Packers coach Mike McCarthy made the correct move by firing defensive coordinator Bob Sanders on Monday. He can make another good move by hiring someone with a drastically different defensive system.
It was three years ago when the Packers started to build what was looking like a championship-caliber defensive unit. McCarthy hired Bob Sanders as his defensive coordinator to continue the success Jim Bates had in 2005, even for a team that finished 4-12. The hiring of Sanders was an understandable, transitional move by McCarthy, one that he probably regrets because the Packers have fallen way behind the good defensive teams in the league.
The Packers' defense never played Bates' scheme the same with Sanders at the helm. The unit had its moments, but over the long haul, it regressed each year until finally hitting rock bottom late last season. As a result, the Packers finished a disappointing 6-10 and Sanders lost his job.
The Packers were embarrassed on "Monday Night Football" by Drew Brees and the Saints, who hung up 51 points on the Packers on Nov. 24. Then the Panthers and Texans came to Lambeau Field in the following weeks and had their way, even in adverse weather. The Packers allowed five rushing touchdowns to Carolina in a 35-31 loss before inexplicably getting torched by Texans quarterback Matt Schaub in a 24-21 loss to Houston. Schaub, playing his first game in more than a month after a knee injury, led his team to 549 yards, the most yielded by a Packers defense in more than 25 years.
Though Sanders was stand-up about his unit's failures, he could not find any solutions. Instead, he saw his defense fall apart. After finishing seventh in the NFL in 2005 under Bates, the Packers' defense finished 12th, 11th and 20th, respectively, in three seasons under Sanders.
Sanders never was able to adjust. His system became archaic and relied too much on one-on-one matchups. Though some of the Packers' defenders were up to the challenge of winning those battles, it was too much to ask on a weekly basis. And when the Packers were hurt by injuries, the scheme demanded the same quality of play out of the backups, who often times were exposed.
Because the Packers had really only one capable pass rusher this season, defensive end Aaron Kampman, Sanders looked more to blitzing late in the season. But that failed, too. The Packers lacked creativity with their blitzes, which too often were picked up. Blitzing linebackers looked awkward and much too slow in their delivery to have any substantial effect.
Said McCarthy last week at his season-ending news conference: "Pressure is a concern, definitely. ... Our run defense and pressure on the quarterback, those are two areas that we did not excel in this year, and those will be primary topics of conversation."
That McCarthy fired the majority of his defensive staff on Monday is a sign the Packers might just make drastic changes. That could mean moving to a 3-4 defense, adopting a complex blitzing scheme or making some surprise changes in personnel. The latter would seem less likely, but the Packers need to enter next season with players that fit their scheme. The front seven, a major disappointment this past season, could be affected.
Quick reviews of several teams remaining in the playoffs this year show just what it takes to be a dominant defense in today's NFL. The Steelers and Eagles bring it every week with different blitz packages that keep opposing quarterbacks guessing. The Ravens, Titans and Chargers play 3-4 defenses built around freakish nose tackles like Haloti Ngata, Albert Haynesworth and Jamal Williams. And the New York Giants won an improbable Super Bowl title a year ago with a genius defensive game plan devised by Steve Spagnuolo that baffled the seemingly unstoppable Patriots. Spagnuolo is up to it again as the Giants are a favorite to get back to the Super Bowl this year.
The Packers' defense under Sanders never confused anyone. It never won a game because of the scheme or game plan. And it never showed any ingenuity. Instead, it relied on the basics, which in theory sounds good, but does little to meet the challenges posed by NFL offenses every week. As good as Kampman, Al Harris and Charles Woodson are, they lose individual battles some weeks. They need help from the scheme those days to give the Packers a chance to win every week.
The Packers do have some talent on defense, even if the unit's performance would show otherwise. If McCarthy wants that talent — or any new talent, for that matter — to shine, he will have to take a different approach to find someone with a vastly different system that will get the Packers up to speed with the rest of the successful teams.
Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at email@example.com