For years under coordinator Dom Capers, the defense was among the top teams annually in takeaways. Producing turnovers seemed to come naturally. What the defense may have lacked in stopping the run or giving up whopping yardage totals, it made up for with interceptions. Combine such thievery with the skilled and error-free play of Aaron Rodgers, and more times than not the Packers came out victorious.
Takeaways defined the personality of the unit. They were its saving grace, its ultimate eraser.
That's not so much the case anymore.
With just 22 takeaways over the 2013 regular season, the Packers slid to No. 21 in the NFL in turnover plays, a low during the Capers era. In the previous four seasons, they ranked No. 18, No. 1, No. 6, and No. 1 in takeaways.
"I've always believed this: To be a real top-notch defense, you have to have two or three guys that basically are what I consider difference-makers, where sometime within a 60-play game you're going to see two or three plays that really have an impact and influence the game," said Capers. "You've seen that happen with us here when we've been a top-five defense. The first two years, we were No. 2 and No. 5, and we had guys like (Charles) Woodson, who was Defensive Player of the Year, and Clay Matthews, who came out of being a rookie to having a great year his rookie year. The next year we won the Super Bowl (and) we had guys that impacted the game. Look at the Super Bowl game. We had an interception for a touchdown, we had Clay knock the ball out on the fumble, we had Jarrett Bush's interception. You make those kinds of plays in a game, that's what gives you a good chance, if you can steal two or three possessions.
"One thing I will say about our defense (in 2013), we went the longest time where we weren't able to get takeaways. This was really the first time because, you look at us over the first four years, we were right at the top of takeaways. I thought the last quarter of the season, starting probably with the Falcons game, we were able to make big plays at key times that gave us a chance to come back and win. (We) won the Atlanta game and the Dallas game with two key plays there; the Bears game, key turnovers in the Bears game. Then we had one (against the San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs), Tramon's interception, which our offense turned into a touchdown. We kind of got the corner turned on getting back to taking the ball away. The way we play, and I think every defense in the league, you've got to find a way to get takeaways. Our sacks were probably right in the same vicinity as they have been. What we've got to do is get back to taking that ball away as consistently as we did the first three or four years."
To the Packers' credit, they rebounded with 12 takeaways in the last five regular-season games to tie for third-best in the league over that span. But the biggest of those turnovers had more to do with players making plays than players playing the scheme correctly. It had more to do with individual talent, as Capers alluded to in his opening comments, or uncommon recognition by a player.
For example, Sam Shields and Williams made key fourth-quarter interceptions in a comeback victory at Dallas on Dec. 15 with actions not necessarily taught or planned. Shields' incredible recovery skills were on display for an outstretched snatch of a Tony Romo pass over the middle after being beaten soundly by Miles Austin at the line of scrimmage. With the Packers basically committing nine defenders to stop the run, Shields was left alone in coverage and, with a better Romo pass, would have been beaten for a touchdown. Williams, on the other hand, came off covering his receiver down the sideline to help Jarrett Bush in the flat. When Romo's misconnection to Dane Beasley went wide, Williams was in position to dive for the errant ball just inches off the turf to seal the Packers' 23-point comeback victory.
Of course, Romo's throws and the Cowboys' head-scratching play-calling were contributing factors, but Shields' and Williams' efforts completed the plays.
By contrast, in the Packers' playoff game against the 49ers, rookie defensive back Micah Hyde played his technique correctly and read quarterback Colin Kaepernick, but, reaching high, failed to come down with what could have been a game-changing interception late in the fourth quarter. And earlier in the quarter, safety Morgan Burnett was a fraction late in helping linebacker A.J. Hawk on Vernon Davis on a 28-yard touchdown down the seam.
Would better, more instinctive players have made those plays? Was the defensive call to blame? Capers had this to say about Burnett's assignment on Davis' touchdown: "It was all vertical, so he had to play over the top of the No. 2 (receiver) and then break on the No. 3 (receiver). That was a good throw. They got it in there on time. We were real close and we didn't get the play made."
It was a difficult season for Burnett and a group of safeties who failed to record a single interception or forced fumble. Since Nick Collins left the lineup with a career-ending neck injury Week 2 of the 2011 season, Packers safeties have a total of 12 interceptions in just about three regular seasons. By comparison, Collins himself recorded 10 interceptions over the two seasons prior.
To his defense, Burnett did not get much help from a revolving door of pedestrian safeties alongside him in 2013. But the Packers are paying Burnett roughly $5 million per season on a five-year contract and got nothing in return by way of turnover-producing plays. (Burnett did have three fumble recoveries to lead the team.) The same could be said regarding takeaway deficiencies for Hawk (one interception, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery in 17 games), who is playing under a three-year, $10.6 million contract, and fellow inside linebacker Brad Jones (one forced fumble, one fumble recovery in 13 games), who is under a three-year, $11.25 million contract.
The Packers' brain trust has identified these players are core players. And Burnett, Hawk and Jones have essentially replaced Collins and Desmond Bishop and, to a degree, Woodson, all turnover-producing players the Packers have lost over the past three years. Woodson, it could be said, was replaced in 2012 by then-rookie Casey Hayward, who led the team with six interceptions. But Hayward missed much of this past season with a hamstring injury and Hyde assumed that role. Hyde failed to intercept a pass in 17 games but did force two fumbles.
Takeaways will always be critical to the success of any defense. But the Packers' defense, without getting them at a high-level rate in 2013, was a soundly overmatched unit. Weaknesses were exposed and gone was the crutch they could lean on when times got tough.
"We need more impact players. We need more players making plays on defense. I think that's stating the obvious," answered head coach Mike McCarthy at his season-ending press conference to a question regarding his team's safety play. "I feel that those guys are here, but do we have more coming in? That's really what the offseason's for."
Year-by-year totals under Dom Capers
2013 – 22 total takeaways (tied for 21st in the league); 11 interceptions (tied for 26th), 11 fumble recoveries (tied for 11th).
2012 – 23 total takeaways (tied for 18th); 18 interceptions (tied for 8th), 5 fumble recoveries (tied for 28th)
2011 – 38 total takeaways (tied for 1st); 31 interceptions (1st), 7 fumble recoveries (tied for 26th)
2010 – 32 total takeaways (6th); 24 interceptions (2nd), 8 fumble recoveries (tied for 24th)
2009 – 40 total takeaways (1st); 30 interceptions (1st), 10 fumble recoveries (tied for 17th)
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at email@example.com