By Jason Hirschhorn
We’re approaching the point where we can properly assess the Green Bay Packers‘ strengths and weaknesses even though half the season (and postseason) has yet to be played.
The eye test shows that this is a team with a strong offense and a defense that generally isn’t a revolving door. The rudimentary numbers back this up: the Packers are the 9th best in points per game and give up the 13th least points per game.
As is obvious to anyone who watched the 2011 edition of the Packers, the biggest development thus far is the defense. But how much has the defense really improved from last year?To answer that question we need to establish just how good (or bad) last year’s defense was.
The old method of measuring defense by yards allowed yields hollow results. Yards, especially passing yards, are as cheap as ever in NFL history.
Points allowed is a better metric, but even that provide false positives. A better way of judging defenses, especially giving its strong correlation with winning percentage, is defensive passer rating.
To illustrate the correlation between defensive passer rating and winning, the top 10 teams in defensive passer rating have a combined record of 43-23, and include defenses like San Francisco, Seattle, Houston, and at number one, Chicago.
Let’s first look at last year’s numbers:
379/621 for 4,976 yards with 32 touchdowns against 31 interceptions: good for a defensive passer rating of 82.71.
That 82.71 defensive passer rating says a lot about the 2011 defense. Mostly, that the ceaseless talk all offseason over Green Bay having the worst defense in NFL history was to some degree exaggeration.
A team does not go 15-1 with a turnstile defense, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say last year’s unit was even average, it definitely did contribute to the 15 regular season wins. Primarily, they did it through turnovers. The 2011 defense forced a turnover in every game that season with just one exception.
That exception, as you may have already guessed, was the regular season’s only loss in week 14 to Kansas City.So how does this year’s unit compare?
Through seven games, the 2012 Green Bay defense has a defensive passer rating of 79.94, which is tenth best in the NFL right now. This may seem high, and to some degree it possibly is given the sample size, but early signs indicate that the defense has improved from last year.
The next step is to figure out why with an improved defense the Packers have lost more games than they did all of last year. Two obvious factors are luck (some random, some replacement ref) and a less effective offense. The other, as hinted at earlier, is forced turnovers.
Prior to the Houston game, Green Bay had only forced 5 turnovers and 4 of them came against Chicago. From Houston and on, Green Bay has forced 4 turnovers.
Given the 2011 defense’s propensity for forcing turnovers, it seems very likely that the defense of the last two games is more or less what we can expect for the remainder of the season. That’s assuming Woodson’s injury doesn’t completely throw a wrench into the works, but we won’t know how well Dom Capers will adjust until Sunday.