The 2011 Packers' Biggest Defensive Problems and How They Will Be Fixed in 2012
While the 2011 NFL season ended in disappointment for Green Bay Packers fans, the year was an extremely successful one. The team set a franchise record for wins in a season, Aaron Rodgers won the MVP and the offense turned in one of the best performances for an entire season the league has ever seen.
Still, the Packers were not perfect. The defense ranked last in total yards allowed and broke the NFL record for most passing yards allowed in a season. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers is known for producing strong 3-4 defenses, but last year was an exception.
Although there were many reasons for the defense’s drop in production, here are the five biggest factors and reasons why they will be improved in 2012.
The Loss of Cullen Jenkins
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Cullen Jenkins may have been the most underrated defensive player in the Packers’ run to Super Bowl XLV. He provided an interior pass rush that made up for the absence of a legit rusher opposite Clay Matthews. He recorded seven sacks in 2010, a hefty amount for a 3-4 defensive lineman. Jenkins' constant pressure up the middle prevented opposing offensive lines from doubling or tripling up on Matthews.
When Jenkins left for Philadelphia last year, the Packers’ pass rush struggled mightily when no one else on the defensive line could apply a strong interior pass rush. The Eagles, meanwhile, formed one of the NFL’s premier defensive lines with the help of Jenkins.
Ted Thompson addressed this need when he drafted Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels in the second and fourth rounds, respectively. While they won’t be as effective as Jenkins was since they are both still rookies, Daniels and Worthy can still provide some help on obvious passing downs.
No Production from the Other Outside Linebackers
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This was probably Green Bay’s biggest hole on defense last year.
The pass rush in a 3-4 defense comes primarily from the linebackers, and Clay Matthews was the only constant pressure for the whole year. Frank Zombo and Vic So’oto couldn’t stay healthy. Erik Walden had a disappointing year after a strong 2010 postseason performance. Brad Jones has never been a strong pass rusher—he’s only recorded five sacks in three years of play. Matthews constantly faced double and triple teams when offensive lines had no reason to worry about the pass rush from the opposite side.
This problem was also addressed by Ted Thompson through the draft. First rounder Nick Perry carries a tremendous amount of upside to be the long-term complement to Clay Matthews. They could become the next Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis or Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora.
Just like Worthy and Daniels, Perry is far from his top form, but he can provide some instant pass rush when needed.
Tramon Williams' Injury
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Tramon Williams blossomed in 2010 as one of the league’s top cornerbacks. He never enjoyed the same success in 2011 after injuring his shoulder in the season opener against the New Orleans Saints.
Williams sat out for only one game and admitted during the offseason that his return came too soon.
Williams is a very physical cornerback. His style of play requires his entire upper body to stay strong and healthy, and his shoulder was neither for the last 14 games of the season. This was a huge problem, considering he was always guarding the opposition’s top wide receiver.
Williams still isn’t 100 percent, but a whole offseason of rest and rehab has allowed his shoulder to vastly improve. By the time September 9 rolls around, he will be much closer to full strength.
Expect Williams to be closer to the 2010 version than the 2011 one.
The Loss of Nick Collins
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When Nick Collins suffered his career-ending neck injury in the second game of the year, Green Bay’s defense took an immediate huge blow that couldn’t be overcome. Collins was a three-time Pro Bowler in the middle of his prime. He was the heart and soul of the Packer’s back seven. He made up for others’ mistakes and made countless huge plays to boost the team’s morale.
While fellow safety Morgan Burnett started 2011 strongly, his play tailed off later in the season. Charlie Peprah, Collins’ replacement, intercepted five passes as a substitute, but he gave up many long plays that outweighed the positive.
While there is no replacement that can live up to Collins’ value, second-year safety M.D. Jennings is showing promise. As an undrafted free agent last year, Jennings made Green Bay’s 53 man roster and was a starter on special teams.
Jennings created buzz during mini camps and OTAs as the starting safety opposite Burnett on the first team defense.
He’s not going to be a Nick Collins, but Jennings is showing potential that should transform him into a solid starting safety.
Always Playing Ahead
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Sometimes, the greatest enemy to the Pack defense came from the opposite side of the ball.
Aaron Rodgers and company scored so often with such ease, the opposing teams were always battling from behind, and therefore had to pass while battling the clock. When teams are constantly passing the ball on a worn down secondary while facing minimal pass rush, huge chunks of yards result.
The defensive situations will not change. Barring significant injuries to the offense, the Packers will still score at will, leaving the defense in a position of trying to stop huge passes the entire game.
Dom Capers, however, will be more prepared this time around having faced such attacks for an entire year. Capers is one of the best assistant coaches in the league. He will figure out a way to limit other teams’ effectiveness in their come-from-behind strategies.