When Packer Report asked defensive coordinator Dom Capers about his to-do list to get his unit ready for the season, his focus was on tackling and the passing game.
"I think the No. 1 thing is we have to tackle better," he said. "We have to play better leverage. We can't give up the number of big plays. I've always believed that if you want to be a good scoring defense team and not give up a lot of points, you've got to make people work. The statistics prove that out every year. If you get a play of plus-15 yards or more, your chances of scoring quadruples. The key is to make them have to work for things. In this league nowadays, it's about big plays, and most of those come in the passing game. We have to do things better. We have to continue to do the things that we've done, like take the ball away. We've done the best job in the league of that. We've become a smarter defensive team in terms of not hurting ourselves with penalties. If you look at our penalties the last three years, they're greatly reduced. We have to tackle better and we have to make people work."
We will tackle Capers' wish list in this four-part series. If you missed our four-part series on the offense, CLICK HERE.
Tackling a major problem
Tackling was the first thing out of Capers' mouth, so it's only logical to kick off this series by examining the tackling.
According to team-by-team tackling data kept by ProFootballFocus.com, the Packers missed 109 tackles. Only five teams were worse. Missing tackles, not surprisingly, is a recipe for defensive trouble. The Packers, of course, gave up a league-record number of passing yards. The Buccaneers, who missed the most tackles in the league, gave up the most points in the NFL. Detroit, which missed the second-most tackles, gave up the 10th-most points. Indianapolis, which missed the third-most tackles, gave up the fifth-most points.
While the collective bargaining agreement forbids tackling during offseason practices, Capers and the coaching staff made it a priority to emphasize all the steps leading up to making the tackle.
And much of that is mental.
"The best tacklers I've been around, I go back and think of what they did is every day in practice, they burst to the ball and they got themselves in position to make the play," Capers said. "When they had the opportunities in the game, they'd get him on the ground. Guys that got casual about their leverage and didn't break down, they ended up missing."
While tackling was an issue in every layer of the defense, the cornerbacks were especially guilty.
Among the 109 cornerbacks measured by Pro Football Focus (based on 25 percent playing time), Tramon Williams ranked third with 16 missed tackles, Charles Woodson fourth with 15 and Sam Shields tied for 10th with 10.
To that end, cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt promised a more physical training camp.
"We're going to hit," he said. "We're going to put our face on people, and that's that whole group, and they understand that, too. That's been clear. I'm going back to how I coached in college. We're going to have a drill called the ‘Come To Jesus Drill,' and we're going to get that solved. We will get that solved. We will tackle. You don't have to worry about that. Or we won't be out there, one of the two."
Reason for hope: Generally, when coach Mike McCarthy's Packers have focused on something, the improvement has been evident. For years, the Packers were among the most-penalized teams in the league. In terms of penalty yards, three of the five worst seasons in Packers history came under McCarthy's watch. Not anymore. Last year, they set team records for fewest penalties and penalty yards. McCarthy focuses on turnovers and the Packers routinely are among the best teams in the league in giveaways/takeaways. So, a renewed focus on tackling should pay dividends. It will, help, too, if Williams' shoulder is better and Shields' takes his offseason demotion to heart.
Reason for pessimism: Shields and Williams weren't very good tacklers in 2010, either. At safety, Charlie Peprah too often is a step slow, which occasionally puts him in bad positions, and nobody knows if challengers M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian can tackle, either. All signs point to the Packers playing a lot more dime, meaning six defensive backs on the field. Generally speaking, the smaller the player, the worse they are at tackling.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.