Through seven games this year, the Green Bay Packers haven’t been anything like the defense that was one of the NFL’s best by the end of 2010.
Then again, at this point last year they weren’t as good a defense as the one that swept through the playoffs, either.
The Packers grew into a top defense in 2010 for many reasons, most importantly because several players emerged as key performers as the season went on.
The main question as the Packers hit their bye is whether the same thing will happen this year. It’s also worth asking whether their defense will need to be as good to win another Super Bowl, considering they have possibly the best offense in the league.
As a starting point, it must be noted that for all the yards the Packers have allowed, in important ways their defense is performing about as it did through seven games in 2010. This year’s Packers rank substantially worse in yards allowed (No. 27, to No. 18 last year), passing yards allowed (No. 31 to No. 14) and sacks percentage (No. 17 to No. 6), but they’re better in points allowed (No. 9 to No. 12), red-zone defense (No. 7 to No. 16) and interceptions (No. 4 to No. 6).
Of the most commonly cited statistics for judging a defense, total yards might be least telling. The one that matters most, aside from points, probably is opponent’s passer rating.
There, the Packers aren’t as good as they were seven games into 2010, when opposing quarterbacks had a rating of only 72.6. But at 79.3 this year, they still rank a notable No. 9 in the league.
“The formula for us right now is, as long as our quarterback continues to play the way he is, and if we can keep our (opponent’s) quarterback rating down into the 70s,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said this week. “Aaron (Rodgers) right now is (125.7 points). That’s a pretty good differential. So I think that’s a winning formula.”
Just for comparison, Rodgers’ passer rating last year after seven games was 89.0, a 16.4-point differential from opponents, and the Packers were 4-3. This year, with a 46.4-point differential, they’re 7-0.
In 2010, the Packers grew from a decent to an elite defense — they finished No. 2 in points allowed, No. 1 in opponent’s passer rating and No. 5 in yards allowed — for several reasons.
One of the biggest was defensive lineman B.J. Raji becoming a disruptive force the second half of the season. Just as notably, Capers’ growing confidence in rookie cornerback Sam Shields in one-on-one coverage in the nickel package, which Capers deployed on about two-thirds of the team’s defensive snaps, freed the defensive coordinator to open his playbook and match playmaking cornerback Charles Woodson in a cat-and-mouse game with quarterbacks.
There were smaller factors as well. The midseason pickup of defensive end Howard Green helped Capers shore up a struggling run defense by deploying in spot duty a defensive line featuring three run-stuffers of 340 pounds or heavier. Also, inside linebacker Desmond Bishop probably played a little better as an injury replacement for the battered Nick Barnett.
This year, the Packers appear to miss defensive end Cullen Jenkins, who departed in free agency. Jenkins wasn’t a great player, but he was a good inside rusher whose presence gave teams a third rusher to worry about, along with Raji and Clay Matthews. This year, there’s only two.
Second, safety Nick Collins’ season-ending neck injury in Week 2 probably is showing up. The Packers gave up plenty of yards in the two games he played, so you don’t want to overstate the loss, but he is a Pro Bowler still in his prime and as the last line of defense had to give Capers more play-calling flexibility.
Also, cornerback Tramon Williams, diminished by a badly bruised shoulder in the opener, hasn’t been the exceptional cover man he was in 2010.
And Woodson, though still a difference maker because of his unmatched instincts as an interceptor, has missed several key tackles because of declining athletic ability at age 35.
So where could help come from in the second half of the year?
Second-year defensive end Mike Neal looked like the best possibility to juice the pass rush if he returned from knee surgery shortly after the bye, but his balky recovery suggests it’s not a given he’ll be back this season.
Maybe Frank Zombo can bring a little something to the pass rush at outside linebacker after missing six of the first seven games because of injuries (shoulder blade, knee).
Williams’ shoulder is healing, and even if still sore, no longer inhibits him from playing press coverage.
And maybe someone such as undrafted rookie Vic So’oto will come out of nowhere. So’oto missed the first three games because of a back injury and is having trouble getting on the game-day roster because of special teams deficiencies, but considering the Packers haven’t had much rush out of the outside linebacker spot opposite Matthews, it’s a wonder they haven’t at least given So’oto a few snaps to see if he can help. He flashed pass-rush ability in training camp, and it has to count for something that two of his sacks in the preseason were against the starters for Indianapolis and Kansas City.
Can the Packers’ defense make a midseason jump like last year? Maybe. Who knew, for instance, the player the undrafted Shields would become? Or that Raji would be a game changer the second half of the year?
For now, though, the Packers are giving up big yards but winning with turnovers and red-zone stops. There’s reason to wonder whether that eventually will bite them against a good team in a big game. Or maybe they’ll just outscore their defensive shortcomings when the games count most.
“We’re in tune with what needs to be done,” coach Mike McCarthy said this week. “Defensively, we’re giving up too many big plays, and that’s the bottom line.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.