Green Bay Packers  

 

Exit Interview: Packers must address many facets of shoddy D

With the 2011 season in the rearview mirror for most teams, it's time for NFL.com's annual "Exit Interviews," a chance to review the ups and downs of each team's past season and spin it forward.

2011 in a Nutshell: The unbeatable got beat. Done and done. While some around the NFL will surely lament the league's "best" team -- a group that won 15 games -- going down early, one must consider the need for organized defense in this chuck-and-duck era of pro football. Simply put, Green Bay's defenders were often out of position and out of the play, hemorrhaging the franchise's rare opportunity to repeat as league champions.

What Went Right: So much that there's not enough to type. Seriously. Let's not be too hard on the NFC North champs for one playoff mishap -- the Packers were often dominant.

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers Discount Double-Checked teams into oblivion all season. Of all his regular-season numbers -- be it going over 4,000 yards passing for the third time, 45 touchdowns to six interceptions, or his 14-1 record as starter -- perhaps the most impressive stat was the 131.4 passer rating he put up against the blitz this season.

Joining Rodgers in the decimation of secondaries across the NFL landscape were Jordy Nelson and his 15 touchdown catches, and Greg Jennings in his usual role of clutch receiver (until the playoffs). Despite too many drops, Jermichael Finley was a matchup nightmare for many safeties and pretty much all inside linebackers who tried to cover him. Of course, the offensive productivity was partially due to a solid performance by a battered offensive line.

Overall, the Packers could have finished higher than third in total offense if they didn't tap the brakes late in some games. They still scored a league-leading 35 points per game, which speaks to a great play caller in Mike McCarthy.

What Went Not So Right: Green Bay also sat atop the NFL (along with the 49ers) in takeaways at 38. After that fun fact, it was hard to find a lot to like about the Packers' defense in 2011.

Packers Defense: 2010 vs. 2011 (with NFL ranks)
  2010 2011
Points per game 15.0 (2) 22.4 (19)
Yards per game 309.1 (5) 411.6 (32)
Total sacks 47 (t-2) 29 (t-27)
3rd-down conversion rate 36.2 (9) 42.6 (26)

Tramon Williams did not take the next step, and gave up more receiving yards individually (1,120) than any player in pro football. Charles Woodson can still play, but isn't the same guy he was in 2009, when he was named AP Defensive Player of the Year. After all, he's a 35-year old cornerback. Safety Morgan Burnett is a developing player. All in all, the secondary struggled.

One of the most overlooked injuries of the season was the loss of free safety Nick Collins in Week 2. Not having his presence in center field hurt, especially considering the front seven couldn't routinely apply pressure. Clay Matthews continued to hurry passers, but only got home six times, as opposed to his 13.5 sacks in 2010.

With teams constantly playing catch-up, the Green Bay defense was always under assault. That's still no excuse for a Dom Capers-led unit to finish dead last in yards allowed.

Offseason Crystal Ball: One remedy for the struggling defense this offseason would be finding a running game to slow the game down and give the D some breaks, especially if the Pack are up by more than two scores. Sometimes the ground game was there, sometimes it wasn't. Ryan Grant was inconsistent, less explosive than in past seasons and will turn 30 this year. James Starks was so-so, but hurt his team in pass protection in the playoffs. Do McCarthy and team president Ted Thompson give Brandon Saine a longer look? Maybe.

Meanwhile, Capers has to pour over game film and plug the leaks found when the team was in Cover 0, three-deep, etc. Situational defense is the name of the game, and the Packers failed at it in 2011, despite the sterling 15-2 overall record. Sound a bit strong? Sure. Except not if you fancy yourself to be the best team in the NFL and fully capable of winning another Super Bowl. Now is the time to be factual, not wistful.

Green Bay has decisions to make on Grant (free agent), veteran receiver Donald Driver (due a roster bonus and $2.6 million) and outside linebacker Erik Walden (free agent).

Team Needs and Draft: Capers' cathartic take on his unit's season can start with a look at right outside linebacker. The team needs to move on from Walden, and Clemson's Andre Branch could be on the board for Green Bay's pick at No. 28. To properly run Capers' zone-blitzing 3-4 defense, the Packers need a strong presence here to complement Matthews, much like the Steelers have with LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison. Getting another defensive end for that scheme isn't a bad idea, either.

Offensively, backup Matt Flynn is likely gone. His price will be too steep to keep. Running back is a possibility in the draft, but keep in mind former Hawaii standout Alex Green is on the roster. The draft should be about offensive line depth in the event tackle Chad Clifton decides to hang 'em up or center Scott Wells leaves via free agency. Guard Derek Sherrod broke his leg toward the end of the season in Kansas City. Thus, depth is merely a necessity.

Follow Elliot Harrison on Twitter @Harrison_NFL

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