If you talk to NFL executives, coaches, and coordinators you will hear nothing but good words and high praise spoken of Green Bay Packers Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers. Packer’s Head Coach Mike McCarthy seemed to all bit dismiss the notion of sacking Capers after his defense gave up an NFL playoff record 548 yards in the Packers divisional playoff loss to the now NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers. It’s a tough system to defend, the read-option/pistol system that they run in San Francisco, many say and few defenses can contain such a system. There is, no doubt, some truth to these assertions, but the idea that there is no way to contain one offensive strategy is just as absurd as blaming one individual player for a team’s success or failure. Rarely are things quite that simple. Still, the Green Bay Packers need to analyze why their defense was so incredibly poor against the run. This wasn’t just a one game problem, this was a season-wide epidemic.
The Capers supporters out there will point to the fact that the Green Bay Packers defense was last in the league the year before and that Capers improved the squad over the course of the year. While there is some truth to this argument one must first point out that it was Capers who presided over the NFL’s worst defense last season, so giving him credit for it’s mild turnaround seems lackluster at best. The truth of the matter is that the Packers have been bounced from the playoffs in four of the last five seasons despite having one of the most prolific and explosive offenses in the NFL and two of the all-time great quarterbacks in Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. So, what of it? Does the blame reside primarily within one man or is there plenty of blame to go around? That is the principal question that the Packers must be asking themselves as they head into this offseason. We’ve heard from lots of different coaches and executives that Dom Capers is universally respected among the ranks. Good for him. I’m glad he’s a classy guy and that people like him. What concerns me is that there aren’t a lot of people that are afraid of him and there seem to be far fewer people out there that are afraid of scheming against him.
The NFL is perhaps overly defined by teams that show extreme offensive prowess, but the truly great teams have good defenses as well. I’d argue that the two most consistently good teams in the NFC this year were the Seahawks and the 49ers both of which had very good defenses with the added dimension of a multi-talented offense on top of it all. The Packers were a very average defensive group overall. They got very little push from their defensive line (an issue that has been plaguing the team since they lost Cullen Jenkins to the Philadelphia Eagles) and have had to rely on stronger linebacker play from less than stellar players like Erik Walden, Brad Jones, and rookie Dezman Moses. After losing inside linebackers Desmond Bishop and his replacement D.J. Smith, the Packers struggled against the run all season and were very average against teams throwing the ball down the middle of the field. Part of the reason they were so soft inside was due to the loss of Charles Woodson and the prolonged injury to Clay Matthews, but you can only rely on your star players so much. At some point there needs to be a balance and if you look at the two teams that are playing in the Super Bowl there are lots of thing defensively that pop out at you.
When you look at who the San Francisco 49ers are as a defense it starts with their play at the linebacker position. Patrick Willis has been a star ever since he came into the league yet it wasn’t until the addition of Navorro Bowman that the 49ers got solid inside. With the addition of Aldon Smith last year, the 49ers found a linebacker that could rush the passer behind Right End Justin Smith. The 49ers actually do some of the same things with stints and stunts that the Packers would like to be able to do with their linebackers and defensive ends. The difference is that the 49ers defense has much more physical players at the linebacker position that can harass people inside whereas the Packers often found themselves over-matched at that position. A fast linebacker (unless he’s Clay Matthews) simply isn’t going to be able to contest with a huge offensive lineman all game long. You need some skill guys who can pressure a team inside those A-gaps and keep those speed guys out around the edges to contain the pocket and control the edge.
When you look at the Baltimore Ravens defensively, their scheme isn’t that much different than the Packers either. The difference with the Ravens is that they have extremely good play from their secondary. Their corners have played lights out this year, something that is even more impressive when you consider the fact that they lost their number one corner Lardarius Webb early on in the season. But the Ravens also have two x-factors in Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard (who still doesn’t get enough credit for destroying the hopes of Pats fans everywhere with his shots to Brady, Welker, Gronk, and now Ridley.) Ed Reed has been a physical safety his entire career, but he’s also been a ball hawk, something that has really helped their defense and with the addition of Bernard Pollard, this Baltimore defense seems to be running on all cylinders right now. The Ravens also have good linebacker play, but it’s not the kind of spectacular physical play you get from the 49ers, it’s more disciplined. The Ravens are sound defensively because their scheme has been strong defensively for so long.
If you look at the continuity the Ravens have had on defense over the years it’s pretty striking. They have never been a below average defense and seem to be adding all the right players to their scheme. How they deal with the loss of Ray Lewis after this season will likely define how their defense operates for years to come, but what they’ve done over the last thirteen seasons is remarkable. The Packers could learn a lot from both of these two teams. In both cases the core of players in these systems is strong, but their scheme is also very strong. The question the Packers need to answer over the offseason is whether the problem with their defense is scheme or personnel. My guess is that it’s a little bit of both and if the Packers want to contend for a Championship every year they are going to need a physical, ball-hawking defense like Baltimore’s to take some of the pressure off of Aaron Rodgers.