Dom Capers and his new 3-4 defense for the Green Bay Packers have come under a lot of scrutiny since being established this year. When head coach Mike McCarthy decided to clean house and switch to the new scheme, it was seen as a bold move, but hopefully one that would help solve the problems of a lackluster defense.
A little over halfway through the 2009 regular season, the Green Bay Packers are sitting at 5-4, and many people have wondered if Dom Capers and his staff are really making a difference. Many have pointed to this past Sunday— when the Packers defense dominated the potent Cowboys offense— as an indication that things are indeed looking a lot better.
However, others point to the previous week’s devastating loss to Tampa Bay as proof that things are still shaky. (Not to mention the heart-breaking games against the Vikings, who seemed to march down the field freely on each possession.)
So where do the Packers really stand defensively? It’s hard to say. Part of the problem has been inconsistency from game to game. But even more of the analytical fog comes from the disparity among Green Bay’s opponents. The Packers have played some really good teams along with some really bad teams.
Of course, the defensive has also been hampered by poor special teams play and struggles to move the ball on offense. Please stay tuned for another article that analyzes defensive data based on field position.
In the meantime, let’s take a look at some overall statistics from this season as compared to last season. Hopefully, this should provide some indication of Dom Capers’ successes and/or failures with the new 3-4 defense.
2009 Season (9 Games)
23.8 (22nd )
19.9 (10th )
334.3 (20th )
282.3 (4th )
5.3 (16th )
4.8 (4th )
18.4 (14th )
17.3 (T-6th )
3rd Down Pct
38% (14th ) 13.1 att/g
33% (2nd ), 13.0 att/g
5.6 (T-18th fewest), 45.0 yds/g
5.6 (10th fewest), 40.7 yds/g
1.3 (T-19th )
2.0 (T-4th )
When looking at the defense’s overall numbers, it’s clear to see that— especially in the rankings— there has been a lot of improvement since last season. The biggest jumps in numbers show up in perhaps the most telling of the statistics: Pts/Game, Yds/Game, and Yds/Play.
Currently, the Packers are giving up, on average, about four points less per game— a little more than a field goal— when compared to the 2008 season. And considering the number of games lost last season by less than that amount, it’s fairly significant.
Additionally, the defense this year is allowing 52 less yards per game, which amounts to just over half the length of the field. This places them in the Top Five teams in the NFL in that category— a ranking fans could only dream about last year.
But one of the big statistics that people like to also point out is Yds/Play. While the raw numbers only show a difference of about half a yard from last year to this year, it should be noted that the range between worst (6.3 yds.) and best (4.6 yds.) teams currently stands at 1.7 yds. Knowing this helps to put the improvement in a better perspective.
On the negative end, the one statistic that has not really seen improvement is the number of penalties called on the defense per game (5.6 each season). Of course, this should not come as a surprise to any Packers fan. The small silver lining to this statistic, though, is that the team is generating slightly less penalty yardage given the same number of penalties.
2009 Season (9 Games)
131.6 (26th )
93.1 (4th )
4.6 (26th )
3.5 (T-3rd )
28.6 (24th )
26.4 (T-1st )
20 (27th )
3 (T-2nd )
60T (T-17th )
33 (5th )
20+ Yd Plays
15 (T-23rd )
4 (T-6th )
40+ Yd Plays
4 (T-25th )
0 (T-1st )
9 (T-7th )
7 (T-5th )
Before we get into the woes of the passing defense, let’s take a look at how far the rushing defense has come since last year. Some coaches believe that stopping the running game is the first step towards holding back the opposition. If that is truly the case, then the Packers are on their way toward being a dominant defensive unit.
The contrasts between this season and last season can really be seen across the board. Almost 40 less yards are given up per game, along with over a yard less per attempt. But more importantly, this season’s 3-4 defense has stopped the big running plays. The team is currently on pace to only allow half the number of 20-plus yard plays when compared to last season, and they have yet to give up a play over 40 yards.
Perhaps the biggest difference comes in the number of rushing TDs allowed. Even if the defense lets its current number double by the end of the season (to six TDs), it will still be less than half of last season’s allowed TDs (20). A marked improvement if ever there was one.
To top it all off, the Packers only need to force two more fumbles on running plays the rest of the season to tie their accomplishment from last season.
There really is no negative to this year’s defense when it comes to the run, and the numbers are showing it. Hopefully the team’s improvement in this area will allow it to start patching up the final piece of the puzzle: stopping the pass.
2009 Season (9 Games)
202.8 (12th )
189.2 (6th )
6.5 (T-6th )
6.6 (T-9th )
55.4 (3rd )
55.0% (T-3rd )
32.4 (17th )
30.9 (8th )
71.9 (4th )
76.2 (6th )
22 (T-21st )
17 (29th )
22 (T-3rd )
13 (4th )
70T (T-12th )
68 (20th )
20+ Yd Plays
41 (T-15th )
27 (T-21st )
40+ Yd Plays
11 (T-25th )
6 (T-20th )
27 (T-25th )
18 (T-20th )
Here’s where things start to get ugly. While Capers' defense has been an overall success this year, being able to stop the passing game has remained a problem. While there have been some improvements, there has also been some deterioration.
Let’s start with the good. This year’s defense is giving up about 13 less yards per game, which, while not a fantastic improvement, is still a step in the right direction. In addition to this, the Packers are on pace to generate more sacks than last season. Their ability to put pressure on the opposing quarterback isn’t quite where we want it to be this year, but again, it’s better than last year.
Now to the bad. There are quite a few areas where the defense has stayed consistent (if that word is even in the Green Bay vocabulary). Even thought that means it hasn’t gotten worse, it also means it hasn't gotten better. Yds/Play, Completion Pct, and Interceptions are the biggest culprits in this.
And finally…the ugly. The most notable statistic that has gotten worse is the number of 20-plus yard plays allowed. So far, the Packers have given up way too many of these big plays, which is probably what hurts them more than anything else. Even on the 40-plus yard plays, the defense is on pace to match its results from last season.
But what is really disheartening is the fact that the Packers have allowed 17 TDs through the air. They can only allow four more passing TDs the rest of the season if they want to remain underneath last season’s total, which wasn’t all that great.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
In general, the defense is improving. The Packers are finally containing opposing running backs and limiting overall yardage. However, they seem to have become more prone to the long passing plays. In a very simple way, this makes some sense. Focusing more on the running game can affect the focus on the passing game.
Of course, good defenses can do both. And the fact that the new 3-4 defense is giving up big bursts of yardage through the air suggests a number of things:
1) Not enough pressure is being put on the opposing quarterback, which gives him time to throw the ball deeper and lets the receivers work the field.
2) The players are still trying to get comfortable in the new 3-4 scheme, with regard to their assignments.
3) Some of the Packers' personnel might not be quite right for the job.
These conclusions are not new to the Packers community, but it’s important to note that the numbers defend the claims being made.
One thing can be certain, though. The Packers defense is becoming a bright spot for the entire team, and it should continue to improve. There are a number of factors involved, but as long as Dom Capers and his staff keep making the right calls and the players remain focused, there should be no reason why this defense can’t remain a Top Five unit.
After all, the game against the Dallas Cowboys showed the NFL what the Packers are capable of. They have set the bar, now they need to continue to set it higher.
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