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Green Bay Packers Aim To Stuff the Run and Stop Losing Fourth-Quarter Leads

Al PavlikContributor IMay 17, 2009

GREEN BAY, WI - MAY 1:  Defensive lineman B.J. Raji #90 runs as he participates in practice drills during Green Bay Packers Minicamp at Don Hutson Center on May 1, 2009 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Scott Boehm/Getty Images)

If the Green Bay Packers hope to do better than last year’s disastrous 6-10 season, they have to do a better job stopping opposing running backs.

The Packers ranked very high in pass defense last year.  If you go by the passing percentage of opposing QB’s, the Packers were third toughest, allowing a 55 percent completion rate.  As strange as it may sound, the top defense in that category (Baltimore) still allowed completions more than half of the time (52 percent).  

If you judge by passing yards allowed per game, the Packers ranked 12th among the 32 teams in the NFL with a 202 yard average. Not bad.

So how did the Packers end up on the short end of the score so much?

The run defense was a big reason. Not only did Green Bay rank near the bottom in rushing yards allowed (26th). They were even worse in allowing opponents to convert fourth downs into first downs. They allowed it 74 percent of the time, third worst in the league.

That inability to stop the opponents fourth down attempts played a big role in the Packers losing a lot of leads late in the game. Green Bay lost five of their last six games last year and in the last four losses, the defense couldn’t preserve a fourth quarter lead. Green Bay ranked second worst in fourth quarter points allowed, giving up 135.

So there was no mystery what the Packers needed on draft day this past April. They needed a top defensive lineman and they may have found one. Green Bay made 6'2", 337 pound B.J. Raji from Boston College their number one pick.

Raji was a leading defensive lineman in the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2008 and had a strong showing in the Senior Bowl against many of the nation’s top offensive linemen.

The Packers also drafted 275 pound defensive end Jarius Wynn from Georgia in the sixth round. 

In addition to the new talent, the Packers’ hopes to improve their run defense will depend on the how strong two returning defensive ends, Cullen Jenkins and Justin Harrell, come back from injuries.  

Jenkins started 2008 strong with several sacks but was lost for the season just four weeks in when he tore a pectoral muscle. Harrell, the team’s number one pick in the 2007 draft, has also had injury problems in his first two season. Both Jenkins and Harrell are expected to be ready for the start of training camp in July.

Also returning for Green Bay’s front line on defense will be Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly and Mike Montgomery. Each played well at times in 2008 but were stretched thin due to the injuries to Jenkins and Harrell. Having those two back and adding Raji to the mix should give the Green Bay defense a good chance to redeem itself in 2009.

The coordinator responsibilities for that defense belong to a new man this year.  Head Coach Mike McCarthy fired most of the defensive coaching staff shortly after last season.  In mid-January, before the Super Bowl was even held, McCarthy hired his new coordinator, Dom Capers.

Capers has already announced he will switch the Packers to a 3-4 defense from a 4-3 alignment. In a sense that could be a gamble since the 3-4 features only three down lineman and four linebackers as opposed to the four down lineman used in the 4-3 that the Packers used last year.

Why would a team that needs to improve its run defense change to a system with one less big man up front?

It’s because the 3-4 can be effective in stopping the run, too. In the 3-4 linebackers play a big role in clogging up running lanes and tackling ball carriers before they rip off big gains. 

The Packers are planning on that plus Coach Mike McCarthy has said in his experience, the 3-4 is harder to game plan against. McCarthy has also said the team will still use four down lineman on occasion.

Capers comes to the Packers with a strong pedigree. He was a special assistant and secondary coach for New England last year, so he contributed to building a defense that ranked tenth in fewest yards allowed. 

Two years ago Capers was the defensive coordinator for Miami. That defense finished the 2007 season ranked 23rd.  Capers also was an NFL head coach with Carolina and Houston earlier in his career.

The Packers should improve on last year’s disappointing six win total, which came one year after a 13-3 season in which they reached the NFC championship game and went into overtime before missing their chance to advance to the Super Bowl.

Perhaps the best reason to expect more than six wins from the 2009 Packers is how close they came to it last year. Seven of their 10 losses came by four points or less. If they had won just three of those seven close games, they finish 9-7 instead of 6-10. 

That still wouldn’t have gotten them into the playoffs. That still would have been a big step back from the 13-3 success in 2007.  But it would have been a winning season.

Falling all the way down to 6-10 might have its benefits, though. It caused the house cleaning in the defensive coaching quarters and made the focus in the draft on defense as well.

The Packers will have a lot to prove. With a new, experienced defensive coordinator, a healthy veteran line to start the season and the No. 1 draft pick beefing up the Packer front, the defense should be a lot better.

On the offensive side, quarterback Aaron Rogers had a strong season in his first year as the starting QB. But his offensive line may have less experience this year and that could cause problems. 

As of mid-May, tackle Mark Tauscher was still a Green Bay Packer. But there has been speculation in the press that Tauscher won‘t be in a Packer uniform for the 2009 season. 

Even though he is the most experienced member and the leader of the offensive line, Tauscher is a free agent and he will be trying to make a comeback from an ACL injury that knocked him out in week 14 last year.

Coach McCarthy was quoted in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel in late March as saying the Packers have interest in re-signing Tauscher but that his rebab from the ACL injury will not be complete until the regular season is already underway. 

That may cause the Packers not to re-sign the veteran tackle. When the Packers drafted two offensive lineman in the middle rounds in April, some saw that as a signal that Tauscher will not be re-signed.

The Packers running attack ranked 17th in the league last year while Rogers led the passing attack to a top 10 ranking (eighth). Halfback Ryan Grant will be back hoping to top his 1,200-yard season from last year and get back to the 5.1 YPC average from 2007.

Whether Rogers can again lead the Packers to a top 10 passing attack and whether Grant can have another strong season carrying the ball will depend a lot on whether the offensive line can get the job done. 

They have a good nucleus of veteran lineman returning. That includes Chad Clifton, Scott Wells, Tony Moll, Jason Spitz and Daryn Colledge. But if Tauscher does not return, the chemistry will be different.

Green Bay should definitely do better than 6-10 in 2009. They have addressed their defensive problems and injured players should be healthy. A very optimistic expectation might be that they could go 10-6 and make the playoffs this year. 

Even a less optimistic forecast probably does not see them having another season as bad as 2008 and might expect them to improve to 8-8.

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