Defense Wins Championships

The pupil has eclipsed the teacher. Seattle general manager John Schneider has done a brilliant job building a defense even more dominant than the Packers' championship unit in 2010. That's why Green Bay is so far behind Seattle - not to mention the NFC's other power teams.

"Defense wins championships."

It's one of the biggest clichés in sports, and it held true on Sunday night. Seattle, with the NFL's top-ranked defense, destroyed Denver, with the top-ranked offense, in the Super Bowl. In five Super Bowl matchups between the No. 1 defense and No. 1 offense, the defensive team is 4-1.

Looking beyond Sunday's Super Bowl, this playoff season has driven home the oh-so-obvious point that the Packers must improve on defense. Not just improve into the ranks of mediocre, but improve into a top-shelf unit that can win games.

Of the NFL's Final Four, Seattle was No. 1 in points allowed, San Francisco was third and New England was 10th. Denver was the outlier; the Broncos were 22nd but that was a bit of a mirage. Denver gave up just 64 points in the first quarter this season, then spent the final three quarters in shootout mode as opponents tried desperately to keep up with the top scoring offense in NFL history.

Green Bay's challenge seems practically overwhelming in the NFC. That's where the NFL's top four scoring defenses reside, with Seattle allowing 231 points, Carolina 241, San Francisco 272 and New Orleans 304. The Packers, on the other hand, allowed 428 points – 25th-most in the NFL.

Just how dominant is Seattle's defense? In 19 games, that unit allowed 271 points. Only Carolina allowed fewer in 16 games. That's 14.26 points per game. At that pace, the Seahawks could play 30 games and not get to Green Bay's points-allowed total.

Given all of Aaron Rodgers' accomplishments, it's easy to forget that the Packers' 2010 championship was built around the defense. The Packers finished second in points allowed with 15.0 per game, fifth in yards allowed, first in interception rate and third in sack rate. Other than rushing (18th) and red zone (12th), the Packers finished in the top 10 in every meaningful category.

That defense has fallen apart. Charles Woodson got old and Nick Collins got injured. It wasn't until 2013, when Mike Daniels emerged as a big-time player, that the Packers finally replaced Cullen Jenkins.

While general manager Ted Thompson has built an elite offense, he has failed to maintain a winning defense. Since drafting B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews in 2009, Thompson has used nine picks in the first four rounds on defensive players. The results? Mike Neal and Morgan Burnett in 2010, Davon House in 2011, Nick Perry, Jerel Worthy, Casey Hayward, Daniels and Jerron McMillian in 2012, and Datone Jones in 2013. Those players should be key pieces to a defense strong enough to keep the Packers among the league's truly elite teams. Instead, only Hayward (the 2012 version, at least) and Daniels have played (or exceeded) expectations.

Whether it's Thompson's fault for making bad picks or the coaches' fault for failing to develop them is irrelevant from a big-picture perspective. Whatever the reason, the results simply have not good enough compared to what John Schneider has done in Seattle. Schneider, who was hired by Ron Wolf and learned under Wolf and Thompson, has done a remarkable job. His entire starting defensive back seven was selected in the past four drafts, and his veteran defensive line made life miserable for Peyton Manning.

While Thompson's top-of-the-draft defensive picks have, in total, been disappointments over the past four years, Schneider has hit on all of his, with safety Earl Thomas (first round, 2010), defensive end Bruce Irvin (first round, 2012) and linebacker Bobby Wagner (second round, 2012).

Where Schneider really has taken Thompson to school is late in the draft.

In 2011, Schneider found starting cornerbacks Richards Sherman (fifth round, No. 154) and Byron Maxwell (sixth round, No. 173). At a similar range, Thompson took House (fourth round, No. 131) and tight end D.J. Williams (fifth round, No. 141). In 2013, House was benched and Williams released.

Not only did Schneider land Maxwell in the sixth but he grabbed Super Bowl MVP linebacker Malcolm Smith in the seventh (No. 242). Armed with five picks in the final two rounds, Thompson found a key special-teams player with tight end Ryan Taylor in the seventh round (No. 218) but swung and missed on guard Caleb Schlauderaff (sixth round, No. 179), inside linebacker D.J. Smith (sixth round, No. 186), outside linebacker Ricky Elmore (sixth round, No. 197) and defensive end Lawrence Guy (seventh round, 233).

In 2010, the Seahawks got safety Kam Chancellor (fifth round, No. 133) while Thompson gave up third- and fourth-round picks to move up for Burnett (No. 71). Chancellor, physically, is practically a clone to fellow Virginia Tech alum Aaron Rouse, a third-round flop in 2007.

With high-priced veterans Raji, Matthews and Ryan Pickett, the Packers had $20.1 million of cap dollars invested in three defenders. Seattle's entire starting defense, with so many players on their rookie contracts, cost less than $34 million against the cap.

With so much cheap labor – not only on defense but at quarterback with Russell Wilson – the Seahawks had the financial flexibility to add some high-priced veterans. Defensive linemen Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, who were in Manning's face throughout the Super Bowl, were signed during the offseason for a combined cap charge of about $8.6 million. Defensive end Chris Clemons was acquired in a trade in 2010 and had a cap charge of about $8.2 million.

Schneider's challenge coming up is one that Thompson has already faced – and continues to face. How do you keep a championship team intact when core players are in line for big raises in their second contracts? Thompson, thus far, has failed that test with one misstep after another on the side of the ball that's responsible for winning championships.


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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 packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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