The Green Bay Packers' championship aspirations went up in smoke a season ago behind a faltering defense that allowed too many points and big plays in critical moments. The unit finished dead last in total defense in 2011.
Mike McCarthy and Dom Capers have spent the offseason crafting a plan to retool the unit in 2012 and help the Packers reclaim their spot atop the NFC. While part of the plan includes assimilating a host of talented rookies into the lineup, the majority of Green Bay's problems must be resolved in practice.
After watching a few tapes from last season, here are three things for the Packers to focus on during minicamp:
1. Diversify the pass rush.
In a league that is governed by the pass, elite defenses must be able to mount consistent pressure on the quarterback. Constant harassment alters the timing of the passing game and leads to negative plays from the offense. During their Super Bowl run in 2010, the Packers were outstanding in this category, recording 47 sacks (second in the NFL) and forcing 32 takeaways (sixth).
Last season, though, the Packers only mustered 29 sacks, third-worst in the NFL, with linebackers Clay Matthews and Desmond Bishop accounting for 38 percent of that production. While Capers' version of the 3-4 certainly places the onus on the linebackers to make the majority of the plays within the scheme, the lack of a legitimate pass-rushing threat opposite Matthews limited the effectiveness of the Packers' zone-blitz tactics. Opponents routinely slid their pass protection in Matthews' direction and counted on running backs or tight ends to hold up in isolated matchups against Green Bay's backside rusher. Without a dominant edge player in place to exploit the tactic, the Packers' pass rush (and Matthews' production) declined dramatically, allowing quarterbacks to push the ball down the field without fear of a pocket collapse.
To address the problem, the Packers used a first-round pick on USC DE Nick Perry. The 6-foot-3, 271-pounder is a sneaky pass rusher with great hands and technical skills. Although he isn't an athlete in the class of Matthews, Perry possesses the first-step quickness and burst to hunt quarterbacks down off the edge. The Packers will line him up at LOLB and allow him to work extensively against right tackles, which are usually less athletic than left tackles. This should result in six to eight sacks from the rookie rusher, based on his agility and skill.
More importantly, the presence of a legitimate rusher opposite Matthews should allow the Pro Bowler to see fewer double teams, leading to better production and more disruptive plays.
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The Packers also hope to get better production from a defensive line that only combined for nine sacks a season ago. The team picked up a couple veterans in free agency (Anthony Hargrove and Phillip Merling) and added two defensive tackles in the draft (Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels) to upgrade the quickness and athleticism of the front line. Worthy, a second-round pick, could emerge as an immediate difference maker with his first-step quickness and snap anticipation. As a three-technique at Michigan State, he routinely defeated offensive guards with finesse moves following an explosive "get off," and that kind of disruption would certainly help the Packers contain opponents' passing offenses.
With more players capable of contributing to the pass rush, Capers will certainly use the next series of practices as an opportunity to experiment with different schemes and tactics to free rushers at the line of scrimmage.
2. Keep balls in front of the defense.
Against today's aerial offenses, defenders can't allow balls to fly over the top of the defense. Big plays must be kept to a minimum. This premise is uttered in every defensive meeting room across the NFL, and I know it is stressed in Green Bay, based on conversations with some of their defensive coaches.
Last season, though, the Packers failed to adhere to those principles. The team allowed 71 pass plays of 20-plus yards (second-most in the NFL) and yielded 10 passes over 40 yards. Consequently, the Packers gave up nine 300-plus yard passing games, including three games with over 400 passing yards from the opponent. Those numbers are startling from a unit that features some of the best secondary personnel in the NFL. From Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams and Sam Shields forming a dynamic cornerback trio on the outside to Morgan Burnett and Charlie Peprah serving as ball-hawking safeties, the Packers certainly don't lack talent in the back end. Green Bay possesses the size, athleticism and length that scouts covet in secondary defenders, and their collective skills helped the Packers easily lead the NFL in interceptions a season ago.
However, the unit didn't play with consistent discipline in coverage and repeatedly allowed receivers to run freely through vacated zones. Some of the problems could be attributed to questionable communication prior to the snap, which led to a few coverage busts. Although the lack of offseason work due to the lockout certainly didn't help the secondary develop the trust and accountability needed to thrive in the back end, the chemistry between defenders should not have been an issue based on the length of time the unit has played together. To alleviate this problem, the Packers will emphasize communication between the safeties and corners throughout workouts and likely implement some hand signals to verify calls. This will not only allow players to confirm communication, but it will allow coaches to see that the correct information is being exchanged when they watch game tape.
The Packers will also work on refining the games of Williams and Shields. Both guys appeared to take a step back in their development a season ago, and the drop-off in performance forced coaches to scale back some of their aggressiveness due to concerns about matchups on the outside. Shields, in particular, struggled to hold up in isolated matchups near the end of the season, and his inability to lock down his side prevented Capers from attacking quarterbacks with relentless pressure. With more teams opting to use spread formation featuring three and four receivers, the Packers need their third corner to regain his form to compete against the elite offenses in the NFL.
3. Improve open-field tackling.
The Packers must reduce the number of missed tackles in the open field. While the defense swarmed to the ball with reckless abandon last year, the first defenders on the scene routinely missed the runner, leading to extra yardage on the second level. In addition, the Packers took some poor pursuit angles to the ball, leaving cutback seams available for shifty runners in space.
Part of the Packers' suspect tackling could be blamed on the team adjusting to the league's new rules regarding contact and padded practices (only 14 padded practices during the regular season). The team is only allowed one day of heavy contact work during the week, making it hard to prepare for the speed and intensity of contact on game day. When the Packers had a similar problem arise following the 2009 season, McCarthy and Capers instituted a tackling circuit drill that was performed on a daily basis. That tactic could return this season to rectify the problem. Although the padded-practice reductions will force the team to modify some of its drills, the emphasis on angles, body placement and wrapping up ball carriers will remain a priority.
The Packers will also add more defensive pursuit drills to correct some of the poor angles used by defenders chasing the ball. Although these drills are simple by design (coaches place cones along the sideline and assign various positions to run toward a designated cone), the process of conducting these drills on the grass reinforces the importance of taking the proper course to the ball.