Mental errors, red-zone lapses dog Packers' defense
GREEN BAY - If watching Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen catch an uncontested touchdown last week felt eerily familiar, or if seeing wide receiver Damiere Byrd slice through the secondary for another easy score triggered déjà vu, there’s no need to consult your primary-care physician.
You are not having a recurring dream. You’re just watching the Green Bay Packers’ defense every week.
“Talking about mental errors,” coach Mike McCarthy said this week, “I made a big deal about it in the Wednesday meetings, just the way we played the prior two games coming into this game. When you have breakdowns and you have easy touchdowns like that, it’s unacceptable. After watching the tape this morning of our defense, way too many negatives.”
As their season fizzled in Carolina, the Packers continued a defensive free fall that has handcuffed the team nearly as much as the loss of Aaron Rodgers. The Packers rank 26th in total defense after the Panthers churned out 387 yards last week. They are allowing the third-highest passer rating to opposing quarterbacks this season (100.5) and have the worst Drive Success Rate in the league, according to Football Outsiders, with opponents moving the chains or scoring a touchdown 73 percent of the time they face any first-and-10 situation.
Front to back, there are myriad reasons why the Packers’ defense has collapsed under coordinator Dom Capers, whose job security seems perilous. From injuries at the cornerback position, to the absence of a pass rush, to the lack of experience across the board, there is no shortage of issues dissect — and even those factors are intertwined.
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The secondary, though, has been particularly problematic all season, the late resurgence of cornerback Damarious Randall notwithstanding. And a review of every passing touchdown allowed by the Packers produced two major themes: mental errors, as identified by McCarthy, and the inability to defend in the red zone.
“Well, it can happen real quick in this league," Capers said of the implosion. "One or two or three plays … What we’ve done is at times during a game we’ll play pretty consistent and play well, and then give up a play or two."
Because they’re so glaring, the mental errors are the easiest place to start.
The Packers have allowed 26 passing touchdowns through 14 games, which is tied for fifth-most in the league. Four of them — or 15.4 percent — had blatant breakdowns in coverage that left someone wide open. Rookie safety Josh Jones was involved, though not necessarily at fault, on three of those plays.
» Week 3 vs. Cincinnati: Running back Giovani Bernard lined up wide to the right as a receiver. Before the snap, Bernard came in motion across the formation and was followed by Jones. When the play began, Bernard sneaked out the left side and stood all alone for an easy 6-yard touchdown reception. McCarthy gave conflicting answers about whether Jones was at fault in his news conference the next day.
» Week 4 vs. Chicago: The Bears marched into the red zone shortly before halftime of a Thursday night game at Lambeau Field. They spread three receivers to the left, and wideout Kendall Wright was in the flex position nearest to the offensive line. On the snap, Wright ran a corner route for a 5-yard touchdown with Randall chasing from behind. Randall threw up his arms in disgust, as if he was expecting help on the play, and was eventually sent to the locker room after an argument on the sideline.
» Week 15 at Carolina: Running back Christian McCaffrey dominated the first drive for the Panthers on Sunday, peppering the Packers as both a runner and receiver. On the final play, a 7-yard touchdown to McCaffrey in which he circled out of the backfield, Jones and inside linebacker Blake Martinez both covered Olsen. McCaffrey was all alone.
» Week 15 at Carolina: The Panthers opened the second half with a bang on a 30-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Cam Newton to Olsen, who finished with nine catches for 116 yards. Olsen had lined up flexed to the right, and when the play began he was turned loose by either Jones or inside linebacker Joe Thomas. Olsen jogged up the seam uncovered for an easy score.
“I just think that’s a lot of young guys back there, and you’re going to make mistakes,” Thomas said of the mental errors this season. “It’s just your job to limit them. I guess this year they just piled up on us.”
Said cornerback Josh Hawkins: “I’m going to skip that question (on mental errors) because I don’t even know.”
It’s a response indicative of the secondary’s youth. The Packers have six defensive backs under the age of 25 with at least 289 snaps this season.
“We play young guys early,” Capers said, “and hopefully by the end of the season they’re playing at a level that gives you a chance to go out and be efficient like you want to be. Those guys, sometimes they’re seeing things for the first time. That’s the value of experience.”
The red zone has flummoxed the Packers as well. Opposing teams have scored touchdowns on 27 of 39 trips inside the 20-yard line this season and 18 touchdowns on 22 goal-to-go opportunities. All together it translates to 5.77 points per red-zone trip, according to Football Outsiders, which is the worst mark in the league.
That information dovetails with another statistic: 18 of the 26 passing touchdowns allowed by the Packers have come in the red zone.
In other words, opposing offenses are crossing the 20-yard line and throwing repeatedly until they reach the end zone, which happens 69 percent of the time.
“To me,” Capers said, “that was one of the biggest issues Sunday.”
In reality, it has been an issue all season.