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."
The NFL is about passing the ball and stopping the pass. Everything else pales in comparison.
When the Packers won the Super Bowl, they fielded the best pass defense in the league in terms of opponent quarterback rating. So, with the same cornerbacks in 2010 as 2011, how did the Packers go from an opponent passer rating of 67.2 to a ninth-ranked 80.6 and a fourth-ranked 56.2 completion percentage to a 19th-ranked 61.2?
Sure, Nick Collins' career-threatening neck injury played a role. So, too, did the disappearance of the pass rush.
When Cullen Jenkins signed with the Eagles after the lockout, he apparently took the pass rush with him to Philadelphia. In 2010, the Packers finished second in the NFL with 47 sacks and third with a sack percentage of 8.2. In 2011, the Packers finished 27th with 29 sacks and dead-last with a sack percentage of 4.4.
"You guys watch the games, you see it the same (as) we do," cornerback Charles Woodson said. "You see quarterbacks sitting in the pocket, getting off their first read, getting into the second read, maybe getting into the third read. That's hard. You've got to cover 5, 6 seconds during the course of plays throughout the game, that's hard as a defense. We look forward to shoring that up this season."
That, more than anything, explains general manager Ted Thompson's approach in the draft. Beyond the 6-for-6 defensive focus to start the draft, first-round pick Nick Perry was drafted to rush the passer, second-round pick Jerel Worthy was drafted to rush the passer and fourth-round pick Mike Daniels was drafted to rush the passer. Veteran Anthony Hargrove was signed in free agency to rush the passer.
"It comes down to being a team game but there are positions that can help you more than others," Clay Matthews said.
The hope is one or more of those four provides the complement that Matthews desperately needs. With Jenkins, Matthews rang up 23.5 sacks during his first two seasons in the NFL. Without Jenkins, Matthews was held to six sacks last year.
If the newcomers can match the team's expectations, it will allow Capers to call the game with more freedom. Just imagine Capers rolling out some combination of Worthy, Hargrove and B.J. Raji up front, with Perry and Matthews at outside linebacker and Desmond Bishop at inside linebacker. Throw in Woodson in the slot, and that gives the Packers six true threats to sack the quarterback.
"We have to pressure better," Capers said matter-of-factly.
Reason for hope: With Jenkins, the Packers had a dynamic one-two punch. In 2010, they combined for 20.5 sacks. That freed up Raji, who had a breakout second season with 6.5 sacks and 13 quarterback hits. Those three gave the Packers a combined 28 sacks. Jenkins' absence last year didn't impact Matthews alone. Raji drew more attention from opponents, and his production slipped to three sacks and 10 quarterback hits. As a result, the entire defense finished with 29 sacks.
Reason for pessimism: It all looks good on paper. Can Perry produce like he did at USC? Worthy never put up big sack numbers at Michigan State, so can he become a Jenkins-like menace in the NFL? Can Daniels make an impact after missing the entire offseason as he recovers from a torn labrum, and can Hargrove make an impact once he returns from an eight-game suspension?
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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 email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.