Green Bay Packers: Defensive Positional Grades for the 2010-2011 Season

Zach Kruse@@zachkruse2Senior Analyst IFebruary 17, 2011

Green Bay Packers: Defensive Positional Grades for the 2010-2011 Season

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    ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 15:  A.J. Hawk #50 of the Green Bay Packers calls a play in the defensive huddle to teammates including Clay Matthews #52 and B.J. Raji #90 against the Atlanta Falcons during their 2011 NFC divisional playoff game at Georgia Dome on
    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Green Bay Packers' Defense Grades Out Highly After 2010-2011 Super Bowl Season

    While everyone knew the Green Bay Packers were going to have an explosive offense coming into the season, very few expected the defense to have such a profound and lasting impact on the Packers' Super Bowl season. 

    Surely, many Packers fans can remember back to both the 2008 and 2009 seasons when the defense lost more than a handful of games for Green Bay. 

    However, that wasn't the case in 2010. In fact, it was quite the opposite—the defense preserved many of the Packers' biggest victories. 

    Liked it was with the offense, this isn't a 4.0 report card. A Super Bowl win is the ultimate goal, but no defense is perfect. 

    Let's get to the grades for the Packers defense.

Defensive Ends

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    PHILADELPHIA, PA - JANUARY 09:  Ryan Pickett #79 of the Green Bay Packers reacts in their game against the Philadelphia Eagles during the 2011 NFC wild card playoff game at Lincoln Financial Field on January 9, 2011 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo
    Nick Laham/Getty Images

    The base of the Packers 3-4 defense is the big bodies up front, and in general, that group played very well this season. 

    Ryan Pickett made the move from primary nose tackle to defensive end this season and was a consistent block-eater.

    At 340 pounds, Pickett still demands a double team, and we got to see what can happen when teams didn't do that in the Super Bowl. His burst through the line was one of the contributing factors in Rashard Mendenhall's game-changing fumble in the fourth quarter.

    Fellow starting end Cullen Jenkins was again hit by the injury bug, but was also a force against both the pass and run when healthy. 

    Jenkins had 7.5 sacks and 19.5 hurries which led all Packers defensive linemen, and his versatility to play any position along the line made him a valuable cog in the Packers defense.

    The midseason pick up of Howard Green proved to be critical for the Packers as his 360-pound body was a perfect fit.

    He played crucial snaps for the defense throughout his time in Green Bay and his pressure on Ben Roethlisberger was a contributing factor on Nick Collins' interception return for a touchdown. 

    Much wasn't expected out of either C.J. Wilson and Jarius Wynn before the season, but both were thrown into the action because of mounting injuries along the line and played well in their limited snaps (2.5 sacks combined). 

    Justin Harrell once again found himself on the IR, but rookie Mike Neal showed some star potential before joining Harrell on the injured reserve. 

    Pickett, Jenkins and Green were all standouts along the line, and Neal's potential cancels out the failures of Harrell. 

    Grade: B+

Nose Tackle

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    ARLINGTON, TX - FEBRUARY 06:  Doug Legursky #64 of the Pittsburgh Steelers readies to snap the ball at the line of scrimmage against B.J. Raji #90 of the Green Bay Packers during Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium on February 6, 2011 in Arlington, Texas.
    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Because B.J. Raji played over 85 percent of the nose tackle snaps for the Packers, he's really the only true player at that position. 

    Raji made the most of his time on the field, however. 

    The Packers' first round pick in '09 had the most tackles for losses (4.5) and batted balls (3) on the defensive line, and was tied with Jenkins in sacks (7.5). 

    His interception of Caleb Hanie for a touchdown in the NFC Championship was about as athletic a play you could hope for out of a 340-pound lineman, and it turned out to be the Packers' margin of victory. 

    Also, Raji certainly could have made the Pro Bowl, but his increased popularity and consistent improvement will give him plenty of chances to make the trip to Hawaii in the future. 

    Grade: A-

Outside Linebackers

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    ARLINGTON, TX - FEBRUARY 06:  Clay Matthews #52 of the Green Bay Packers looks on from the field against the Pittsburgh Steelers during Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium on February 6, 2011 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    The 3-4 defense is reliant on its outside linebackers to create havoc, and the Packers certainly have one half of that equation figured out with Clay Matthews. 

    Matthews registered 17 sacks in 19 games, leading the Packers, and his 55 hurries also led the defense. According to Bob McGinn of the Journal Sentinel, Matthews was double teamed on 35.2 percent of opposing passing plays. 

    Mostly because of injuries, the other outside linebacker spot was on rotation. 

    Brad Jones got the first shot at starting and held it down for the Packers first seven games before ripping up his shoulder.

    He displayed some pass rushing skills in '09 but wasn't nearly as effective (0 sacks) in his limited action this year.

    Brady Poppinga was slated to take Jones' spot after the injury, but he proceeded to blow out his knee in Week 6. His future with the Packers remains very much in the air at this point.

    Next up was Frank Zombo, an undrafted rookie out of Central Michigan.

    Zombo finished the year fourth in sacks (5) and sixth in hurries (16), and might have the potential to be the long term answer opposite Matthews. 

    Zombo's health didn't last either, so the Packers inserted Erik Walden, a free agent off the street.

    Walden started six of the final seven games (missing the Super Bowl) and had four sacks. His performance in Week 17 (13 tackles, 3 sacks) earned him NFC defensive player of the week honors, and he'll have a shot to win the starting spot next season.

    Robert Francois and Diyral Briggs also saw limited time filling in for the countless injuries to the linebacking corps, but made no significant contributions.

    Matthews is obviously the headliner of the group and for good reason. He'll figure to be one of the premier rush linebackers in the NFL for the foreseeable future. The other spot remains in limbo, however.

    Grade: A-

Middle Linebackers

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    ARLINGTON, TX - FEBRUARY 06:  Desmond Bishop #55 of the Green Bay Packers lines up on defense against the Pittsburgh Steelers during Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium on February 6, 2011 in Arlington, Texas. The Packers won 31-25. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/G
    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    A.J. Hawk and Nick Barnett were penciled in as the starters heading into the season, but Barnett's season-ending wrist injury changed the Packers' plans and future. 

    Desmond Bishop started 16 games and played well enough to earn himself a four-year/$19 million dollar extension. 

    He doesn't have great speed or instincts, but Bishop is a good blitzer and is always around the ball. His tackle of Desean Jackson in the fourth quarter probably saved the Wild Card game for the Packers.

    Hawk had arguably his best season in Green Bay.

    While he doesn't do one thing particularly well, Hawk is solid in just about everything the Packers ask him to do. "A jack of all trades but a master of none," as coach Mike McCarthy would say. 

    Green Bay has a big decision to make on Hawk as his base salary bumps to $10 million next season.

    Barnett, contrary to popular belief, was having a solid season when he went down. He was blitzing at a higher rate than ever in his career and he's still a physical playmaker when completely healthy. 

    Barnett will be another tough choice for the Packers, and it might come down to whether Hawk restructures or leaves.

    Brandon Chillar was still in the process of transitioning to ILB when he went down in Week 8. He's athletic and the Packers' best cover linebacker, but the injuries are a concern.

    Matt Wilhem never saw the field as linebacker, but contributed on special teams. His facemask in Atlanta during the regular season might have saved a touchdown, but also set the Falcons up with a short field to retake the lead. 

    The emergence of Bishop lightened the loss of Barnett and Hawk had a very solid season, but questions loom over the position heading into the offseason. 

    Grade: B


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    ARLINGTON, TX - FEBRUARY 06:  Tramon Williams #38 and Charles Woodson #21 of the Green Bay Packers warm up before taking on the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium on February 6, 2011 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Get
    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    A year after costing the Packers numerous games and a playoff win, the cornerbacks made a strong rebound this season. 

    Charles Woodson wasn't a candidate for his second straight defensive player of the year award, but he's still such a factor in creating havoc for opposing offenses. 

    He's beginning the transition to the cornerback/safety hybrid which is his future, but Woodson led the team in forced fumbles (5) and tackles for loss (7).

    However, Woodson also missed more tackles than any player (20), and led the team in penalties (12) and touchdowns given up (5).

    Tramon Williams turned into the secondary's true star. He only gave up one touchdown pass all season (85-yarder to Mario Manningham), and had nine interceptions and two fumble recoveries. 

    All three of his interceptions in the playoffs were game-changers.

    In Atlanta, he both took points off the board for the Falcons with an interception in the endzone and put points on it for the Packers with a pick-six before the half. His interception of Michael Vick secured the Packers win in Philadelphia. 

    It wasn't just the playoffs, however, Williams was among the best cover corners in the NFL throughout the season.

    If Williams was the star, than Sam Shields was the star pupil. He made plenty of mistakes (11 plays of 20 or more yards, four TD's given up) but also showed the potential of an All-Pro cornerback (4 INT's). 

    His interceptions in Chicago saved the day for the Packers, and his emergence allowed Dom Capers the luxury of being considerably more aggressive in play-calling.

    As he keeps learning the game, Shields and his physical skills could become unmatched in the NFL. 

    Pat Lee was a second rounder in 2008 but has yet to live up to the hype. His play in the Super Bowl probably saved his roster for next season, but he needs to keep getting better and in a hurry.

    Brandon Underwood has all the physical skills you want in a cornerback but has simply can't put it together. The coaching staff had high hopes for a breakout season, but he'll be fighting for a roster spot this summer. 

    Josh Bell never saw the field (IR), and Josh Gordy was simply an injury replacement. 

    Woodson, Williams and Shields were as productive and exciting a cornerback trio as there was in the NFL, and they anchored a much-improved pass defense this season. 

    Grade: A-

Free Safeties

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    ARLINGTON, TX - FEBRUARY 06:  Nick Collins #36 of the Green Bay Packers returns an interception for a touchdown against Rashard Mendenhall #34 of the Pittsburgh Steelers during Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium on February 6, 2011 in Arlington, Texas.  (P
    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Nick Collins once again put together a Pro Bowl season for the Packers, and he's proven to be one of the best safeties in the NFC. 

    Collins had five interceptions and probably dropped a handful more.

    While he rarely gets the credit on the national stage he deserves, his interception return for a touchdown in the Super Bowl officially put him on the map.

    With his speed, athleticism and an increasing knowledge of the NFL game, Collins remained a game-changer in the Packers secondary. 

    Jarrett Bush is also transitioning from cornerback to safety, and he played meaningful downs in the Super Bowl.

    While his interception was a great story, Bush still has a long ways to go before he's considered even an adequate coverage man. His true value is in special teams, where he blossomed this season into the Packers' best special teamer.

    Derrick Martin saw some playing time when injuries hit and had an interception of Jay Cutler in Week 3. However, his value also resides on special teams. 

    Collins is the focal point of the free safeties, but both Bush and Martin saw their value increased with improved play on special teams. 

    Grade: B+

Strong Safeties

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    CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 23:  Matt Forte #22 of the Chicago Bears runs the ball against the Green Bay Packers in the first quarter of the NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field on January 23, 2011 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    The Packers drafted Morgan Burnett with the intent of making him an immediate starter, and he came through. 

    Burnett started the first four games and displayed both an aggressiveness and a nose for the ball before an ACL injury cut his season short.

    If he can recover fully from the knee injury, his future looks bright in the Packers' defensive secondary.

    Journeyman Charlie Peprah stepped into the starting role after Burnett went down and was a solid contributor. He doesn't wow anyone with physical skills or blazing speed, but he makes up for it with smarts and preparation. 

    Peprah tallied almost 100 tackles and two interceptions on the season in 17 total games.

    Atari Bigby again was hit hard by the injury bug, and he saw the field scarcely on defense. He played well on special teams, but his future in Green Bay might be over. 

    Anthony Smith was reacquired after the rash of injuries but also didn't see the field much. 

    Burnett showed why the Packers moved up in the draft to get him early on, and Peprah was so solid in relief that those two will have a competitive battle this summer to decide the future starter. 

    Grade: B-


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    ATLANTA, GA - JANUARY 15:  B.J. Raji #90 of  the Green Bay Packers celebrates a defensive play against the Atlanta Falcons during their 2011 NFC divisional playoff game at Georgia Dome on January 15, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Get
    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    I think many thought the Packers defense would make strides this season, but it would have been hard for anyone to envision them becoming the steady, reliable group they were this year. 

    The defensive line featured some serious weight, at times having Green, Raji, Pickett and Jenkins all on the field together. That's somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,300 combined pounds. 

    Still, the Packers defense finished just 18th in rushing (114.9 yards/game) after finishing second in '09 (83.3). However, Green Bay gave up just 15 points a game this season—good for second in the NFL.

    A big part of that was the improved pass defense. The Packers ranked fifth in the NFL (194.2/game) in that category and was first in opposing passer rating (67.1). 

    Yet the most important factor was something that can't be statistically measured. The Packers improved by leaps and bounds in what some would call the "clutch."

    Three separate times in the postseason (Eagles, Bears, Steelers) the defense secured the win with a stop on the opponents' final drive. 

    They proved clutch in the regular season as well. Games against the Eagles, Lions, Vikings, Jets and Bears were all won or secured by the defense in the waning moments of the contest. 

    The Packers defense isn't without holes, but the job Dom Capers' group did this season was heroic by any measure I can come up with it. 

    To give the Packers defense anything but the highest grade wouldn't do them justice for the role they played in bringing Green Bay its fourth Super Bowl victory.

    Overall grade: A