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."
Limiting the run
It wasn't long ago that the paramount defensive strategy in the NFL was to stop the run and make the opposing offense one-dimensional.
Times have changed, however. Teams, in general, are throwing the ball more than ever before. The Packers' opponents, in particular, threw the ball 63.5 percent of the time — the third-highest rate in the NFL — for reasons including convenience (the Packers' pass defense stunk) and necessity (the need to match the prolific Packers offense).
Part 1 on defense was improving the tackling and Part 2 was increasing the pass rush. And if you missed our four-part series on the offense, click here.
Still, as Capers is quick to point out, limiting the run — not necessarily stopping it — is still the starting point. For a coordinator like Capers, who prefers to call an aggressive game, it's foolhardy to blitz if it's second-and-5 or third-and-2. However, turn enough first-and-10s into second-and-9s and second-and-4s into third-and-5s, and Capers will have the odds in his favor.
In 2011, the Packers' porous run defense got lost in the shuffle of their horrendous pass defense, though the two shortcomings can be tied together.
Green Bay allowed 4.7 yards per carry, good for 26th in the league. Worse, they couldn't force the issue. Just 16 percent of running plays were stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, according to FootballOutsiders.com. That ranked 30th in the league. Moreover, the defense couldn't get off the field. Opponents converted 67 percent of the time on third- or fourth-and-2 (or less), which ranked 24th.
Reason for hope: This doesn't have to be like 2009, when the Packers led the NFL in run defense for the first time in franchise history. Look to 2010. The Packers ranked 31st by allowing 4.7 yards per carry. However, they stopped 18 percent of running plays at or behind the line of scrimmage, good for 21st in the league. The big difference came on third- and fourth-and-short. The Packers yielded the first down just 46 percent of the time, which ranked second.
Reason for pessimism: The overwhelming focus of the Packers' offseason was to improve their pass defense, especially with the first five draft picks and free agent Anthony Hargrove. Will B.J. Raji bounce back from a bad year against the run? Can top run-stopper Ryan Pickett deliver with his 33rd birthday on the horizon? Can top draft picks Nick Perry and Jerel Worthy play the run in the NFL?
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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.