Penalty prevention critical piece of Packers' puzzle
It's been a staple of Dom Capers' season review since forever.
Every offseason, the Green Bay Packers' 64-year-old defensive coordinator sits down and takes an in-depth look at whatever penalties his unit was called for and compares it to the rest of the NFL. On average, his statistics show that opposing offenses are 2½ times more likely to score on penalty-aided drives.
It's one of the philosophies that brought Capers and Packers coach Mike McCarthy together when Capers was hired to bring his 3-4 defense to Green Bay in 2009. For that reason, it shouldn't come as a surprise the Packers have ranked third in the NFL in penalty differential (plus-111) during that partnership.
This year has been no exception. According to NFLPenalties.com, the Packers are fifth in the league in fewest penalties (52), tied for eighth in penalty differential (plus-9) and tied for second in fewest pre-snap calls (13).
"You talk about team identity, and one of our points of emphasis obviously being a disciplined football team," McCarthy said. "The league has put a major emphasis on hand placement, and I think our guys are doing a good job of working the fundamentals during the week, and it's showing up on Sunday."
Penalties aren't the only indicators of NFL success. If that was the case, Jacksonville (league-low 42) would be in the chase for the playoff hunt, while New England and Denver (79 each) look to next season.
However, it's a critical piece of the puzzle for the Packers, especially with the emphasis the NFL has placed on defensive holding, illegal use of hands, illegal contact and offensive pass interference this season.
Flags aren't flying as much as they were in the preseason, but there's been a significant increase in all four categories leaguewide. Calls for illegal contact (340.8 percent increase), illegal hands (284.3 percent), defensive holding (138.7 percent) and offensive pass interference (132.8 percent) have skyrocketed, according to an NFLPenalties.com database.
The impact of the emphasized rules haven't hit the Packers too hard. They're above the league average in illegal contact (3 to 2.03) and illegal use of hands (5-3.34), but fall below in terms of offensive pass interference (1-1.56) and defensive holding (2-3.94).
As the season has progressed, the Packers' secondary has started to see officials giving them a little more room to defend, which was a mild concern when Ed Hochuli's crew visited one practice in training camp and littered Nitschke Field with yellow flags.
"Now we have a little leeway. We can get our hands on them a little bit and try to knock them off the routes a little bit," defensive back Micah Hyde said. "They're letting us play defense. I think towards the end of the year, towards the playoffs, they're going to let us do what we do and they're not going to call it that much."
Even after the preseason game, the defensive staff felt confident they'd be OK once the season began. Early indications are they were on point in the prognostications.
As cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt illustrates, the evolution of a pass-happy league naturally results in more combative penalties, which McCarthy estimates comes down to hand placement on 80-90 percent of calls.
"How we coach it is the right way," Whitt said. "The (secondary) penalties that we've had are questionable. I think they got some of them not correct. It is what it is, but we coach it the right way. We're a disciplined football team."
What teams can control are pre-snap errors and post-snap shenanigans. This year, the Packers have had only one known unnecessary roughness penalty that's resulted in a fine. It came in Week 2 when tight end Andrew Quarless grabbed the face mask of New York Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson, costing him $8,268.
To see how it affects scoring, you need only look at the offensive side of the ball where quarterback Aaron Rodgers has made a small fortune in free plays and extra yardage drawing rushers offside and catching teams with 12 men on the field (five times).
Joe Flacco is the next closest in catching opposing defenses with extra men on three occasions. On the other hand, the Packers' defense has yet to get caught with 12 men on the field in nine games.
Capers frequently reminds his defensive players how costly those type of penalties can be. Communication could be stressed Sunday against Philadelphia's up-tempo offense, but the coaching staff spends months reiterating how important it is to be on the same page.
At times, being on the plus side of penalties can be savior. For everything that went wrong in 2011 when the defense finished last in total yardage, the Packers were among the least-penalized teams in the NFL. This year, Green Bay is 5-1 when winning the penalty differential.
"It does affect scoring a lot," cornerback Tramon Williams said. "You can go back and do a little research, most drives that we come out first, second, third down — play well on those three downs and get a penalty on third down and keep the drive alive, it always shows that offenses always get points off that drive.
"For us to stay out of those situations this year has been good for us. Obviously, it's been a part of why we've been winning games the way we have."
McCarthy says it boils down to being smart, decisive and focused on fundamentals. There was no greater proof than in Sunday's 55-14 blowout win over Chicago when the unraveling Bears were flagged for 11 penalties for 163 yards.
That included a 53-yard pass interference call on Tim Jennings against receiver Jordy Nelson midway through the second quarter. The Packers have five defensive pass interference penalties, but they've combined for only 65 yards.
Hyde became cognizant of the premium the Packers place on penalties since he was drafted last year. Capers expects it's not much different elsewhere in the NFL. Still, Green Bay seems to do a better job in the category than most.
After all, it's difficult enough to win the NFL. Penalties only make the job more difficult.
"I think we've done a pretty good job," Capers said. "I think for the most part we haven't hurt ourselves. I spend time talking to these guys about how penalties affect scoring. Penalty aided drives, it goes way up in terms of putting points on the board as opposed to a drive that doesn't have any penalties.
"We try to coach our guys to be aggressive and physical and all that. You just have to make sure you make good decisions when you get close to the sideline."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod
Penalty differential since 2009
1. Atlanta (153)
2. Indianapolis (125)
3. Green Bay (111)
4. Miami (106)
5. New York Giants (70)
6. New England (65)
7. Kansas City (57)
8. San Diego (49)
9. Jacksonville (48)
10. Minnesota (47)
*Courtesy of www.nflpenalties.com