I wish there were a tangible way to illustrate what the Green Bay Packers have been searching for defensively this offseason. Coaches call it "juice," a term that isn't in my edition of "Football for Dummies" and is hard to define but is probably best considered in the context of children drinking sugar-dense orange juice. They bounce off the walls with boundless energy, leaving a path of destruction no ordinary parent could stop.
In football, "juice" doesn't necessarily lead to sacks or tackles behind the line of scrimmage or any other easily-measured statistic. It's more about the energy a player employs, the stress it puts on an offensive line and the way it interrupts the rhythm of a quarterback's mental progression. It leads to mental mistakes by opponents, along with inaccurate throws and poor decisions.
The Packers' defense fell short in a number of key areas last season. One of the most critical deficiencies, it's now clear, was a relative lack of juice up front. Despite a pair of Pro Bowl players in linebacker Clay Matthews and nose tackle B.J. Raji, the Packers were too often neutralized -- both inside and on the edge -- and thus exposed themselves to the kind of big plays that left them with an NFL record for passing yards allowed (4,796).
The team's response has been notable as much for its methods and as its targets. General manager Ted Thompson broke from tradition on multiple occasions, dipping into veteran free agency to sign defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove and trading up three times in last week's NFL draft to select half of the six defensive players he opened the draft with.
When you put Hargrove in a group with first-round linebacker Nick Perry and second-round defensive end Jerel Worthy, you see a profile of exceedingly athletic players with the ability, in their own way, to be natural havoc-wreakers beyond the line of scrimmage. No one would admit to such a detail, and in fact Thompson claimed he had not so much as prioritized the defense this offseason, but I think it's clear the Packers have set out to ratchet up the juice among the defensive players they will use near the line of scrimmage.
"We've got to find a way to control the down and distance," defensive coordinator Dom Capers told reporters in Green Bay, "and [opponents getting] into predictable situations. … We can't give up the number of big plays as we did last year."
ESPN Stats & Information analyzed the Packers' defense on passes that traveled more than 15 yards in the air, finding that opponents gained an NFL-high 79 first downs and completed 21 passes of 30 or more yards in those situations. Coverage issues played a role in that, of course, but it's fair to say opposing quarterbacks must have felt awfully comfortable to have made so many downfield plays.
As the chart shows, the Packers' four-man rush was one of the worst in the NFL. All teams hope their standard rush can disrupt opponents, and that's where the root of the Packers' ills last season lies. When you see defensive players getting little movement beyond the line of scrimmage, that's a visual example of a lack of juice. When defensive players are getting into the backfield, even if they miss the quarterback or running back, that's displaying some juice. The hope is that Hargrove, Perry and Worthy can get the Packers' juices flowing a bit more in 2012. (See what I did there?)
We've already discussed Hargrove's potential impact, and it's worth nothing that defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said Hargrove's hard-charging personality has already had an effect on the position.
"He's another guy that has a lot of juice to him," Trgovac said. "He really plays hard every down. I think it's just kind of in his DNA to go full speed every down. Any time you can inject that into your room, [it's good]. ... He is always talking to those guys about how he's going to work hard every day."
Perry, meanwhile, brings with him a reputation for inconsistency at USC, but the Packers were enamored with the rare physical traits he will bring to outside linebacker and hope he will impose a significant pressure point on the edge. Both Thompson and defensive coordinator Dom Capers noted that Perry ran the 40-yard dash in 4.58 seconds and nailed a vertical leap of 38 1/2 inches even while weighing in at 271 pounds.
"He's an explosive player," Capers said. "… We obviously think he has the potential to do that and be the guy we're looking for at the edge."
New Minnesota Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil, who worked against Perry in practice at USC, suggested he is a physical freak. Even if he doesn't rack up sacks, the theory goes, Perry has enough speed and strength to collapse pockets and make quarterbacks uncomfortable.
"That guy looks like he's Hercules," Kalil said. "His biceps are bigger than my legs and he has the lower body of a horse. That plus his athletic ability and just how strong he is and his arsenal of moves [in practice] really made games easy for me."
Worthy has a similar combination of quickness and size, but the Packers also found him to have exceptional instincts and thus have high hopes that he'll move immediately to the point of attack.
"He's one of the better players I've seen in a couple of years in finding the ball," Trgovac said. "He'll add some juice to our front. He'll get off blocks and do some of the things we ask him to do. He's got some quickness to him for a big guy, and he anticipates the snap count very well."
If true, this offseason will be just what the dietician ordered for the Packers. Juice all around!