Is this the year the Green Bay Packers turn it around on defense?
Dom Capers’ tenure in Green Bay started off tremendously, but it quickly dropped into a tailspin that the Packers still haven’t recovered from.
It is hard to call a Super Bowl ring, eight playoff berths, and three NFC Championship Game appearances underachieving, yet that is exactly what the Packers have done. Countless injuries, bad luck in playoff games, and some memorable performances by opponents have had a lot to do with their repeated exits from the postseason, but with Aaron Rodgers under center for them all along the way, calling it an underachievement might be an understatement.
Against the Arizona Cardinals in the 2009 NFC wild-card playoff game, Dom Capers’ defense gave up 51 points to an offense led by Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald. Not even Aaron Rodgers’ remarkable 423-yard performance in his first career playoff game was enough to overcome the defense.
The Super Bowl run the following year had everything to do with the greatness of Rodgers, but the defense being ranked fifth in the NFL and being especially stingy against the pass put the Packers over the top. It was proof that even an above-average defense was enough to get the Packers a Lombardi Trophy given who they had throwing the ball.
The 2011 season was arguably Capers’ worst. Despite Rodgers having potentially the greatest season ever by a quarterback (45 touchdowns, six interceptions, highest quarterback rating of all-time), the Packers were somehow out-gained in total yardage by their opponents.
The defense was so atrociously bad that a season never before seen in NFL circles by a quarterback was actually outdone by his own defense. It all culminated in the Packers yielding 37 points to Eli Manning and the Giants at home in the divisional playoffs.
A year later, the last-ranked defense in the NFL jumped up to number 11 in the league, but promptly surrendered 45 points to Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers. The defense allowed 183 rushing yards to Kaepernick, the most rushing yards by a quarterback in a single game in NFL history.
A season later, the Packers ranked 25th in the NFL in total defense. Against Kaepernick and company again in the wild-card round, the Packer defense surrendered two late-fourth quarter scores to put the nail in the coffin of another disappointing season.
In 2014, the unit ranked 18th in the league, and after 55 minutes of shutdown football against the Seahawks in the NFC Championship, Capers’ unit allowed touchdowns on three straight possessions in regulation and overtime to send the Packers packing.
The defense gave up another game-winning touchdown against the Cardinals in overtime of the following year’s divisional playoff game. That year, the defense ranked 18th again. Somehow, the Packers kept Capers employed for two more seasons, each of which ended with more frustration.
Rodgers dragged the limping Packers and their 11th-ranked defense into the NFC Championship Game after giving up 31 points to the Cowboys and promptly let the Falcons into the end zone over and over en route to a 44-21 loss.
Rodgers’ broken collarbone in 2017 didn’t inspire the defense too much either. Capers’ final act as defensive coordinator included the team having a non-existent pass rush which led to the unit being ranked 11th and a big reason the team didn’t find a way to get to the playoffs.
Finally, Mike McCarthy pulled the plug with his defensive coordinator and hired Mike Pettine, who has a significantly better track record as the man in charge of NFL defenses. He led the New York Jets’ defense to four straight top-10 finishes during his tenure their from 2009 through 2012. The Packers also made coaching changes at several positions, notably along the defensive line. Ted Thompson, the longtime general manager of the team who oversaw the personnel on the field for the Packers defense, was replaced by Brian Gutekunst.
So far, things already look different on defense. Gutekunst finally added an interior pass rusher in free agency, signing Muhammad Wilkerson to a one-year deal. The secondary, a position group that is responsible for giving Packers fans around the world ulcers, was overhauled again in the draft, as Gutekunst selected two cornerbacks with his first two picks. Tramon Williams was brought back in free agency as a veteran presence to mentor the young corners.
Morgan Burnett, the veteran strong safety who helped line the Packer defense up for years, was finally let go after years of being a porous run defender. Oren Burks, a linebacker with boatloads of athleticism, was added to a group of linebackers without any athleticism to spare. All in all, the scheme, attitude, and skill of the defense appears to be improving considerably.
If the defense can even sneak its way into the top 10 in the NFL, the Packers will almost assuredly be one of the last teams standing come January, if not the very last come February.
With Aaron Rodgers throwing to Davante Adams, Jimmy Graham, Randall Cobb, and Marcedes Lewis behind a solid offensive line, the Packers merely need their defense to be among the better units in the NFL for a change. Packer fans will get their first glimpse at the rebooted team in two weeks time in their first preseason game against the Titans.