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Mike Vandermause column: Anemic pass rush falls on Thompson

Jan. 28, 2012
 
If Green Bay Packers GM Ted Thompson wants another Lombardi Trophy, he'll need to address the team's defensive shortcomings this offeseason.
If Green Bay Packers GM Ted Thompson wants another Lombardi Trophy, he'll need to address the team's defensive shortcomings this offeseason. / Corey Wilson/Press-Gazette

Green Bay Packers General Manager Ted Thompson must do some soul searching this offseason.

Despite producing a marvelous 15-1 regular-season record, the Packers failed to win a playoff game for the fifth time in Thompson’s seven-year tenure.

There is plenty of blame to go around for the Packers’ inability to defend their Super Bowl title, but Thompson deserves a large share of it.

His failure to supply the defense with enough weapons ultimately cost the Packers a chance to claim a second consecutive championship.

The Packers’ offense and special teams held up their end of the bargain this season. It would have taken only an average defense to push the Packers to another Super Bowl berth. What they got instead was an unreliable unit that gave up more passing yards than any defense in NFL history.

That is a sad statistic that Thompson must live with and learn from.

Defensive coordinator Dom Capers simply didn’t have enough manpower to effectively implement his schemes. As a result, the Packers allowed a stunning 411.6 yards per game, including 299.8 yards through the air.

Some point to the Packers’ secondary for giving up too many big plays. Coach Mike McCarthy blamed poor tackling and fundamentals for the defense’s struggles.

But the lack of a pass rush is the Packers’ most pressing problem and the biggest reason they crashed and burned in the playoffs. When you give a quarterback enough time to pitch a tent and light a campfire in the pocket, he will find open receivers and make defensive backs look much worse than they really are.

Only two teams in the NFL produced fewer sacks than the Packers (29), and Thompson must be held accountable for that deficiency.

Thompson failed to adequately replace Cullen Jenkins, who departed for Philadelphia in free agency and left a gaping hole on the Packers’ defensive line. Thompson also failed to draft or sign a bona fide outside linebacker opposite Clay Matthews.

The Packers’ offense was so good all season that it covered up the defensive shortcomings to such an extent that even Thompson didn’t seem to acknowledge there was a problem.

At the end of November the Packers were 11-0 and riding high, yet there was a nagging suspicion about their defense. When I asked Thompson about the lack of a pass rush, he replied: “I think we should just enjoy where we are.”

That’s the same attitude Thompson seemed to take following the Packers’ Super Bowl title last February. Instead of aggressively upgrading his defense, Thompson sat on his hands and allowed it to weaken.

The Packers had just won a championship, for which Thompson deserved tremendous praise, but his offseason approach suggested he was content with the defense.

Thompson allowed Jenkins to walk away in free agency, which was a huge mistake. When I asked him about that during training camp, he said: “We would have liked to have Cullen back, but free agency is free agency. That’s the way it turned out. We could go down every position and say, ‘Well if you lose this guy don’t you think,’ but right now we feel pretty good about our team.”

That’s the way it turned out because Thompson let it happen. The Packers were reluctant to make a big-money investment in Jenkins because of his age (30) and injury history. That’s understandable, but when the unrestricted free agent market for Jenkins softened, Thompson failed to react.

The Eagles swooped in and signed Jenkins for a relatively cheap $4 million in 2011, and Thompson replaced him with 2010 second-round draft pick Mike Neal, who has been either injured or ineffective during his two NFL seasons. It was a calculated gamble, and Thompson and the Packers lost.

Jenkins provided an inside pass rush and ranked second on the team in sacks last year. He wasn’t a Pro Bowl-caliber player, but he made teammates better because offenses had to account for him. Jenkins’ departure contributed to Matthews’ sack total dropping and B.J. Raji taking a step backward in his development.

Capers was forced to cobble together a makeshift defensive line and the results weren’t pretty.

Matthews was left to fend for himself as the only bona fide pass-rushing threat, and it wasn’t surprising opponents double-teamed and sometimes triple-teamed him.

“I’ve been double–teamed in my life when I played,” said Packers outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene, the third-leading sacker in NFL history. “I never was double-teamed as much as I’ve seen (on Matthews). Offensive coordinators have made a statement: ‘We cannot allow (Matthews) to control the game.’ … So we do need another animal on the other side, no doubt.”

That will be left to Thompson, who has ignored that glaring need in the past two drafts.

It was telling that cornerback Charles Woodson this week said the Packers need to upgrade their personnel.

“There were some things we just weren’t able to do,” said Woodson of the Packers’ playoff loss to the Giants.

Yes, the Packers’ offense struggled for one of the few times all season against the Giants. But that’s when a team needs its defense to take over. Without an effective pass rush, the Packers’ defense proved incapable of doing that.

Thompson needs to do better this offseason and give his defense a fighting chance in 2012.

mvandermause@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.

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