McGinn: Packers' defense can step up in class

Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY – Nothing is absolute when it comes to playoff football. With an oval-shaped ball, 22 players on the field and intensity ratcheted up, the unexpected often becomes the expected.

Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews (52) sacks Minnesota Vikings quarterback Sam Bradford (8) on Saturday, December 24, 2016 at Lambeau Field.

For the sake of argument, let’s agree that the Green Bay Packers think Aaron Rodgers will stay hot, the offensive line will keep giving him more than ample time and the receivers will sustain their improved play.

The question looming over the Packers is whether their defense is good enough to help them win a Super Bowl.

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It’s a defense that should be able to handle the 25th-ranked offense of the New York Giants on Sunday at Lambeau Field. Crowd noise should affect the Giants, and the freezing weather along with a slower track should make it more difficult for Odell Beckham Jr. to dominate the game.

If not, coach Mike McCarthy’s Packers stand a good chance of suffering a third upset playoff defeat on home turf to the Giants in the last 10 years.

A franchise as accustomed to winning as the Packers, however, isn’t seeking just one victory in the postseason. The Packers are looking to finish the season with what would be a club-record 10 straight victories, including four in the playoffs.

To do so, the odds say the Packers would have to beat the Dallas Cowboys and their fifth-ranked offense in a dome, the Atlanta Falcons and their second-ranked offense in a dome and the New England Patriots and their fourth-ranked offense in a dome.

The road to glory, in a word, appears daunting.

Metrics in several significant categories indicate just how far off the Packers have been this season from fielding a championship defense.

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Of the 50 teams that won the Super Bowl, 62 percent finished the regular season ranked among the top five in yards allowed and 80 percent in the top 10.

Of those 50 teams, 64 percent ranked among the top five in points allowed and 86 percent ranked in the top 10.

Of those 50 teams, none ranked worse than 29th in passing yards allowed.

This year, the Packers’ defense ranked 22nd in yards, 21st in points and 31st in passing yards.

Green Bay’s ranking of eighth against the run was somewhat misleading because its yields were 75.8 yards per game and 3.29 per carry in Games 1-8 and 113.6 and 4.73 in Games 9-16. The No. 8 ranking would tie the Packers for just 33rd place when compared to the 50 champions.

Green Bay also tied for 11th in takeaways with 25. Of the last 25 title teams, according to Sportradar, only nine ranked worse than 11th.

Let’s face it. Defense still wins championships, which Packers fans well know.

Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Nick Perry (53) celebrates his sack of quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) with outside linebacker Clay Matthews (52) against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field Sunday, January 1, 2017.

Go back to 2010, the 13th NFL title for Green Bay, when the Packers probably were slightly better on defense over the 20 games than they were on offense. That defense ranked fifth in yards, second in points and fifth in passing yards.

To be a great defense, you need a run stuffer, an interior pass rusher, an outside pass rusher, a shutdown cornerback, a competitive cornerback and, to a lesser extent, a dynamic safety. Those Packers had B.J. Raji, Cullen Jenkins, Clay Matthews, Tramon Williams, Charles Woodson and Nick Collins.

The electrifying playoff interceptions made by Williams, Raji and Collins. The third-ranked pass rush forcing Michael Vick, Matt Ryan, Jay Cutler and Ben Roethlisberger into a passer rating of 67.7. The run defense, which ranked 18th during the regular season, improving from a yield of 114.9 to 83.8 in the playoffs.

Now go back to 1996, the Packers’ other NFL title team during the lifespan of the majority of fans. The run stuffer was Gilbert Brown, the inside rusher was Santana Dotson, the outside rushers were Reggie White and Sean Jones, the cornerbacks were Doug Evans and Craig Newsome, and the safety was LeRoy Butler.

Those Packers led the league in yards, passing yards and points allowed. Their playoff opponents averaged 16 points, 234.7 yards (52 rushing) and a passer rating of 45.8. They also turned the ball over 12 times.

It was Gilbert Brown shoving Carolina center Frank Garcia back seven yards into Kerry Collins’ lap on the first play of the NFC championship Game. It also was the secondary stifling Jerry Rice to 36 yards on five receptions in the divisional game, Wayne Simmons and Butler dominating Panthers tight end Wesley Walls and White, with four pressures to go with three sacks, proving to be unstoppable against New England.

So in this market you know what a championship defense looks like, sounds like and feels like. You also know this defense hasn’t begun to measure up.

In writing the “Rating the Packers” series since 1991, I’ve used the same grading system to award from one half to five footballs for each position group in every game. It might be a useful barometer of the Packers’ defense in 1996, 2010 and 2016 because the ratings were based purely on performance, not statistics.

In 1996, of the nine position groups, the secondary tied for second with an average of 3.87 footballs, the defensive line ranked fourth at 3.79 and the linebackers ranked ninth at 3.45.

In 2010, the linebackers ranked second at 3.55, the secondary ranked third at 3.53 and the defensive line ranked fourth at 3.45.

This year, the linebackers ranked sixth with an average of 2.84 footballs, the defensive line ranked eighth at 2.69 and the secondary ranked ninth at 2.63.

This year’s personnel really can’t begin to compare to its championship predecessors.

Despair not. There is precedent for a lowly rated defense executing an about-face and contributing mightily to a championship.

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Four teams – the 2011 Giants, the ’09 Saints, the ’06 Colts and the ’01 Patriots – did rank in the 20s in yards allowed during the Super Bowl era and still won a title. All but the Patriots also finished in the 20s in points allowed and won, the only three teams in Super Bowl history to accomplish that feat.

Let their stories serve as a blueprint for a potential defensive revival in Green Bay.

The 2011 Giants (27th in yards, 25th in points) gave up 49 points and 577 yards to the Saints in Game 11 before a 38-35 loss to Green Bay left them with a 6-6 record. On Nov. 30, they re-signed middle linebacker Chase Blackburn, a six-year veteran who hadn’t played in 11 months.

“We found out who we were in the Green Bay game (Dec. 4) when they beat us on the last drive,” defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said (all interviews were conducted for "The Ultimate Super Bowl Book."). “What we had to do was put some veteran players in there. We were just getting the hell beat out of us. It took us three quarters of the season to find our personality.

“We didn’t have the ‘mike’ backer. We needed someone to communicate our defenses to our front and secondary. Chase was really the key person for us to be on the same page.”

The front four, with ends Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora each registering 3½ sacks, rekindled the formidable four-man rushes of the 2007 title team. The regular-season averages of 25 points and 376.4 yards were cut to 14 and 328.

“(Tuck) returned to his old form starting with the Jets game (Dec. 24),” said Marc Ross, the Giants’ director of college scouting. “From then on he was a monster. With us, everything starts up front. Those guys got healthy and the guys in the secondary stopped making mistakes. People kind of settled into their roles. It all came together.”

Saints coach Sean Payton hired defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in 2009 to balance a team led by quarterback Drew Brees. Although the Saints (25th in yards, 20th in points) didn’t fare well in the rankings, they feasted on takeaways (39, eight returned for touchdowns).

“It starts with attitude defensively,” Williams said. “I learned that from Buddy Ryan. Unless your defense is feared, then it’s not really a legitimate defense. How that comes about is through contact, through speed, through the fear of making a mistake against that type of defense.”

Williams, of course, veered over the edge with his culture of bounty payments that resulted in NFL suspensions and fines.

In playoff victories over Kurt Warner, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning, the Saints blitzed heavily and limited them to 19.7 points and a passer rating of 78.5.

“We’ve got the No. 1 scoring offense in the league three of the last four years,” said Williams. “Teams know they have to score at least in the 20s to have a chance. We’re getting the kitchen sink thrown at us every week on defense.

“What our defense did was create a lot of takeaways and did an excellent job in the red zone (No. 2, 39.3%).”

The 2006 Colts (21st in yards, 23rd in points) allowed merely 238.5 yards in four playoff games, a far cry from 332.3 in the regular season and an average that would have led the NFL.

Their run defense was a sieve; they ranked last at 173. It came to a head in Game 13 when Jacksonville rushed 42 times for 375 yards to crush the Colts, 44-17.

“We were all pretty down after Jacksonville,” President Bill Polian said. “But, after looking at the tape, Tony (Dungy) said, ‘Hey, it’s fixable.’ And we got it fixed.”

Said Dungy: “Part of it was (safety) Bob Sanders being out and different guys being hurt. Part of it was the way people began to play us, slowing the tempo down. We adjusted to that in the playoffs. We went to more 7-technique (rather than 9-technique) with the ends. We were just more run conscious.”

Getting Sanders back from a 12-game absence helped prevent Kansas City from getting a first down in the first 42 minutes of the playoff opener. The change from 225-pound Gilbert Gardner to 245-pound Rob Morris at strong linebacker also was critical.

“We had a lot of guys with a lot of experience that never panicked,” Dungy said of a defensive staff led by coordinator Ron Meeks and line coach John Teerlinck.

Predicted by Pro Football Weekly to finish 5-11, the 2001 Patriots (24th in yards, sixth in points) won three playoff games despite scoring merely three offensive touchdowns. Quarterbacks Rich Gannon, Kordell Stewart and Warner combined for a 66.9 rating as the Patriots allowed averages of 15.7 points and 75 yards rushing.

“About halfway through that year we played a lot of ‘46’ defense, my dad’s old defense, and a lot of different fronts that teams weren’t used to seeing from Bill Belichick,” linebackers coach Rob Ryan said. “Just having one week before the Super Bowl was to our advantage. They (the Rams) prepared for the wrong thing.”

Having watched Warner shred his wholesale blitzing in a Game 10 defeat, Belichick blitzed hardly at all and concentrated instead on mugging Marshall Faulk and the Rams’ receivers.

“We lined up in the first series with two tight ends and I looked out there and he had like seven or nine defensive backs,” Rams coach Mike Martz said. “We didn’t know who to block. That’s Belichick.”

Said Rams GM Charley Armey: “If you looked in the mirror and lined up the 22 guys playing for New England, they all have one face and it’s Belichick. What it takes to win, in whatever situation, that’s just what they are going to do.”

Green Bay’s Dom Capers, the league’s longest-tenured coordinator for one team with eight straight seasons, said at mid-week he was hopeful his core of playoff veterans would inspire the youthful players, especially at cornerback.

The Packers must live and die Sunday with LaDarius Gunter, Damarious Randall and Micah Hyde covering wide receivers. Maybe Quinten Rollins could return if there are more games. Rookie Herb Waters could be a surprise.

“Our DBs have been going down in staggering numbers,” Matthews said. “It puts an extra emphasis on us to get after the quarterback.”

Giants coach Ben McAdoo and his offensive coordinator, Mike Sullivan, didn’t hesitate in pinpointing pass rush as the Packers’ strength.

“The first thing that we think of with that defense is the fact they’ve got 40 sacks,” Sullivan said Thursday. “It really all starts with what they have up front and their ability to get to the quarterback. They’ve been doing a great job taking the ball away.”

The Packers’ best stretch on defense was Games 11-13. Of their 25 takeaways, 15 came during the current six-game win streak.

On the down side, Green Bay’s 28th-place finish in red-zone defense was a far cry from 12th in 2010.

Who might elevate his game and enable the Packers to become a legitimate force defensively?

Bum shoulder or not, Matthews could do it. Julius Peppers still can bring heat when so moved. Mike Daniels and Datone Jones have been close. Club and all, Nick Perry might be back.

Capers tried blitzing Eli Manning in the 2007 loss (34.8 percent) and the ’11 loss (36.1 percent), but to no avail. Manning is even less mobile now but he does read pressure quickly and there’s no Woodson or Desmond Bishop to wreck a blocking scheme.

The Packers always start with straight four-man rushes before getting into stunts and both five-man zone and man pressures. Look for Capers to show McAdoo some fresh looks.

One thing is certain. No team can win a Super Bowl with its defense being along just for the ride.

On paper, the defense in Green Bay comes up well short. But as the Giants, Saints, Colts and Patriots have shown, form need not hold in the postseason.

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