- Chris Sprow, ESPN Insider
The current Green Bay Packers are in a better position to win a Super Bowl than last year's team was as the regular season wrapped up, it just might be hard to see it. By the basic indicators, you could conclude this is a team that has regressed since 2011, when they went 15-1 in the regular season. But the basic indicators often lie.
A 15-1 record and the presence of star players can conceal pretty much anything, and last year's Packers are a perfect example. A year ago this week, the nearly-perfect Pack were pegged by Vegas as the team with the best odds to win the Super Bowl, a fitting prediction for a team that had outscored opponents by 201 points, and would have home-field advantage in the playoffs. But a massive problem had emerged for Green Bay: By the time the playoffs started, the Packers were a team completely incapable of pressuring opposing QBs.
You wouldn't have known it at the time, of course. Pregame montages showed Clay Matthews in full-on crouching cheetah mode, and Dom Capers is lauded as a defensive coordinator who can, yes, "Really turn up the heat, Goose!" But last year, that wasn't true at all. As a team, the Packers' sack percentage was last in the NFL for the season and they were even worse late in the year. During the final four games of 2011, they got to opposing QBs, on average, once every 49 drop-backs. Sack totals can lie, but in this case they didn't. Consider a Week 16 game against Chicago's porous offensive line. In that game, Green Bay had zero sacks of Josh McCown, and touched him just twice. If the pass rush was any worse, you'd look for evidence players were waiting until "Eight Mississippi!" before they rushed.
We characterized the 2011 Packers defense as "opportunistic" because of 31 INTs and 14 fumble recoveries, which led to a plus-24 turnover margin for the season, but that was just a wax job on a bad defense often facing teams that had to throw and take risks on offense as Green Bay scored at will. Headed into a playoffs where great QB play is the norm, the Packers were ripe to be upset. And when Eli Manning and the Giants did just that, the pass rush was a problem again. They sacked Manning just once, hit him five total times on 36 dropbacks, and an average secondary got shredded.
The pass rush might have been one significant culprit last season -- the overlooked but massive design flaw for a 15-1 team -- and it's an area where the Packers are improved this season. But everywhere else you look, you'll see the Packers haven't truly regressed like the record might imply.
Chris Sprow examines whether, with a much-improved pass rush and defense, and an offense not that far from matching last season's historic unit, the 2012 Packers might actually be better than the 15-1 Green Bay team of last season.