With one day until the start of training camp, we take one last look at the Green Bay Packers defense.
CAN PEPPERS DO IT AGAIN?
His career might be in its twilight years, but Julius Peppers was nothing short of exceptional during his first two seasons with the Packers.
Can he do it again?
In 2014, Peppers had four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and two interceptions for a total of nine turnover plays. Only Houston’s J.J. Watt had more. If you include Peppers’ two forced fumbles in the playoffs that season, he had a league-high 11.
Those game-turning plays almost disappeared last season, as Peppers’ two forced fumbles were his only turnover plays. At least he he recorded 10.5 sacks. That’s a pretty good consolation prize.
Big plays win games. Outside linebacker is one of the team’s strongest positions, but it’s hard to imagine this defense taking a step forward if Peppers’ play takes a step backward.
“Julius is a rare guy, in a lot of ways,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “He’s a fun guy to coach because you don’t get many veterans who have done all the things that he’s done and accomplished all the things that he’s accomplished that comes in and he’s great in the meeting room. Julius is a man of few words but, when he speaks, everybody listens because of his production. He gives us great leadership. It makes it easy for these young guys coming in if they say something, you just point to Julius, ‘Watch how he does it.’ He doesn’t miss a practice, one of the hardest workers. He does all the things that you ask him to do from a coaching standpoint, whether it’s in the weight room, on the practice field, in the meeting room, and it shows on Sunday because it carries over. He had a very productive year for us last year. Yeah, he’s rare because there’s not many guys who can do the things that he’s done at his age.”
STOPPING THE RUN
Under Capers, stopping the run — statistically, anyway — hasn’t been a strong suit.
Last season, Green Bay ranked 29th with 4.54 yards allowed per carry. Since allowing just 3.6 yards per carry in 2009, Capers’ first season with the team, Green Bay allowed 4.7 per carry in 2010 and 2011, 4.5 in 2012, 4.6 in 2013 and 4.3 in 2014. From 2010 through 2015, Green Bay ranks 30th with 4.54 yards allowed per carry. That stat never has bothered Capers, as he’d rather play his nickel defense to make sure the passing game is kept under control. The standings show Capers’ priorities are in the right place. Of the five teams that have allowed more than 4.40 yards per carry over the past six seasons, four have winning records.
Looking deeper inside the numbers, where the Packers must improve is their first-down run defense. Last season, they ranked 22nd with 4.27 yards allowed per first-down carry. Denver and Carolina, last year’s Super Bowl teams, tied for second with 3.08 yards allowed per first-down carry. Seattle was first at 2.98. Those were the very definitions of championship defenses. Can the Packers become an upper-echelon first-down run defense with uncertainty on the defensive line and inside linebacker? If they can, it will play into the hands of a strong pass rush and a ballhawking secondary.
CAN CLARK DELIVER?
First-round pick Kenny Clark will have a key role in bolstering the run defense. Ready or not.
In 2009, the Packers used the ninth pick on B.J. Raji, who started only one game as a rookie. With Green Bay’s alarming lack of veteran depth on the defensive line, there will be no time for Clark to ease into action to that degree.
History isn’t in Green Bay’s favor. From 2010 through 2015, there were 31 defensive tackles taken between pick No. 20 and pick No. 50, according to Pro Football Reference. Seven of them started at least 10 games while 23 started four games or less, including 13 who didn’t start at all. That doesn’t mean that those players didn’t eventually pan out. Sharrif Floyd, for instance, started only once as a rookie for the Vikings. It’s just that they didn’t produce much as rookies. Clark must produce as a rookie. Period.
“When I went to college, I played at 17. I had to mature quickly, and I have to do the same thing here,” Clark said. “Yeah, it’s two different games, but I think we have good, core veterans here. I think they get me on the right page, and I’m going to be working to get on the right page.”
THE STAT THAT DOES MATTER
While run defense might be overrated, takeaways are a different matter. During the Capers era, the Packers rank fifth with 204 takeaways. Of the top nine teams in takeaways, seven have winning records. The exceptions are the Giants and Bears, who are each 55-57.
Green Bay’s cornerbacks have been remarkably productive. Their 83 interceptions over the past seven seasons are No. 1 in the league. For perspective:
— That’s 16 more than second-place New England. Considering the Packers are the only team with 16 interceptions over the past six seasons, Green Bay’s corners could go interception-free this season and probably still top the chart.
— That’s at least twice as many interceptions as the cornerbacks have produced from nine other teams.
Even with the personnel changes, Green Bay’s corners have led the pick parade, with a league-high 22 over the past two seasons. They ranked third last year with 11 — the sixth time in seven years that they intercepted at least 10 passes. No other team has done it more than four times. Eleven teams have zero 10-interception seasons from their corners.
Where can the Packers get better? With cornerback/safety Micah Hyde included, their safeties tied for 12th with 11 turnover plays last season. Considering Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has three interceptions in four career postseason games, he’s probably capable of improving upon his three interceptions in 32 career regular-season games. Clay Matthews should be better, too. Of his 22 career turnover plays, only nine have come over the past four seasons. That’s as many as Peppers had in 2014. Matthews didn’t force a single fumble last season even though he set a career high in tackles.
Bill Huber is publisher of 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 www.twitter.com/PackerReport.