Silverstein: Clock ticking on Dom Capers' Packers defense
GREEN BAY – If you had foreseen nose tackle Kenny Clark becoming one of the most productive players on defense, inside linebacker Blake Martinez ranking seventh in the NFL in tackles and rookie cornerback Kevin King giving up just one touchdown in the first seven games, you probably would have predicted the Green Bay Packers' defense finally would have turned the corner by now.
But here it is, approaching the midway point of the season, and nothing has changed with defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ unit.
It is woefully lacking in pass rush, it can’t get off the field on third down, it can’t stop anybody in the red zone and its run defense is ranked in the bottom quarter of the league.
There is only one asset the defense can point to and say, this is what we’re going to build off in the second half of the season: the individual performances of Clark, Martinez, King, linebacker Clay Matthews, safety Morgan Burnett and most recently cornerback Davon House.
This is the most talent and depth Capers and his defensive staff have had since 2014 at the very least, and possibly since 2010 when the Packers won Super Bowl XLV. Yet for all the strong individual performances the defense has gotten, the cumulative effort has been sorely lacking.
Barring any injury decimation akin to what has occurred on the offensive line, this season is a referendum on whether Capers and his staff can deliver a winning defense.
It won’t have the luxury of being bailed out by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, whose broken collarbone might sideline him the entire season. And with backup Brett Hundley likely to struggle, it’s time the defense bears the responsibility for team success.
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Hundley might get better as the season goes on, but there has been considerable investment in the defense the past four seasons and that is where the most improvement should be taking place.
Yet the first half of the season has been marked by such things as having 10 players on the field in critical situations, defensive backs lining up in the wrong position or unclear on what their assignment should be, poor containment or missed tackles and the wrong decision on who should wear the radio helmet in the absence of Burnett (not Ha Ha Clinton-Dix).
Where is the chemistry this group should have been developing during the offseason and training camp? There have been several players making positive contributions yet the Packers' rankings in many key statistical categories are abysmal:
» 25th in sacks per pass attempt (5.29)
» 30th in red-zone touchdown percentage (73.68)
» 24th in third-down success rate (41.86)
» Tied for 32nd in most 20-yard rushes allowed (nine)
» Tied for 26th in most rushing touchdowns allowed (seven)
» 19th in opponent passer rating (90.2)
» 22nd in tackles for loss (34)
» Tied for 28th in quarterback knockdowns, including sacks (33)
» Tied for 17th in interceptions (six)
“Guys are making plays and we’re having success, but it’s not everybody consistently doing that every single play,” Martinez said. “Say I make one tackle here, Morgan makes a tackle one play there, Kenny makes a tackle, all those type of things, it’s not really adding to the whole team success.
“Once we get that on a consistent basis we’ll start having that production that we want."
The pass rush is a good example.
It’s easy to criticize Matthews for having only 2 ½ sacks, but he leads the team in quarterback hits with five, is second in quarterback pressures with six and is second in tackles for loss with three. Linebacker Nick Perry has only 3 ½ sacks and two quarterback hits, but he is tied for the team lead in pressures with seven.
Why their sack totals aren’t higher is something Capers and his staff must figure out. If they’re getting there a tick too late, then the coaches should figure out how they can create sacks with pressure elsewhere.
Clark is giving the Packers so much more than Letroy Guion ever did that it’s amazing the sack total isn’t higher. The second-year pro is tied with Perry for the lead in pressures, which is remarkable for a nose tackle, but his running mate, Mike Daniels, has gone four straight games without a sack.
There’s no question the Packers miss Julius Peppers, who ranks eighth in the NFL with 7 ½ sacks for the Carolina Panthers, but it’s not clear whether Peppers had his mind set on returning to his home state of North Carolina to play what might be his final season in the NFL or just didn’t receive any interest from the Packers. Either way, the emergence of Clark and Martinez, along with the addition of Ahmad Brooks and rookies Montravius Adams and Vince Biegel, should be enough to make up for his loss over the course of the season.
It’s another example of how the collective has not improved despite some good individual performances.
“That’s the craziest thing this year, we have to find a way to all mesh together and all be playing well at the same time because we have a lot of good players on this defense,” Clark said. “We have a lot of good depth at a lot of positions.
“We can be a great defense. We just have to start putting that stuff out on the field.”
The playing-with-youth excuse no longer applies. King and fellow rookie Josh Jones have had to play a lot, but they are not being relied upon to be saviors. They should be complementing what is becoming a fairly experienced group.
Of the 11 starting positions in the most-often used “nitro” package, only one is held by a rookie (King) and only four are held by players with fewer than two full years of experience. Some of the backups include Brooks, Quinton Dial and Ricky Jean Francois, all of whom are in their fifth year or beyond.
Injuries have been a factor, but not overwhelmingly. A total of five starters have missed a total of nine games, which is more than manageable, especially when you consider what the offensive line has had to overcome.
As the Packers head into their Monday night game against NFC North rival Detroit, the clock is ticking. If ever there was a year the Packers need their defense to show up, it’s this one.
It is the responsibility of Capers and his staff to take advantage of the effective performances they are getting and mitigate the poor ones. If they can’t get that done with these players, they might not ever be able to do it.
And coach Mike McCarthy will have a decision to make after the season.