Green Bay Packers grades: Defense
Matthews made playing outside in the 3-4 base defense, inside in the nickel and outside in the dime look easier than it is. Tended to overpursue at times against the run when rushing from outside, but played a large role in the defense cutting its rushing yards allowed in half over the last eight games. He battled groin and biceps injuries, but started every game for the first time in his career. The move seemed to rejuvenate Matthews, who had a career-high 11 tackles in his first start inside against Chicago in Week 10. He recorded 42 of his 61 tackles and 8½ of his 11 sacks in the final eight games to earn his fifth Pro Bowl selection. He tied Peppers for second on the team with 17 quarterback hits. Matthews was flagged five times, including three personal fouls (illegal blindside block, unnecessary roughness and unsportsmanlike conduct).
The eight-time Pro Bowler recorded 44 tackles, seven sacks, a career-high 11 pass deflections, four forced fumbles and two interceptions returned for touchdowns in the regular season. His presence allowed the Packers to get creative with using Matthews inside. Fit better into a 3-4 than initially anticipated and played nearly 900 defensive snaps. He took plays off at times and missed 10 tackles, but rose up when the situation called for it. He had 11 tackles and 2½ sacks in the playoffs, including two forced fumbles against Dallas. His strip of DeMarco Murray not only was a turning point in the game, but also prevented a large gain. Peppers didn't miss a practice despite being 34 years old. He has a $12 million cap number for 2015, but his impact makes him difficult to part with.
Perry missed the offseason program with foot and knee injuries. He hasn't played up to his first-round label, but was effective platooning with Mike Neal behind Matthews and Peppers. He still might be better suited as a 4-3 defensive end, but had 23 tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble in 15 games. Perry went eight games without a sack until registering 1½ sacks on back-to-back plays against the Cowboys. Perry had three missed tackles in the playoff loss to Seattle, but arguably was Green Bay's best run defender at the position . Was flagged once for illegal use of hands in 421 defensive snaps.
Neal shed even more weight last offseason to better align himself at outside linebacker. Now in the 263-pound range, the Packers continued to use him as an inside rusher in their NASCAR dime package. He shook off his injury-prone label by playing in every game for the second consecutive season. His playing time was reduced with Peppers' addition, but he finished with 33 tackles, eight quarterback hits and 4½ sacks. He disappeared at times and isn't natural setting the edge, but was a decent rotational rusher.
Elliott made it impossible for the Packers to cut him after registering five sacks in the last three preseason games. One of two undrafted free agents to make the team, Elliott didn't play much during the regular season, but made himself valuable on special teams where he finished second with 15 tackles in the coaches' statistics. He wasn't penalized.
The former undrafted free agent made the roster for a second consecutive season, but tore his ACL covering a Tim Masthay punt against the New York Jets in Week 2. He finished with one special teams tackle in two games.
The 2013 sixth-round pick tore his MCL in the preseason finale against Kansas City, landing him on season-ending injured reserve. On the roster bubble, the Packers played him inside against the Chiefs where he had four tackles before suffering the injury.
I nside linebacker
After playing one defensive snap as a rookie, the Packers tested Barrington as a starter inside against Carolina on Oct. 19 before inserting him there permanently by the end of November. His limitations in coverage showed while covering Marshawn Lynch off a wheel route against Seattle, but he brought physicality to a position that needed some. Three of his six missed tackles came against the Seahawks. He finished the season with 53 tackles and one sack. Barrington was penalized twice for personal fouls with each carrying a $16,537 price tag from the NFL.
The Packers felt good enough about Lattimore's upside that they gave him a first-right-of-refusal tender last offseason. Before the job went to Barrington, Lattimore had a chance to step inside when Brad Jones missed time with a quad injury. He had a career-high 39 tackles with one interception in 11 games (five starts) before suffering an ankle injury that ended his season. He played the run OK, but was a liability in coverage. Not instinctive. Known for his special teams, he messed up the protection on Masthay's blocked punt in Miami.
Time finally caught up with the franchise's all-time leading tackler. Hawk worked in the heart of a run defense that was giving up a league-worst 153.6 yards per game at the bye week. As an every-down player, Hawk appeared slow in coverage on plays like Kyle Rudolph's 23-yard completion for Minnesota in Week 12. The Packers eventually replaced him in the nickel with Barrington and in the dime with Jones. He averaged 20 snaps per game in the final month playing strictly in the 3-4 base defense. When Matthews exited briefly against Seattle, the defense gushed yards when Hawk re-entered inside. He maintained that he wasn't injured and finished his ninth year with the Packers with 89 tackles and a half-sack. He was frozen on Jon Ryan's touchdown pass to Garry Gilliam off a fake field goal. Durability will be his legacy if the organization chooses to part ways with him this offseason.
Jones' inconsistency and propensity for penalties hurt the Packers. He missed three games with a quad injury following an atrocious performance in the opener against Seattle in which he had four tackles with three misses. Jones never regained his starting job, finishing with 18 tackles. He played in the dime late in the season before giving way to Barrington in the NFC championship game. Inexplicably, Jones had a team-high six defensive penalties despite playing only 217 snaps. Three came after the defense successfully stopped the opposing team on third down. Jones had a 9-yard sack of Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill on second-and-11 erased with illegal use of hands and scrapped a Peppers/Matthews sack in the opener because of an illegal contact penalty. He blocked a field goal against Atlanta and forced a fumble in the NFC championship game, but Ryan told MMQB.com that the Seahawks tried a fake field goal because Jones was on the field and his tendency was to sell out for a block.
The Packers drafted the 6-foot-1, 252-pound linebacker in the fourth round last May with the intention of playing him outside. After making little impact, the Packers moved him inside in the finale against Kansas City where he had seven tackles. Bradford made the team, but was a healthy scratch for all 18 games. The Packers will be looking for more in 2015.
Williams might not be as fast as he was four years ago, but was consistent at age 31. He led the defense with 1,134 snaps and was third with 70 tackles. Williams shook off a sprained ankle against Miami to play in all 16 regular-season games for a seventh time in his eight seasons. He led the secondary with 13 deflections and three interceptions. His performance went a long way in the Packers finishing 10th in passing defense despite facing a litany of stud receivers, particularly over the final month. Williams allowed 63 receptions for 743 yards and eight touchdowns on passes thrown in his direction for a 101.7 opposing passer rating. He drew six penalties (four pass interference, illegal contact and holding) and missed eight tackles. The Packers will have to make a decision on the free agent this offseason.
The Packers converted Hyde to safety where he started the first half of the season until Ha Ha Clinton-Dix took the job in Week 8 against Carolina. Hyde maintained a prominent role in slot of the nickel and dime subpackages. He played in every game for the second consecutive season with 59 tackles, nine pass deflections and two interceptions. The Packers preferred Hyde in the slot over Casey Hayward because of his tackling ability. He was flagged three times, including an illegal contact penalty that wiped out a Morgan Burnett interception in Miami. He was one of the few bright spots on special teams. His 15.8-yard average on punt returns led all returners with more than 14 attempts, including two returned for touchdowns.
Shields missed two games after his knee buckled pre-snap against Miami. He didn't miss any more time despite suffering a concussion against New England, but showed obvious rust in his first game back against Atlanta. Shields and the rest of the Packers' secondary had a difficult time containing Julio Jones in an 11-catch, 259-yards performance Dec. 4. He was pulled him in the fourth quarter in favor of Davon House, who finished the game. Shields re-established himself by helping shut down Calvin Johnson in the regular-season finale against Detroit. He maintained good position on Dez Bryant's controversial no-catch in the divisional round of the playoffs and picked off Russell Wilson on an end-zone lob in the NFC championship game. Shields made the Pro Bowl as a replacement with 40 tackles, nine pass deflections and two interceptions. Penalized twice, but not for pass interference.
Hayward didn't miss a game after having his second NFL season sabotaged by a recurring hamstring injury. The team's depth at cornerback made it difficult for Hayward to get on the field, but he finished with 42 tackles, seven pass deflections and three interceptions in limited duty. He had three missed tackles in the opener and eight on the season, which kept him behind Hyde on the depth chart. He was steady working the slot in obvious passing situations in the nickel and dime subpackages with his 14.1 snaps per reception leading all slot cornerbacks. He lost containment on Doug Baldwin for a 35-yard gain on third-and-6 in the NFC title game. The coaching staff believes he was worthy of more than the 460 defensive snaps he received.
Like Hayward, it was a chore for House to get playing time in the secondary, especially since he plays exclusively on the perimeter. House made a handful of starts midseason when Shields was out with a knee injury. Consistency was an issue. He struggled against New Orleans, missing three tackles and giving up a 45-yard completion to Kenny Stills. House settled back into a special-teams role until he was called upon to replace Shields against Atlanta. He broke up an end-zone pass intended for Julio Jones, but missed three games with a fractured scapula after falling on Jones' knee. House finished with 27 tackles, 10 pass deflections and one interception. Improved his conditioning to stay on the field. He was penalized six times in 405 defensive snaps and was cavalier on Ryan's touchdown pass to Gilliam.
Bush played only 44 defensive snaps, but was used in a quarter package with seven defensive backs to help neutralize Dallas tight end Jason Witten. He gave up seven completions for 57 yards and a touchdown on nine targets. His main responsibility was special teams where he was third with 11 tackles in the coaches' statistics. After being penalized eight times in 2012, Bush was flagged only once (taunting). He'll turn 31 in May and is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent.
The former Gonzaga point guard was on the roster bubble before beating out Jumal Rolle for the final cornerback opening. He was inactive in nine of the first 10 games. He didn't play defensively, but showed some potential on special teams where he had six tackles. Goodson will be 26 in May, but the organization feels he has potential.
A better complement on the back end in Ha Ha Clinton-Dix helped Burnett bounce back from a disappointing 2013 season. Playing mostly strong safety, Burnett finished with a career-high 130 tackles, ninth-most in the NFL, and caught his first interception in two years against Atlanta. The Packers missed his presence in their 44-23 loss to New Orleans in Week 8. His 30 stops against the run tied for the most among NFL safeties. He was penalized once for holding, but it wasn't accepted.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
Clinton-Dix flashed plenty of potential in finishing second on the team in tackles (93) with six pass deflections and an interception. He picked off two passes in the NFC championship game and came within inches of getting a third. It helped remove some of the sting from being caught flat-footed on Ricardo Lockette's 33-yard touchdown in the opener. He can cover a lot of ground from the free safety position, but is prone to missing tackles. His 15 whiffs led the team, but provided a spark to a position that needed a lift.
Richardson was arguably the Packers' best player on special teams with a team-high 17 tackles. He played sporadically on defense in a big Okie package in which he replaces a cornerback on short-yard situations. Richardson has limitations in coverage, but puts his 6-foot-2, 218-pound frame to work against the run.
Banjo spent the first 13 games on the Packers' practice squad as a veteran exemption before being promoted to the active roster for the final three games of the regular season. He reclaimed a role on special teams, recording three special-teams tackles.
Daniels proved he was more than just a rotational pass rusher in his third NFL season. He started as a five-technique in the base defense and played well against the run with 31 stops and a career-high 41 tackles to go along with 5½ sacks. He led the team in quarterback knockdowns with 19 despite rarely playing on third down. He's notorious for his high motor and intensity. He stepped into the leadership void vacated with the offeason departure of Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly. He had two regrettable penalties in two games against Seattle. He ran into Ryan to extend a Seahawks' series and picked up a taunting penalty after a Clinton-Dix interception in the NFC title game.
The Packers had their eye on Guion since he came into the league in 2008. The one-year, $1 million deal they signed him to last March proved to be a bargain after B.J. Raji was lost for the season. A strained hamstring forced him to miss most of the preseason. He was out of shape the first three games of the regular season before a breakout four-tackle, 1½-sack performance against his former team, Minnesota, in Week 5. He finished with 32 tackles, 10 quarterback hits and 3½ sacks. His ability to generate pressure as a nose tackle and three-technique made him disruptive as a pass rusher and against the run. He played a big role in the front getting short-yardage stops out of the hippo package (four linemen). Green Bay has shown interest in bringing him back.
A knee injury kept Boyd out of one game and limited him at practice during various points of the season. He hasn't offered much in the pass rush, but usurped Jones in the second half of the season for snaps in the base defense. He finished with 19 tackles with one offsides penalty. He missed only one tackle on 414 defensive snaps. Competent at filling gaps, finishing with 15 stops.
Jones hasn't played like a first-round pick, but he's been a capable rotational player when healthy. He missed three games with an ankle injury. He finished with 22 tackles, 1½ sacks and an 18-yard interception against Tampa Bay. He's seen as a pass-rush specialist on third downs, but he plays the run better than he's credited for. He also registered the second blocked field goal of his career against Dallas.
The 6-foot-4, 332-pound lineman was one of two undrafted rookies to make the roster. He had all eight of his tackles in a four-game stretch early in the season due to injuries on the defensive line. Along with his 177 defensive snaps, Pennel played on the field-goal protection units. He was blown off the ball in a few short-yardage situations, but his unique build is intriguing.
The Packers signed Gaston off Arizona's practice squad Dec. 8 after Luther Robinson was placed on injured reserve. He was a healthy scratch in all six games he was on Green Bay's roster.
Robinson made the biggest play of his season by batting a Christian Ponder pass on his third NFL snap, which led to a Julius Peppers interception return for a 49-yard touchdown. He played in four more games with little impact on 65 defensive snaps. The Packers placed him on injured reserve Dec. 8 with a strained calf.
Raji was going to be the linchpin of the Packers' renovations on the defensive line before he tore his right biceps in the team's third preseason game against Oakland. The Packers missed him early in the season, but settled in. Raji will be 29 in July and could return on another one-year, incentive-laden deal.
Thornton had a quiet camp and was on the roster bubble before he tore his hamstring in the preseason finale against Kansas City. The Packers will hope for more of an impact when he returns.
A: Elite NFL player
B: Above average
D: Below average
F: Failed to perform at an NFL level
Note: Dropped passes, missed tackles, touchdowns allowed and sacks allowed were according to Pro Football Focus. Penalties according to NFLPenalties.com.
By the numbers
Key 2014 statistics, with NFL ranking out of 32 teams in parentheses.
Total offense: 386.1 yards per game (sixth).
Rushing offense: 119.8 yards per game (11th).
Passing offenses: 266.3 yards per game (eighth).
Total defense: 346.4 yards per game (15th).
Rushing defense: 119.9 yards per game (23rd).
Passing defense: 226.4 yards per game (10th).
Turnover differential: Plus-14 (first).
Takeaways: 27 (18 interceptions, nine fumble recoveries).
Giveaways: 13 (six interceptions, seven lost fumbles).
Net punting: 37.0 yards (31st).
Kickoff return average: 19.1 yards per return (31st).
Punt return average: 11.5 yards per return (fifth).
Sacks: 41 (tied for ninth).
Sacks allowed: 30 (tied for ninth fewest).
Penalties: 104 (tied for 13th fewest).