Mike Vandermause column: Defense must improve, but it isn't soft

Jul. 30, 2013

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Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews gets ready for training camp practice Saturday at Ray Nitschke Field. / H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette Media


Ted Thompson’s forceful answer was so surprising that the Packers general manager wanted to take it back.

When asked on Tuesday what he thinks when critics question the toughness of the Packers’ defense, Thompson said: “I would think that they don’t know anything about what they’re talking.”

Perhaps realizing how stern he sounded, the normally mild-mannered Thompson offered up a more politically correct follow-up.

“I guess I shouldn’t say it like that,” said Thompson. “I’d rather take that back and say I disagree. I think we have a tough group of football players.”

But based on Thompson’s initial response, the accusation about his defense being soft clearly irks him.

Thompson is about as unflappable as they come, so for him to tell naysayers they don’t know what they’re talking about is a strong statement. Coach Mike McCarthy made a similar suggestion earlier this offseason.

Just to be clear, Thompson and McCarthy aren’t burying their heads in the sand about the Packers’ defense. They know how bad it was in a 45-31 playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers, when the Packers got lit up for 579 total yards.

No one is disputing that the defense must get better. But calling the Packers soft because of that playoff defeat is simplistic.

The reason the Packers got torched by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who rushed for a playoff record 181 yards, wasn’t because they were afraid to hit him. They simply couldn’t catch him, or didn’t put themselves in position to make plays. Those factors have nothing to do with their toughness.

Packers guard Josh Sitton lines up against the defense every day in practice. He speaks his mind, and he says it’s “real silly” to call the defense soft.

“There’s some tough (expletives) out there for sure,” said Sitton of the defense.

“Sometimes when you play a certain style of football, you get labeled unfairly. (Coordinator) Dom (Capers) runs a defense where they do a lot of different things, a lot of moving parts. Sometimes that can be construed as not just lining up and hitting somebody in the mouth. I think that can get mislabeled that way.”

Second-year defensive lineman Mike Daniels has heard questions about the defense’s toughness. He said it’s hard to ignore.

“I mean, I wouldn’t be a football player if I said it didn’t bother me,” said Daniels. “It is something that, when you hear it, you try to tune things out, but when you consistently hear it from everybody, it’s like, ‘OK, we’re going to do something about that.’”

It appears the criticism, misguided or not, has served as motivation for defensive players. During the early days of training camp they’re a little more edgy.

Packers offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga has noticed.

“They’re fired up over there, that’s for sure, and it’s good for us, too,” said Bulaga. “They’re flying around out there and they’re doing a great job, so you can definitely sense it.”

The soft label is “a bit ridiculous,” according to Daniels. “We know we’re tough, we know we’re physical,” he insisted.

Nevertheless, the defense seems determined to make sure everyone else knows it too.

“You can really tell the violence, the attitude. Guys are a lot meaner out there,” said Daniels of the first week of training camp.

This isn’t a team lacking in toughness. What the Packers’ defense needs more than anything is to play smarter, faster and more efficiently.

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

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