Defense needs Ha Ha to be playmaker
When the Dom Capers-Dick LeBeau zone blitz defensive scheme has been at its best, it's had a Pro Bowl-caliber defensive back who lines up all over the field and make plays everywhere.
Capers had one with Charles Woodson in 2009 and '10, when the Green Bay Packers finished in the top seven in the NFL in points and yards allowed in back-to-back seasons and won a Super Bowl. The decline of their defense thereafter mirrored the decline in Woodson's play because of age.
The Steelers had one with Rod Woodson in the early-mid 1990s, and another during Troy Polamalu's prime years (2004-11).
And that player is something Capers is badly missing now, as we saw again in the Packers' 44-23 loss at New Orleans on Sunday night.
Though the Packers have a glut of good players in a secondary that's the strength of their defense, they don't have anyone like the Woodsons or Polamalu who can line up around the line of scrimmage and disrupt the offense. On one play he might make a tough tackle for a short gain in the run game; on another, blitz for a sack or hurry; and then later make a play on the ball in coverage.
So far this season, the Packers have been the same old same old. They added two significant players to their defense — free agent Julius Peppers and first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix — who have been upgrades at their positions. Yet the overall impact has been marginal through half the 2014 schedule. The Packers rank No. 22 in yards allowed and 19 in points. (LeBeau's Steelers, who rank Nos. 16 and 21, are in a similar state now that Polamalu is well into his decline).
Like they've been for the past three years, the Packers (5-3) are better than most, but their defense still comes up short against good teams, especially on the road. Facing one of the league's best offenses Sunday night, Capers' defense allowed 44 points and 495 yards, including 172 rushing yards to halfback Mark Ingram.
If the Packers have any hope of being better in December and January than they are now, help will have to come from within. And though the odds of a difference maker emerging in the second half of the season aren't promising, their best chance for at least improving on that side of the ball is Clinton-Dix.
The No. 21 draft pick overall has been a good-looking rookie. He's seen his role grow as the season has gone on and has improved the Packers' safety play from the last couple of years. He's aggressive filling alleys in run defense and a willing hitter.
But as he showed against New Orleans, he's also missing some plays that, if he starts making them over the final two months, could make a difference.
Emblematic was a run play in the second quarter, on a first down from the Packers' 41. Ingram took a handoff toward right guard, then took a cutback lane to his left. Clinton-Dix, as he has done consistently, filled hard from his safety position and met Ingram in the hole about a yard past the line of scrimmage.
But Clinton-Dix dropped his head as he went for the tackle and whiffed even though he was in great position. Ingram picked up 9 yards. So instead of facing second and 8 or 9 yards, the Saints had second and 1. Defenses get off the field by putting teams in unfavorable downs and distances, and Clinton-Dix could have done that there. Instead, the run put the Saints in scoring position, and the drive ended with a field goal.
Another play Clinton-Dix missed was more costly. It came on the Saints' first deep pass of the night, a 45-yarder to Kenny Stills that set up their first touchdown. The Packers played Cover-3 zone on the play, so Peppers had one flat, and safety Micah Hyde had to come up and cover the other flat.
That left Clinton-Dix as the lone safety in the middle of the field. But he either bit on the run fake or reacted to the receiver in the seam on the right side of the defense, because he came up while Stills was beating House on a deep post. The Packers no doubt want House to make the play on the ball, but Clinton-Dix should have been as deep as the deepest man on the field and been there either to dissuade the throw or play the ball.
Clinton-Dix (4.59-second 40) isn't as explosive an athlete as either of the Woodsons or Polamalu, so no one here is suggesting he's that kind of possible Pro Football Hall of Fame-type player. But who else is going to change the Packers' defense between now and January? Peppers, for instance, already is playing well. It's hard to see him improving on what he's already doing at age 34.
Clinton-Dix, on the other hand, is a young player with immediate growth potential. He's probably Capers' best hope for turning things around.
THE BIG SCREEN
Eddie Lacy showed against the Saints how his improvement in the passing game this year can be a major weapon for the Packers.
Lacy had 123 yards receiving and was a beast in the screen game. His 67-yarder in the first quarter showed how difficult it is for defensive backs to tackle him downfield because of his size — he's listed at 230 pounds but might be closer to 250. And he caught two other screens that picked up 25 yards total as well.
That's big, because it's a way to get Lacy the ball if the run game is struggling. Lacy's at his best as a runner when quarterback Aaron Rodgers takes the snap under center. It allows him to get rolling downhill and have a good look at the defense before he touches the ball. And linebackers have to hold an extra beat than if he's in the shotgun because they don't know if it's a handoff or play fake until he's a couple of yards closer to the line of scrimmage.
So the screen game is a way for Lacy to run downhill if the run game isn't working, and a way to slow the pass rush as well. Defenses now will have to honor it. Last year he didn't protect or catch well enough to play on passing downs. This year he does, and that puts defenses in a bind.
TOO MUCH SPICE
It's hard not to think coach Mike McCarthy got a little cocky when he called a quick slant pass to Peppers on second down from the Saints' 3.
Peppers is a tremendous athlete, but he's an outside linebacker, not a tight end. This wasn't handing the ball to Refrigerator Perry when you're up by two touchdowns. It was the first quarter of a tie game on the road against a good team. And it wasn't a play-action pass where the guy gets the ball only if he's wide open for a soft toss. This was a bang-bang throw and catch with safety Rafael Bush on Peppers' back.
That's what Richard Rodgers and Andrew Quarless are for. They're tight ends who can use their big bodies to shield off a little defensive back and make that catch. Peppers' drop cost the Packers four points, because they didn't score the next play and kicked the field goal on fourth down.
— Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty