Mike McCarthy’s displeasure with how poorly the Green Bay Packers tackled in last week’s 40-10 drubbing by Detroit was evident the moment players returned to practice this week.
With the head coach and his staff closely observing, the defense could literally feel the change in tempo, specifically Thursday’s padded session.
In front of the media, McCarthy raved about his team’s energy level. Behind the walls of the Hutson Center and blanketed fences of Nitschke Field, pads collided. Every motion was critiqued regardless of whether it was a team period or walk-through.
Missed tackles are only one area the defense has struggled over the past month, but McCarthy and his staff feel it’s the best place to start to remedy the recent breakdown.
For good reason. The Packers have fallen from 11th to 24th in NFL total defense during its five-game slide. Coincidentally, they’re also in 24th in missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus.
They’re certainly not the worst offenders – Washington takes the cake with 112 – but they're not exactly in good company. The combined record of the bottom 10 is 43-76-2. The average defensive rank among those 10 teams is 24.1.
Only one team, 7-5 Dallas, owns a winning record.
“It changed a lot,” rookie cornerback Micah Hyde said. “Bring your legs more instead of just tagging off on guys, holding the running backs up and forming up with them. We had practice (Thursday) and it was a pretty tough day physically. We practiced that and hopefully come Sunday it will help us.”
McCarthy reiterated his defense and special teams combined for at least 20 missed tackles against the Lions, though Pro Football Focus only tagged them for 13. If McCarthy believes having upwards of 10 in a game is unacceptable, 20 are downright deplorable.
During a week that began with the release of second-year safety Jerron McMillian, the Packers’ defensive staff went back to how they train players in training camp – be aggressive, taking the extra step into a tackle and putting a hat on somebody.
According to PFF records, the Packers are well on their way to surpassing their previous high for missed tackles in Dom Capers’ five-year tenure as defensive coordinator with 97 in 12 games.
The previous high was 101 during a try 2011 campaign when the defense finished at the bottom of the league in total defense.
Of 10 missed tackles Pro Football Focus saddled the defense with on Thanksgiving, eight came from the secondary with safety M.D. Jennings and Tramon Williams each being responsible for two whiffs.
“We did some physical tackling and they were mad at me because it feels like training camp,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “Well, we’re going to put our hat on people because we can’t have the number of missed tackles anymore this year than we had in that Detroit game. We all have to be accountable for it, me as coach and them as players, of getting that done correctly. We hit each other a lot this week and we’ll see how the results are.”
It’s not just the secondary though. Runners getting to the second level often has something to do with the defensive line and linebackers failing to fill gaps or set the edge.
This past week, the Packers’ defensive line took some ownership of the misfires in Detroit where Reggie Bush and Joique Bell danced over the once-dominated run defense for more than 200 yards.
Unable to close the portal on early downs, assistant coach Mike Trgovac admitted his line is susceptible to criticism when the run defense isn’t performing – the additive inverse of when it was ranked third in the NFL six weeks ago and lauded as one of the best in franchise history.
Trgovac says his guys aren’t tired. Johnny Jolly isn’t slowing down in the final stretch of his first NFL season back from a three-year league suspension. B.J. Raji has one tackle in four weeks, but is playing up to expectations.
“When you’re not stopping the run, d-linemen are going to take flack – that’s kind of the bottom line and they know that,” Trgovac said. “There’s things even in the Minnesota game and when we’ve been in some of our fronts that B.J. has been on the backside of a lot of plays, but I don’t think teams are running away from him. It’s just kind of worked out that way, but B.J. has been pretty accountable in his gap.”
Capers remains at the controls, though outside perception is his seat grows hotter with every first down allowed. In recent weeks, the 63-year-old coach has used the analogy of the defense plugging one hole and the dam spouting open elsewhere.
If the Packers can fix the tackling issue, the defense might have a fighting chance.
“Everybody’s got a gap, you’ve got to take care of that gap, and you’ve got to do a good job tackling,” Capers said. “And we’ve just not been as consistent as we need to be in that part of our defense. So much of what we do on defense is based on being able to play the run. I think it’s kind of where our base philosophy starts, is play the run, try to get more predictable down-and-distance situations.
“If you aren’t playing the run well, then you’re always playing uphill.”