No doubt the “fire Dom Capers” brigade has the volume turned up to 11 this week.
Capers is an easy target because he’s coordinator of a defense that has given up an average of 38 points in the Green Bay Packers’ four-game losing streak, including 47 points and 42 points in losses at Tennessee and Washington the last two games.
Capers’ defense was nothing short of a disaster in the 42-24 loss Sunday night at Washington. In the second half the Packers finally were able to put up some points, but their defense allowed a field goal followed by four straight touchdowns, so whenever they pulled to within a score, the lead immediately ballooned again.
But when you take a closer look, what chance has Capers had? Between key injuries and the shortcomings of backups, he’s in a game of five-card stud with only two cards.
He’s playing without his top two cornerbacks, Sam Shields (concussion) and Damarious Randall (groin). That has contributed to chronic coverage mismatches and increased the risk of getting burned on blitzes. Ladarius Gunter, Micah Hyde and Quinten Rollins just don’t have the speed of Shields and Randall, and over the course of a game that’s exposed.
And anyone calling for the Packers to find somebody else, who, exactly, should they bring in? It’s Week 12 of the season. Every team is injured. The best practice-squad players now are on 53-man rosters. Deion Sanders isn’t working at a McDonald’s.
Also, a pass rush that looked strong early in the season brought almost nothing Sunday night. Clay Matthews (hamstring) returned after missing three games but wasn’t himself. Washington figured out early on its tackles could handle him one-on-one. Same for blocking Nick Perry and Julius Peppers.
When you watch the video, the only player consistently facing double teams was Mike Daniels. Perry and Peppers each had a sack, but besides that the rush was almost non-existent. No wonder Kirk Cousins (145.8 rating) looked like Joe Montana.
And by the fourth quarter, Capers’ inside linebackers were Joe Thomas and Carl Bradford. They gave the defense almost no chance against the run.
The more Thomas plays, the more obvious it is that he’s a niche player who’s a liability on early downs. And Bradford, who has hung around on the roster and practice squad for three seasons now, might not be long for the NFL.
If Blake Martinez can’t play next week because of a knee injury and Jake Ryan doesn’t return from a sprained ankle, the Packers simply can’t start Bradford at inside linebacker. They’d have to move Matthews back in there or get run over by the Philadelphia Eagles.
Even if Ryan plays they might want to consider playing Matthews inside, at least on downs where there’s a decent chance for a run. Thomas has too much trouble holding up in there as well.
Bradford, who was primarily an outside pass rusher at Arizona State, just doesn’t have the instincts and recognition skills for inside linebacker. That showed up almost immediately when he replaced Martinez late in the fourth quarter.
On one of Bradford’s first plays, Washington halfback Robert Kelley hit a 66-yard run right at him. Left tackle Ty Nsekhe came out to Bradford off the snap and with a push knocked him back almost three yards. That opened a huge path for Kelley, who took the ball to the Packers’ 4.
Then on the next play, Nsekhe came off a combo block on Datone Jones and pushed Bradford onto his back, which opened the way for Kelley’s walk-in touchdown. That’s just not NFL-caliber play.
Thomas, on the other hand, has had his moments this season. He added a few pounds of muscle from last year and showed an improved striking ability. He has played OK as a dime linebacker.
But he’s not country strong, and even with the added weight-room strength, he doesn’t have power to be an every-down player. Washington’s touchdown drive at the end of the first half was the best illustration of that.
On a first down with 2:18 left in the half, Kelley picked up an easy five yards up the middle when Thomas failed to press the line of scrimmage and take on a block by center Spencer Long. Instead, when Long got out to Thomas he just walled the linebacker out of the play. It was only a five-yard gain, but teams will be able to do that all day.
Then four plays later, Kelley scored a big touchdown on a 10-yard run up the gut. If you watch the video, Martinez pressed the line and helped force Kelley to cut back. Thomas should have done the same and taken on a block at about the 9. But he’s not stout enough to, so he stood at the 7 and was worked over by tight end Vernon Davis.
That gave Kelley a two-way go, and the running back picked the open alley to the end zone. Instead of possibly going into halftime tied at 10, the Packers trailed 14-10. That was a big play. You can’t play inside linebacker five yards off the line of scrimmage. That’s what got Sam Barrington cut earlier this season.
So yes, the Packers’ defense has collapsed in the last month. But while Capers is a convenient target, it doesn’t mean he’s the right one.
» Jared Cook added an explosive element the Packers’ offense was missing while he was out with a severe ankle sprain. But if he impressed with his six receptions and 17.5-yard average, he also showed the concentration issues that have plagued him in his NFL career. You don’t normally think of tight ends as fumblers because they’re big and strong, but late in the game Cook failed to protect the ball when he ran into traffic after catching a screen pass, which allowed cornerback Josh Norman to punch it out. Washington’s recovery clinched the game.
» Left tackle David Bakhtiari gutted it out on a knee that knocked him out of last week’s game at Tennessee. He held up well and didn’t give up a sack or a hit.
Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week during the season. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1