Maybe itís an oversimplification, but it wouldnít be that much of a stretch, either, to boil down the difference between last yearís and this yearís Green Bay Packers defense to one eight-letter word.
Last year, it was stellar. This year, it has been shoddy.
And partly because of their poor tackling, the Packers repeatedly found themselves in unfavorable situations in Sundayís defensive meltdown against San Diego. While the Packers held on to win with the help of three interceptions, they also allowed 38 points and 460 yards.
Much has been made about how the Packers miss Cullen Jenkinsí inside pass rush. And, clearly, they havenít generated much pressure from the middle. But the bigger problem, particularly against the Chargers, was that the Packers allowed 7.8 yards on first down and, therefore, had limited opportunities to tee off on quarterback Philip Rivers.
On five of their 11 third-down plays, the Chargers needed 3 yards or less to get a first down. They converted four times, struck for gains of 38 and 31 yards and scored TDs on four of those series. On the six possessions when the Chargers faced a third-and-four or more, they scored one TD. Otherwise, they lost the ball twice on interceptions, punted twice and settled for a field goal when they couldnít convert a third-and-13.
A year ago when the Packers closed out the season with six straight victories, including two games that Jenkins sat out, they were able to play defense on their terms ó at least until the second half of the Super Bowl when they lost Charles Woodson and Sam Shields. Beginning with the regular-season victory against the New York Giants through the first half of Super Bowl XLV, the Packersí defense faced 71 third-down situations.
On 34 of those, or 49 percent of the time, the opposing offense needed 8 yards or more for a first down. Opponents needed 3 yards or less for a first down only 24 percent of the time.
B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett have been stout at the point of attack. But they donít collapse the pocket. Quarterbacks are stepping up when they feel pressure from the outside, and thatís a killer.
The Chargers rushed four guys, got upfield and were able to play man-to-man with two safeties over the top. As a result, there were a lot of times when Aaron Rodgers couldnít find anyone open. Thatís what the Packers arenít doing: Getting to the quarterback with four guys.
But, then again, if the Packers were tackling better at the second level, teams wouldnít be in so many third-and-short situations. And when itís third-and-short and the other team keeps a back in the backfield, the defensive linemen have to honor the run first.
Whatís puzzling is Raji showed an explosive first step last year and weíre not seeing that. Maybe part of it is that in the base defense, heís oftentimes playing an end position this year and that means he has a longer way to go to get to the quarterback. Plus, in third-and-short, he has to read more instead of firing upfield.
Mike Neal could be the answer, but heís in the tub.
A.J. Hawk is whiffing on too many tackles. He kind of grabs a guy and rides him down. He has to be more physical. Erik Walden is a punishing outside linebacker. He gets his hands inside and just rocks the tackle sometimes. But he doesnít get off the block and get to the football.
The Packers miss Nick Collins in the worst way. One longtime scout said recently that Collins might have been as good as LeRoy Butler and might have had a shot at making the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Thatís high praise.
The Packers are a flowing defense. They usually donít set a point and try to turn the running back in. They want to get the back going toward the sideline with their corners and safeties filling the outside alleys. And thatís where they miss Collins. Heíd be in the alley all the time. Lately, backs have been finding gaps on the perimeter and cutting inside for nice gains. Plus, Collins was effective as a blitzer.
Charlie Peprah had two huge interceptions, but he gets sucked in on the run and blows coverage, and he doesnít play the alleys like Collins. Peprah isnít afraid to stick his nose in there, but he doesnít come to balance enough and make the tackle.
Hereís another thing: Woodson isnít getting it done with his feet. Thatís why heís grabbing guys in coverage and not getting home when he blitzes off the edge. He hasnít been the force he was last year and that leaves Clay Matthews as the only special player on defense.
Then thereís the rest of the secondary. Shields is a 180-pounder with an offensive background. And Tramon Williams and Morgan Burnett are banged up, and, as a result, their tackling has suffered.
Former Press-Gazette sports editor Cliff Christl and former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offer their analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week.