It's been the fly in the ointment this year, masked by a strong offense. But after Aaron Rodgers went down, the Packers secondary was exposed for all the weaknesses that lay just under the surface all season. Now, even when Rodgers returns, if the defense can't step up, Green Bay's hopes at a playoff run are in serious jeopardy.
What has been an issue, exactly? The better question might be, well, what hasn't? Blown coverages, missed tackles, play-calling, game-plan adjustments, fatigue from spending too many long series on the field, inability to create turnovers...the secondary has some major adjustments to make—including at the personnel level.
While there have been missteps at both the cornerback and safety position all season, free safety Jerron McMillian has been Green Bay's single-worst defensive back, grading out with a team-low minus-10.5 overall score from Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Additionally, four Green Bay defenders (Micah Hyde, Jarrett Bush, M.D. Jennings and McMillian) have allowed opposing quarterbacks passer ratings of more than 100 into their coverages.
It's also hard to factor in just how much missing games due to injury has affected the performances of Casey Hayward and Morgan Burnett, both of whom have missed three-plus games.
Then, there's the recurring issue of whether Dom Capers keeps his job after this season. Are the problems ingrained in his schemes? Or are they a failure on the part of the players to make plays?
Remember that Capers has five players in his secondary who have experience levels of two years or less. Going from having some of the best players at their positions in Nick Collins and Charles Woodson to a crop of young talent absolutely makes a difference in production. Then add in that two of the unit's leaders (and starters) with four-plus years of experience, Sam Shields and Burnett, have been injured when needed the most.
Below are the steps the Packers need to take to turn this unit around, through the rest of this season and into the offseason.
1. Draft a Safety in the Second Round
There's no question safety is the position Green Bay will most need to address in the draft.
Currently only one safety, Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix, is projected to go in Round 1. It's unlikely he will fall to the Packers, and Thompson won't reach for another player at the position in the first. Instead, the Packers should take a look at USC's Dion Bailey in the second.
While Thompson might be temped to try and grab Bailey, projected in go in Round 2 or 3, in the third round for ultimate value, it's necessary to fulfill this need with the right player, and Bailey could be it. He's the third-highest ranked free safety in the draft, and would fit well into the scheme in place of free safety Jerron McMillian.
McMillian has graded out as the Packers' worst safety in 2013, with a Pro Football Focus grade of minus-9.6 specifically in coverage. He has allowed a team-high 150.9 opposing quarterback passer rating into his coverage, and for a defense that's struggling to force turnovers, has zero interceptions.
Bailey, a ball-hawk who already has four interceptions for the Trojans this season, could be a big asset in bringing the Packers back to a positive turnover differential next season. Currently, the Packers, a team which has averaged 26 interceptions over the last four seasons under Dom Capers, have a turnover differential of minus-six.
Bailey started his first two seasons at USC as a strongside linebacker before transitioning to free safety in 2013. Though he was small for the linebacker position, at 6'0" and 200 pounds, he excels in tackling both at the line and in the backfield—an area in which the Packers secondary is currently struggling.
Bailey could be moved around the field to suit different packages and still be depended upon to create turnovers and follow through on his tackles. He would be a huge step in the right direction for this secondary.
As for McMillian, he's under contract through 2015 and scheduled to make $1.2 million over that time, which may factor into the Packers' decision as to whether he stays on the team after this year.
2. Get That Turnover Differential in the Black
As mentioned above, the Packers had a league-leading average 26 interceptions over the last four seasons. Their turnover differential during those years never fell into the red; the lowest it dipped was seven in 2012.
Taking care of the ball offensively and taking it away from the opponent are the keys to a successful team, suggesting playmaking ability on both sides of the ball.
Through the first seven games of this season, when Rodgers was healthy, it wasn't quite as important that the Packers created turnovers. Sure, the explosiveness of the secondary decreased with the lack of turnovers, and the steep drop-off suggested deeper issues.
But as long as Rodgers and the offense were putting up more points than their opponents, and as long as they didn't give away the ball and give more opportunities to the opposing defense, the issue stayed quiet.
Now it's rearing its ugly head. Though backup Scott Tolzien is doing a decent job with the offense (having only been activated from the active roster on November 2), he's thrown five interceptions in the last two games.
Suddenly the offense scoring more points than opponent isn't enough, when important drives are cut short by interceptions two to three times a game.
When that happens, the defense has to put points on the board, or the simple mathematics of the scoreboard will not add up in the Packers' favor.
Tramon Williams gets major credit for his skillful interception of Eli Manning Sunday, but the interception opportunities the Packers have missed, namely two vs. the Eagles in Week 10, could have been game-changers in losses.
On the Eagles' first score of the game, a 55-yard touchdown pass from Nick Foles to DeSean Jackson, the secondary was literally its own undoing as Burnett tipped a pass Williams had gotten his hands around into Jackson's waiting hands.
"I saw the ball. I didn't see Morgan," Williams told Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
In the repairing process, improving communication might be a good place to start.
3. Consider Replacing Dom Capers as Defensive Coordinator
It's necessary to first state for the thousands of fans who call for Dom Capers' head each week that the Packers lose a game that firing him is not a band-aid solution that will fix everything that's wrong with the defense.
At some point, in peeling back the murky and subtle layers that comprise the problems of this defense, it's necessary to place the blame on the players' shoulders as well.
Some things are under Capers' control, such as setting the game day lineup, play-calling and making adjustments to the game plan. Capers needs to execute each of those responsibilities in order for the defense to be successful.
However, all a defensive coordinator can do is educate his players in the intricacies of the scheme and make sure they are situated on the field advantageously. When they can't do that, they deserve a share of the blame as well.
Before diving into the drop-off in Capers' unit's production this season, let's take a quick look back at how the defense has fared since he was hired in 2009 and the 3-4 scheme was instituted.
|Capers' Defense Rankings From 2009-2013|
|Year||Total Yards Allowed||Yards Allowed/Game||Total Points Allowed||Points Allowed/Game||INTs|
|2009||4,551 (2nd)||284.4 (2nd)||297 (7th)||18.6 (7th)||30 (1st)|
|2010||4,945 (5th)||309.1 (5th)||240 (2nd)||15.0 (2nd)||24 (2nd)|
|2011||6,585 (32nd)||411.6 (32nd)||359 (19th)||22.4 (19th)||31 (1st)|
|2012||5,388 (11th)||336.8 (11th)||336 (11th)||21.0 (11th)||18 (7th)|
|2013||3,509 (18th)||350.9 (18th)||239 (17th)||23.9 (18th)||29th (Tie)|
These stats only paint a small portion of Capers' successes and failures during his tenure in Green Bay, but they still suggest greater overall trends.
For instance, looking at the 2011 season when the Packers went 15-1 demonstrates how much a good offense can do to mask a bad defense. That year was by far the worst of Capers' time in Green Bay, but Rodgers and Co., averaging 417.4 yards per game, dominated time of possession and scored more than their opponents, getting the defense off the hook.
In 2013, that's not the case, and the offensive failings have highlighted the fissures in the defense in a big way.
Some of those shortcomings can be blamed on Capers. A major issue in Sunday's game against the Giants, for example, seemed to be predictable coverages, which the Giants exploited.
Perhaps the most ineffective schematic decision Capers keeps calling, which needs to be remedied, is continually only rushing three on 3rd-and-long situations. It's become predicable, and worse, it's not effective.
Predictability in coverages is one of the more egregious mistakes a coordinator can make, and that's on Capers. It's not fair to blame Clay Matthews for allowing the huge gain by Cruz when he was drawn 30 yards into coverage; he shouldn't be dropped that deeply into coverage in the first place.
However, the lion's share of the mistakes have been on the part of the players not executing correctly, not the scheme called. Capers can only take them so far.
Williams even admitted, per Dunne, that he knows it's not necessarily "scheme or Xs and Os" that have been the problem; the players simply haven't been making plays.
Firing Capers isn't going to make Williams be there in time to make that interception, or ensure those tackles aren't missed. Maybe it's time for a change, but inheriting this group, with all its issues, isn't going to make another coordinator look like a genius next year unless corrections are also made at the player level.
4. Tackle Better, Cover Better and Get Help From the Pass Rush
There's no denying that though issues may exist at the administrative level, the players must be held accountable for failing to make plays they're in position to make. Tackling, especially, is a huge problem, and missed tackles can't be hung on Capers. The below table shows how many tackles have been missed in 2013:
|Packers Secondary Missed Tackles in 2013|
|Week||Secondary Missed Tackles||Total Tackles Made by Secondary||% Tackles Missed by Secondary|
|Week 1 @ SF||6||24||20%|
|Week 2 vs. WAS||7||21||25%|
|Week 3 @ CIN||2||12||14%|
|Week 5 vs. DET||3||17||15%|
|Week 6 @ BAL||3||20||13%|
|Week 7 vs. CLE||0||14||0%|
|Week 8 @ MIN||7||16||30%|
|Week 9 vs. CHI||4||29||13%|
|Week 10 vs. PHI||3||20||13%|
|Week 11 @ NYG||0||30||0%|
There's a glaring stat in this table. Do you see it? The Packers secondary didn't have a missed tackle Sunday night vs. the Giants, according to Pro Football Focus, and made the most of the season with 30.
So if missed tackles are such a problem (and they are—just look at that percentages column), why did the secondary have one of its worst showings Sunday night when it didn't miss one?
Missed tackles alone don't tell the whole story; we have to look at coverage as a whole. That helps explain why the secondary could make 100 percent of its tackles and still struggle, as it did Sunday.
And coverage, both Sunday and the rest of the season, has been spotty at best. The secondary has consistently allowed a huge percentage of yards after the catch. Shutting down an opposing offense comes down to taking away the big play.
When the Packers haven't been able to do that, they've been unable to keep up with opposing offenses. Simple.
|Yards After Catch Allowed by Packers Secondary in 2013|
|Week||Receiving Yards Allowed||YAC Allowed||% of YAC|
|Week 1 @ SF||412||147||36%|
|Week 2 vs. WAS||320||170||53%|
|Week 3 @ CIN||235||140||60%|
|Week 5 vs. DET||262||115||44%|
|Week 6 @ BAL||342||197||58%|
|Week 7 vs. CLE||149||42||28%|
|Week 8 @ MIN||145||80||55%|
|Week 9 vs. CHI||272||141||52%|
|Week 10 vs. PHI||228||83||36%|
|Week 11 @ NYG||279||124||44%|
|Avg. Per Game||264 (21st)||113.4 (19th)||47%|
|Pro Football Focus|
As the pass rush goes, so does the secondary, most of the time. There's no doubt that Matthews, Nick Perry and Brad Jones being sidelined for a combined 11 games has hurt the front seven's ability to limit successful passes, which in turn puts more pressure on the secondary to make stops in the backfield.
Disrupting the quarterback, limiting his time and comfort level in the pocket and forcing him to go to checkdown options increases the secondary's ability to make plays in coverage.
Change starts with veteran leadership and healthy players, trickles down into executing the scheme and ends with making tackles and the occasional takeaway. Repairing the secondary is a multi-step process, which may need to start at the top with Capers and some player cuts, and will certainly need some fresh blood in the draft as well as a stroke of luck with veterans staying healthy.
Certainly, the return of Rodgers will cause things to click into place for the defense, as well. It's hard for any team to win games when its defense can't get off the field, especially in the fourth quarter, as I showed in this article. Rodgers' return will provide some much-needed relief for this unit as it focuses on staying healthy and improving play.