Patience pays off for Packers' defense

November, 18, 2010
11/18/10
12:00
PM ET
We fretted. We frowned. We looked under rocks to make sure we weren't missing anything. Could it be true? Did the Green Bay Packers largely stand pat this offseason after the late-season collapse of their pass defense?

Yes, they did.

And guess what?

Nine games into the 2010 season, the decision seems validated.

After a mild shuffle of existing personnel and the surprise emergence of a rookie nickelback, the Packers have the NFL's No. 11 pass defense. As the chart illustrates, they rank first in the league with 28 sacks, are second with 14 interceptions and have held opposing quarterbacks to the second-worst passer rating in the NFL (68.3).

I realize we've just passed the season's midpoint, and that both of last year's nightmare games -- against the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals -- came after Week 14. But to this point, at least, the Packers appear to have chosen the correct path. Speaking via conference call this week, coach Mike McCarthy said he was confident that last year's rough edges would smooth naturally in the second year under defensive coordinator Dom Capers.

"We really just stayed the course," McCarthy said. "... The initial year is always the biggest challenge, which is obvious. A lot of times you end up putting in a lot more volume, because you are teaching fundamentals and you are teaching concepts that you need to put in, but you may not necessarily use because they are building blocks for other concepts and variations that will come off of that. That was no different with us. Any time you go through year one, there is a learning curve, and in the offseason you have a chance to take a step back and tailor it more specifically towards your team and towards your players. I think we've been able to accomplish that in Green Bay."

Typically, however, scheme adjustments can only take you as far as the skill level of your players allows. So to some of us, staying the course was inviting a repeat of the same problems. It was hard to understand how the same players -- or, in the Packers' case, a group they hoped to return from significant injuries -- would perform substantively better.

[+] EnlargeTramon Williams
AP Photo/Bill KostrounTramon Williams has performed well enough that the Packers felt comfortable releasing Al Harris.
And for the record, the Packers have gotten almost no help from that group, including Al Harris (waived), Atari Bigby (just returning from an ankle injury), Brandon Underwood (mostly special teams), Will Blackmon (waived) and Pat Lee (special teams). But here is what has changed:

  • The consistency, if not big-play ability, of nose tackle B.J. Raji has helped the Packers navigate a number of injuries on the defensive line. Raji has 2.5 sacks and 36 tackles, but the best thing he has done is start and play extensively in all nine games.
  • Linebacker Clay Matthews, already the Packers' top pass-rusher, has emerged as the best in the league. A player with 10.5 sacks in eight games can single-handedly elevate any defense.
  • Cornerback Tramon Williams has proved worthy of replacing Harris in the starting lineup. He has three interceptions, 12 defensed passes and is on a Pro Bowl pace.
  • Bigby's absence has hardly been felt, thanks to four solid starts from rookie safety Morgan Burnett and five more from the surprisingly efficient Charlie Peprah.
  • Rookie Sam Shields, signed originally as a kick and punt return specialist, emerged from nowhere to win the nickel job. His speed and athletic ability are evident, but his quick technique advancement has been stunning.

Some of what you just read represents reasonably expected progressions for players from one year to the next, especially in the case of Matthews, Raji and Williams. But no one from the Packers could have told you that Peprah would play well enough to keep Bigby on the bench following his return from ankle surgery. And even McCarthy admitted that "everybody was a bit surprised" that Shields proved ready to play so quickly.

At the same time, that's how good teams come together -- with equal parts design and good fortune. Again, the Packers have 44 percent of their regular-season schedule left in front of them. But the bottom line is they have improved upon their most glaring offseason weakness, and the resulting progress is a big reason the Packers are tied for the NFC North lead.

"We all did some soul-searching in the offseason, trying to figure out what happened in those games," Williams said. "... I don't think it was so [much] the players and the coaches. It was just one of those deals to where we weren't all on the same page at the same time. Now that we are here in the second year, we have another year under our belt and we all understand the defense a lot better. I think that's what it's about."

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