A deeply disturbing trend has formed since the Green Bay Packers’ playoff loss this past weekend.
History and fact have been thrown out the window in favor of pitchforks and anger. Far too many voices are calling for the head of defensive coordinator Dom Capers. These people will tell you how bad the tackling was and how poor game planning became. These claims are always coupled with demands for any number of possible replacements.
These accusations are meritless, and Dom Capers should be retained as defensive coordinator.
As always, the numbers do not lie. The defense finished eleventh in points allowed, a feat made all the more impressive by the fact the Packers play in the league’s highest scoring division. Even more telling, Green Bay finished eighth overall in Football Outsiders’ weighted defensive rankings. Now, consider the fact that the 2012 Green Bay defense lost Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson, Sam Shields, D.J. Smith, Nick Perry, C.J. Wilson, and Mike Neal for multiple games this season. This meant consider playing time for many rookies such as Casey Hayward, Dezman Moses, Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels. To perform at the level Green Bay did with so many injuries and shifting lineups is a credit to the coaching staff, and we haven’t even gotten into Desmond Bishop and the “bad tackling.”
The perception that the Packers were a bad tackling team this year is perhaps the most frustrating. It was a constant theme during the three games against the Minnesota Vikings and their all-everything running back Adrian Peterson. It’s the calling card of just about every armchair general manager who wants to see Capers ousted.
Well, here’s the reality: the Packers had the third fewest missed tackles in the NFL this year. That’s top three in the league, ladies and gentlemen. If the Packers weren’t a good tackling team this year, then nobody was.
Not only are most of the accusations of Capers factually incorrect, but the suggestions we’ve heard to succeed him range from bad to hysterical. Prior to his hiring by the St. Louis Rams, many were calling for Rob Ryan. Why? The only explanation I can conjure is he coaches a 3-4 and he’s not Dom Capers. Any cursory analysis of Ryan’s defensive record should quickly dismiss him as a reasonable candidate. He’s been a defensive coordinator every year from 2004 through 2012. In that time, he’s never finished with a top 10 defense in points allowed. Worse still, he’s finished in the bottom half seven times. Most of these teams had very capable defensive talent, especially these last few years with the Dallas Cowboys. Ryan is just not a good coach, and certainly not someone worthy of replacing Capers.
Yet, the far more egregious replacement suggestion is Lovie Smith. Now, Smith is one of the better defensive minds in the league. He’s run strong defenses during his time in Chicago and St. Louis and will be a good hire for someone. That doesn’t change the fact he’s a terrible schematic fit for the Packers. Smith runs a cover-2 base 4-3 defense. This defense demands pressure primarily from the four man rushes with the middle and weakside linebacker have the freedom to play in space.
Even though Green Bay has a fair amount of talent on the defensive side of the ball, that talent does not fit into Smith’s defense. Specifically, the cover-2 has no position for the Packers’ best defensive players, B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews. Raji is the prototype 3-4 nose tackle. His strength is that he can take on two or more blockers and still provide push up in the middle to free the pass rushers. In a 4-3, Raji is moved away from the 0 gap and forced to play where it is easier for offensive lineman to block him out of the play. Charles Woodson also wouldn’t have a proper spot in this defense. Woodson will be a full-time safety going forward. In the cover-2, that position rarely plays around the line of scrimmage. Woodson’s best trait at this point in his career is to move down toward the linebackers and either cover the slot or rush the passer. He could not do this in the cover-2 as a safety. And while Raji and Woodson’s production would be greatly diminished, neither would constitute the greatest atrocity. That distinction would fall upon Clay Matthews who would be left with no position at all.
One of the reasons Matthews was still available at the twenty-sixth pick in the 2009 draft was scheme fit. Matthews is not large enough to play defensive end, nor can his pass rushing skills be fully realized playing linebacker in a 4-3. The only way to maximize his ability is as a 3-4 outside linebacker. If Smith were to be hired, Clay Matthews would essentially become Aaron Kampman the sequel. For those who have forgotten, Kampman was the Packers’ best pass rusher back when they featured a 4-3 base defense. In the four years prior to the Packers’ switch to a 3-4, Kampman averaged just under 11 sacks a season. In all the years combined since the switch, Kampman has only acquired 7.5 sacks. If the Packers don’t want to repeat history, they’ll steer clear Lovie Smith and a switch back to a 4-3.
Now, Capers does deserve criticism for the way the defense performed against the 49ers. Colin Kaepernick was unaccounted for nearly the entire night, and the final score reflected it. However, one game does not justify a coordinator change. The defense needs to continue to improve in 2013 or Capers may actually be ousted. Given that the Packers are a smart organization, they’ll approach this as they do everything else: using reason.
Jason Hirschhorn covers the Green Bay Packers for Lombardi Ave. He has previously written for Hail to the Orange, College Hoops Net, Mocking the Draft, LiveBall Sports, and the List Universe. He is currently a senior writer for Beats Per Minute, an indie-music webzine. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/JBHirschhorn.