Green Bay Packers: Is Bob Sanders the Bobby Fischer of Defensive Strategy?

Don ZakCorrespondent IOctober 8, 2008

Many in Green Bay were shocked that Jim Bates was passed over for then-unknown Mike McCarty for the head-coaching position in 2006. But what baffled Packer fans even more was Little Mac’s decision to promote the existing Defensive Ends Coach Bob Sanders to the coordinator position.

With no previous NFL experience as a coordinator, the task of training a new corps of young and inexperienced Ted Thompson draft picks would fall upon Bob. And while Bob had much success in Florida, working with an unending supply of talented Gators, he had much to learn about the level of talent at the professional level for NFL teams. 

Because defensive units are more balanced in terms of talent in comparison to the collegiate level, the strategy the defense employs for each game is so critically important.

Last year’s strategies have been broken down, dissected, and studied by opposing teams in preparation for the next match, basically making them obsolete by season or week’s end. 

Sanders' approach, however, has been to utilize the existing gameplan, week in and week out, to consistently rush four and drop seven into deep coverage, especially in deep post patterns. That leaves the underneath and middle of the field exposed to quarterback check downs on third or fourth receivers.

Most opponents have had terrific success in third-down situations against us because of this. Viewers sit and watch with growing frustration as the defense plays the same consistent strategy that even the fans know has little true chance of success. This year, the defense has nine sacks through Week Five and nine picks. Last year, it was 12 sacks with five interceptions.  

The point is that this year, opposing quarterbacks have more time to throw downfield because the defensive line's pass rush is non-existent. Last year, with solid downfield coverage, the rush was able to collapse the pocket and sack such mobile quarterbacks as McNabb, Rivers, and Manning. The quality of our opponents compared to last year is not as good to warrant such a terrible performance on defense.     

Little Mac has begun pointing the finger at the line as the only solvable problem on defense. He stated on Oct. 6, that “the way we're situated and organized on defense, it's very evident when something goes wrong, someone not being in their gaps almost like we took turns doing it, was guys trying to do too much.”

Why does the line feel like it has to “do too much?” Is it because they know if they can’t do it, they will be on the field for an eight minute, 65-yard drive? Clearly this is a wake-up call for adjusting the defensive strategy to reflect the current situation of the depleted front line, injured linebackers, and missing key secondary personnel.

Coaches always respond not to their own glaring deficiencies in a loss but to the lack of “proper execution” of the vague “gameplan.” This argument was a topic of much discussion during Mike Sherman’s era and is essential a “chicken and the egg” argument. Which comes first, a poor gameplan or lack of player execution?  

Since the players are virtually the same from last year, perhaps, just perhaps, it’s the gameplan that is flawed. The Packer players know the system and play their hearts out but are seemingly out of position at the most critical aspects of each drive. 

Either way, it is the job of the head coach is to make the players, whoever they are at the moment, comprehend and execute your system. You can’t blame a safety for not covering the receiver if the play called for him to be out of position.      

All of this brings me to my point: Bob Sanders is the next Bobby Fischer. No, I don’t mean Bob will become the Grandmaster of coordinators or exhibit the gifted talents of a young man who mystified and excited the world with fascinating matches against the Soviet Russians.

Rather, after a brief spark of talent as the chief strategist for an outstanding 2007 season, he will slip into obscurity rather quickly by the declining performance of his squad and confusing Packer fans into the belief that our team is well coached.