It can’t be easy being the Green Bay Packers defense these days. No matter what the unit does, they’re universally recognized as the anchor of an otherwise “perfect” team that could go undefeated and legitimately stake claim to a second straight title.
Currently, the Packers rank 31st in the league in passing yards allowed, 27th in total yards allowed and 17th in pass percentage allowed. Needless to say, there is a reason for the criticism they’ve been on the receiving end of as of late.
Excuses regarding injuries keeping guys out, players being limited because they’re playing hurt, and so on and so forth are falling on deaf ears. After having won their first title with even more personnel absent and even more doubt on just how they would be able to overcome hurdles, the latest batch of “yeah, but…”’s aren’t flying.
Of course, people not wanting to hear excuses for why the defense may not be firing on all cylinders just yet doesn’t change the fact that there are some valid excuses that do sort of explain the matter. In a recent piece, Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel brings up the interesting point of how the squad has increased the amount of blitzing they’ve done this year, and cites the team’s defensive woes as a major reason for why this is the case.
Part of it goes back to personnel. Originally, Green Bay was counting on being able to put legitimate pressure on the opposition via its defensive line. Unfortunately, after the team opted to not re-sign Cullen Jenkins and then Mike Neal went out with a knee injury, a major hole in the pass rush opened up. A hole that defensive coordinator Dom Capers has tried to patch up in a variety of intuitive ways, to mixed results.
The patch work, clearly, has featured Capers turning to the blitz a lot more this year. How much more? Well, as McGinn noted:
After rushing five or more 27% in his first season (playoff games included for all Packers' statistics) in Green Bay and 33% in his second, Capers is at 39.6% through seven games this season. Until Capers' arrival, Green Bay's highest blitz ratio since 1998 had been 30.9% under coordinator Jim Bates in 2005.
Capers really can't countenance rushing more than six. This season, he has rushed six or more 5.7%, which is up from 4.5% in 2009 and 3.7% in '10 but not even close to the risk-taking adventures of coordinators Emmitt Thomas (12.4% in 1999), Bob Slowik (10.6% in '04) and Bates (12.5%).
Sanders, Capers' predecessor, blitzed five or more 24.5%, 21.8% and 19.9% from 2006-'08. However, he rushed six or more slightly more than Capers all three years.
Ten days ago against St. Louis, Capers broke his record in Green Bay by rushing five or more 55.1%. Then he broke it with 56.8% in Minnesota. His previous high this year had been 40.7% against New Orleans.
So the increase is there, it’s noticeable, and it’s been sufficiently impactful – given the circumstances. Clearly, though, the Packers defense isn’t “all there” just yet, and the stats indicate this much. Is the reason for the ineffectiveness that the players are finding themselves out of their element? That the newfound increased devotion to blitzing is unusual for them, and something that requires a certain period of acclimation?
Head coach Mike McCarthy doesn’t seem to think so.
"We're an athletic team. That's the way we're built," he said. "When I talk about being up-tempo, people think it's just practice. No, it's the mind-set of the player. We want to change the tempo of the game offensively, and pressure does that for a defensive player.
"Even in a four-man (rush), if you're looping, you're creating activity. That's what I'm talking about on tempo. It's getting the game going."
This essentially boils down to a, “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” argument. Are the Packers blitzing more because of their notable personnel weaknesses, hoping that the increased pressure will suffice for their other holes? Or, are their struggles the direct byproduct of needless increases in blitzes that haven't actually benefited the unit a whole lot?
It’s probably too early to tell. Green Bay will likely keep blitzing at the increased clip that they’ve been doing it at thus far for the rest of the season, and by year’s end will have an answer as to whether or not the formula is successful.
Here’s a good measuring stick, guys:
Super Bowl Title – successful.
Anything less – not so much.