The Green Bay Packers’ defense this season is looking a lot like 2009.
That was Dom Capers’ first season with the team, and the coordinator’s new defense showed substantial improvement from ’08 in every way. But like this year, that ’09 defense had shortcomings stopping the pass.
In ’09 those showed up against the good quarterbacks on their schedule, most notably when Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger scorched them for 503 yards passing in the Steelers’ last-play, 37-36 win in late December, and when Arizona’s Kurt Warner threw for five touchdowns, 379 yards and a passer rating of 154.1 points in the Cardinals’ 51-45 overtime win in the first round of the playoffs.
The 8-0 Packers are different now than in ’09 — their offense is better, and their defense, though giving up more yards than in ’09, is making at least a couple of big plays a game. But there’s the similar sense that a team with a good quarterback has a good chance to put up a boatload of points, and though it hasn’t happened yet, get a score with the game on the line.
Among other things, you have to wonder if losing safety Nick Collins was more costly than all of the 15 players lost to injured reserve last year combined. Maybe so, though there’s probably an accumulation of factors that have caused a dramatic drop from the defense that finished last season’s playoffs as one of the league’s elite.
For one, the Packers miss Cullen Jenkins’ inside pass rush. While Jenkins’ absence isn’t the reason the Packers lost two of the five games he missed last year — quarterback Aaron Rodgers sat out the second half of one of those (at Detroit) and didn’t play in the other (at New England) — the fact is the Packers’ pass rush has not been the same this season. The biggest difference from 2010 to ’11: The No. 3 defense in sacks percentage last year is ranked No. 22 halfway through this season.
With Jenkins and B.J. Raji rushing from the inside, quarterbacks weren’t able to step up and avoid Clay Matthews' outside rush as much as this year. It’s hard not to think that’s a factor in Matthews having only three sacks this season. For what it’s worth, Jenkins, who signed with Philadelphia as a free agent, is tied with Oakland’s Richard Seymour for the league lead in sacks by inside rushers with five.
Aside from the rush, several individuals aren’t playing as well as last year. Cornerback Charles Woodson still is a playmaker but at age 35 isn’t the same player down in and down out he was in the past. Cornerback Tramon Williams was a shell of his 2010 self for the first five or six games after he injured a nerve in his shoulder in the opener. And No. 3 cornerback Sam Shields has had some sophomore struggles as he’s picked up more responsibility on more plays this year.
Finally, the Packers are having issues at safety that weren’t there in 2010. Collins’ season-ending neck injury in Week 2 cost them talent and a veteran’s know-how. He made mistakes — all players do — but safeties Morgan Burnett and Charlie Peprah are blowing more coverages than the safeties did with Collins on the back line last season. Plus the drop-off in speed from Collins to Peprah is substantial, so the chance to out-run errors is lost.
In the Packers’ 45-38 win over San Diego on Sunday, Peprah and Burnett had three busted coverages on notable plays.
On the last play of the first quarter, Peprah bit on a run fake on a third-and-1 and left Williams without expected help over the top on a 38-yard pass to Vincent Jackson that set up a touchdown. On Jackson’s 5-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter, Peprah was too far in the middle of the field to share coverage with Williams, who had half responsibility for two players, which left Jackson wide open for the easy score.
Then on Jackson’s 29-yard touchdown catch later in the fourth quarter, Burnett was supposed to take over Williams’ coverage when Jackson went to the end zone, but Burnett instead stayed with tight end Antonio Gates when he cut off his route to the sideline against the quarters-type coverage. That left Jackson uncovered for an easy touchdown that pulled the Chargers with seven points.
Peprah had two huge interceptions — one returned for a touchdown, the other that clinched the game — that can’t be dismissed. And Burnett, who has three interceptions this season, has shown promise as a starting safety in his second season and is playing through a broken hand. Still, neither has Collins’ combination of physical talent and knowledge.
When McCarthy and Capers use the catch-all phrase “communication errors’’ to describe the problems, they’re really saying someone either was playing the wrong coverage or misread his assignment as the play unfolded. And there’s no question mistakes like those against the Chargers are happening more this year than last.
“A win covers up everything,” Williams said after the game. “But it’s something that’s been going on for half a year now. You want to correct it, but it hasn’t been (corrected) yet. We’ve still been making the same mistakes.”
Last year, Peprah started the final 12 games plus the playoffs and held up just fine after Burnett’s season ended because of knee injury. But Peprah and Capers had the luxury of the Pro Bowler Collins playing the other safety. Not so this year.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.