Cornerback Casey Hayward returns an interception against the Houston Texans in the fourth quarter at Reliant Stadium. Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports photograph
It has been apparent for the past few seasons that the Green Bay Packers defense has needed to get younger and more athletic. The Packers ranked dead last in the league in total yards allowed in 2011 as opposing quarterbacks carved up the defense each week.
Ted Thompson addressed this issue in the 2012 draft by selecting defensive players with his first six picks, and consequently, the defense improved in 2012. Green Bay went from the thirty-second-ranked defense to the eleventh ranked defense in just a single year. That is a pretty significant jump. They also improved their sack total, going from 29 recorded sacks in 2011 to 47 in 2012, and cut down on the amount of passing plays over 20 yards allowed (71 in 2011 to 50 in 2012).
Looking at these numbers it seems the defense is on the right track, but why then does the popular discourse this offseason still seem to be about how the Packers defense needs to desperately improve?
Despite the progress from 2011 to 2012, the Packers defense still gave up way too many yards in big time games last season against the Giants, Adrian Peterson and the Vikings, and the well-documented embarrassing 579 yards surrendered to Colin Kaepernick and the Forty-Niners in the playoffs. It was apparent at the end of last season the Packers’ defense still needed to improve significantly in order to compete with the elite teams in the league.
Green Bay has added some defensive talent this offseason through the draft, but Coach McCarthy made it clear that he expects the most improvement on both sides of the ball will come from the progress the second year players make this season. Some players contribute immediately as rookies, but traditionally, players don’t really show what they can do on the field until at least their second year in the league. Look at Randall Cobb as a recent example.
With the Packers defense full of young players, let’s take a look at some of the second year guys who could make that jump and provide a boost to the defense in 2013.
Hayward was by far the Packers most impressive rookie last season. He led the team in interceptions with six and also recorded 21 passes defensed and 53 tackles. Hayward also proved to be impressive in coverage while taking Woodson’s place in the slot. Hayward plays with good game speed and has a natural knack for reading routes and breaking on the ball, but Hayward still dropped a number of potential interceptions last season.
Hayward has the potential to be a playmaker on the Packers defense this year and could increase his number of interceptions as he improves his ball skills. He will definitely compete for a starting cornerback spot opposite Tramon Williams, so it will be interesting to see how well he plays as a full-time starter if he beats out Sam Shields and Davon House. We have already predicted here at LombardiAve that Hayward could have a big year in 2013, and I hope he does because the Packers will be looking for more playmakers on defense with the departure of Charles Woodson.
If Hayward can match or exceed his performance in 2012, the Packers secondary will be in good shape.
Green Bay Packers linebacker Nick Perry during warmups prior to the game against the Cleveland Browns at Lambeau Field. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports photograph
2013 is the year for Nick Perry to prove himself. He showed some promise early on in the 2012 season by wracking up 2 sacks, 18 tackles, and doing a good job closing in the pocket, but Perry still had his share of struggles adjusting to the new position and his season met an early end when he was placed on injured reserve after week six.
The Packers defense needs Perry to step up and excel as another pass rusher on the team. Green Bay can’t keep relying on Clay Matthews to produce a majority of the quarterback pressure. We all saw how the Packers pass rush fell flat when Matthews went out with an injury last season. The Packers can’t afford for this to happen again. If the Green Bay defense is going to take that next step and be able to compete with the elite teams next season, they will need a consistent pass rush from more than just one player on their defense. Could Perry be this guy?
I think drafting Datone Jones and the creative use of Mike Neal will help, but ultimately, the Packers need another edge rusher at outside linebacker to establish a presence opposite Clay Matthews. Honestly, we really haven’t seen what Perry can fully do yet, so let’s hope he can put it all together this season. Because if he does, this defense could be scary for opposing offenses.
Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson (81) makes a catch against Green Bay Packers defensive back Jerron McMillian (22) during the first quarter at Ford Field. Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports photograph
The Packers desperately need another safety to emerge alongside Morgan Burnett. The defense could really use another playmaker in the secondary, and having a safety that can play well against the run and deliver hits across the middle of the field wouldn’t hurt either. McMillian could be this guy, but his play last season was inconsistent. At times, McMillian looked impressive — playing tight in coverage and making sure tackles against bigger running backs, but other times he looked lost on the field and made mental errors in coverage.
These early struggles could just be the bumps all rookies face their first year in the league. Just think back when Packers safety greats, Darren Sharper and Nick Collins, first played as rookies. It seems to take safeties a few years to adjust in the NFL, so let’s hope McMillian falls in the Sharper/Collins category. In the very least, if McMillian can prove to be assignment-sure and consistent against the run when he plays at the line of scrimmage, then the Packers defense will already improve this season. And if McMillian can make a few big plays here and there, I won’t complain.
Moses had a solid rookie season last year, recording four sacks and 27 tackles. Not bad for an undrafted rookie in his first season. Moses is a high-effort player that leaves it all out on the field, and his intensity is good for a defense that needs a little more tenacity. Moses provided some good depth at outside linebacker last season, filling in for an injured Clay Matthews and sharing reps with Erik Walden. With Matthews’ hamstring injury history, it is important for the Packers to have players that can come in and provide some pressure on the quarterback.
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Brady Quinn (9) is tackled by Green Bay Packers linebacker Dezman Moses (54) after getting off a pass at Lambeau Field. Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports photograph
Moses could make a jump this season and see more playing time on defense. If Moses improves enough he could even push Perry for the starting outside linebacker position, or in the very least, split reps with Perry during the season. Moses is a bit of a wildcard and I’m not sure how much his role on the defense will change this season even if he shows improvement, but hopefully, Moses can provide some additional pass rush as he rotates in at outside linebacker.
Mike Daniels and Terrell Manning are both players that could show a significant amount of improvement this season, and they will add depth to their respective positions. Jerel Worthy’s 2013 season looks suspect at this point after having knee surgery this offseason. Worthy has a long road back just to even play, so I wouldn’t expect much contribution from him in 2013.
Last season, the Packers defense finished just outside of being a top-ten group in the league. The 2012 draft class could provide the push the Packers need to play at the next level and withstand the elite offenses Green Bay will face in 2013.