters completely. Such a big mess born from a tiny pockmark, a single well-placed stone.
Often, it’s that final pebble that gets the blame when you’re complaining to the uninterested mechanic, trying to explain away how it happened. But it always starts with the first knock, the first moment when the makeup of the windshield began changing from its intended look. On any play on the field, one breakdown affects everything and everyone else.
It could also be viewed in a bigger context. Like, perhaps, a season. Or as the defense was from, oh, say Weeks 9-13 and also part of Weeks 14, 15, and 16 last season.
What I mean by the whole windshield analogy is that it’s tempting to look at all the broken glass on the front seats and just blame the secondary. They were, in fact, the ones who allowed the completion, they were that last pebble. And it often hit hard: In 2013 the Packers allowed the second-highest average on yards gained per pass completion (via Pro Football Reference), a frightening 12.6 yards per catch. They did this on 332 allowed pass completions, only the 24th-highest total in the league. This suggests that when they did allow completions, opponents ate up receiving yards in big, hazardous chunks.
You might know this already, but DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) is a stat system developed by Football Outsiders. It measures every play in a season, taking into account and properly weighing special situations, such as when yards are most important, like plays in the red zone. Teams are then given a percentage they are either better or worse than a league average base, or zero percent. It’s a good way to judge a team in a way that includes and weighs the factors of a football game proportionately.
Defensively Green Bay was 14.4 percent worse than the average defense in 2013. This was the second-worst disparity in the NFL. And not to beat this already-very-dead horse, but as the season went on the cracks became more apparent.
Football Outsiders’ Weighted Defense stat goes a step further with DVOA, making early season games less and less a factor to a team’s overall percentage – effectively, Weighted Defense wants to show how well a team was playing towards the end of the season, when games in theory become more important. You might’ve seen this coming, but the Packers were 14.1 percent worse than the league average in Weighted Defense last season, 29th in the NFL.
Despite what was a sometimes-impressive display of holding off the 49ers in the playoffs, these numbers indicate that Green Bay was not improving overall on defense. They were one of the most consistent units of the season in that regard, which is of course not good here, either.
Unfortunately and in fairness to the Packers, with injuries mounting, there was little (clearly) they could have done. And playing defense in the NFL is hard. Offenses are good and every day finding new ways to make executing an effective defense even more difficult. The point here, though, is to preview by explaining that this recent past was an erosion of an already-shaky base. From Week 1, injuries piled up, the depth chart picked clean, and despite attempted quick-fixes, the defense simply kept tail-spinning.
The secondary and the safeties in particular took a lot of heat. It was easiest to see them after a catch. And you’ve probably heard about how they were lacking in the interceptions department. But – and I’m going to use my best Mike Ditka voice here, so hopefully you can hear it – in today’s National Football League, with the popularity of passing offenses and faster tempos, cover guys can only, well, cover for so long. They are at a disadvantage from the start, trying to guess the receiver’s every move. Rules favoring wideouts make the ground all the more uneven, as we saw this preseason.
Yes, Green Bay needs more impact plays made by the secondary. Yes, that means turnovers and passes defensed. But if a quarterback has a certain amount of time, and some don’t need much, chances are someone’s going to eventually get free and open. I won’t go through them all because I’m sure that maybe you’re sensing a theme here, but midway through last season Pro Football Focus measured each team’s pass rushing productivity, both as a unit and broken down into positional groups. The Packers were below average in sacks and pressure, in all groups and as a whole. On a positive side, their sack total (44) rose into the top 10 by season’s end, and at 7.5, their percentage of times sacking the quarterback on drop backs was also up there (7th) on a league-wide scale.
Whether the first defensive fissure is a misstep by a corner at the line, a safety shading the wrong way for a split-second, a defensive lineman getting hung up just enough, a blitz contained, a play’s effectiveness starts splintering from there. But rarely is a play run to perfection and, you know, some offensive players are really good at football. On certain plays they’re just better.
It doesn’t take much against a professional offense, or even in extreme cases the Jaguars, to lose a particular play. A lot of variables add up to one or the other: A play won or a down lost. But in those tiny fractures that make up the difference are where great playmakers come in with athleticism and instinct, changing the game, taking advantage of opportunities or wiping away mistakes like a squashed mosquito.
Before plays like that can be made, depth and fit and options have to be replenished, re-tooled, re-thought; until players are in the spots where they can hopefully be their best selves.
And I think what the Packers defense could be now, for starters, is a unit built on better ground from front to back. As constructed they have more depth at almost every position than they did a year ago. They let players go who were either ineffective or didn’t fit the new, somewhat-Seahawks-brand model of versatility they’re going for. Julius Peppers is a deadly threat to line up with Clay Matthews. Nick Perry, Mike Neal, Jamari Lattimore, A.J Hawk, and Brad Jones are either players needing to play well soon, appear to be getting more comfortable and ascending in Dom Capers’ system, or are at least reliable veteran presences.
The secondary has options for different packages with their personnel. It actually feels like a situation where not everything will need to be fixed quickly by rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Sean Richardson is impressing everyone, Micah Hyde should be able to slide across positional boundaries, some new blend of Big Nickel safety and slot corner. I think Morgan Burnett is going to start erasing some of last year’s more glaring memories. And corners, man, there are so many corners to be excited about. Casey Hayward’s return. The Sam Shields and Tramon Williams duo. Davon House continuing his steady improvement.
Up front – which is really going to work in conjunction with the linebackers when it comes to pass rushing and everything else – shifting mostly to mobile, young players, as seen this offseason. Mike Daniels is almost unquestionably the leader and voice of the group, maybe the defense, and if they appear meaner as a whole in 2014 he will have had a lot to do with it. After B.J. Raji was lost for the season, players like Josh Boyd will only see more opportunities to stand out and make an impact. Oh, and if Datone Jones turns out to be the biggest monster on this defense, they will be in great shape.
All those names I rattled off, even despite the early injuries, certainly feels like the makings of a lot of depth. I really think the alterations in philosophy, too, focusing more on getting the best players on the field, using more substitutions, letting fresh player after fresh player turn loose, are all equally important for explaining why I don’t think 2013 is going to happen again, now.
The Packers coaching staff is wise for addressing a weakness, an area they just weren’t doing very well in adjusting to, and, well, adjusting. Last season was just the most recent season highlighting the defense’s slippage. They are ready to try something a little bit different, in a way that isn’t panicky or harried or in need of instant validation. It’s not change for the sake of saying, Hey look everyone we tweaked our defense! It’s change because that’s what made sense.
Simply put, some change is just good. And some change takes time. In the defense’s case it was clearly acknowledged that some change was necessary – that some improvements were necessary if they’ll ever get back to where they want to be.
Obviously, the numbers from last year don’t matter much here in September of 2014. Thankfully. But as a way of looking ahead, knowing where the Packers were defensively not too long ago might only make it better when we see where they’re starting to go now.
Slap almost any statistical category you want down on the table and Green Bay probably doesn’t look great last year. Maybe – combined with losing Aaron Rodgers for a long stretch, then seeing what happened when the defense as previously constructed was asked to be more support than lean – last season was what needed to happen before these sort of schematic changes could be enacted. Maybe it had to get that bad. But that, like those stats, doesn’t matter anymore either. Green Bay’s 2014 defense is built on change and being able to do so quickly.
On a given defensive play everything matters. That’s throwing a blanket over a lot of technique, positioning, planning, roster-building, and outright skill. It’s true though. The tiniest imperfections, if not addressed or recognized, will at some point become the first rumbles before the ruin.
The thing with defense is, there will always be problems. And I think you can work around the cracks by pressure, by applying it more than you take it on. Pressure, pressuring the quarterback, being the uncomfortable element hitting their windshield, can make up for other problems on the field. But also, if you’re solid enough everywhere else, where once problems were simply masked now turn into real shots for making major breaks in the game. There will be many ways to gauge their changes. They will all start from the moments at the beginning of a play.
Getting to the point where you can survive things breaking down a little comes from starting in a stronger place. Even with that established, for the Packers now and future 2014 defense, questions will remain, waiting after every score allowed. Knowing that nothing always goes exactly right in football, though, the next best thing to do is make sure you have plenty of answers.