Execution Continues to Haunt Packers' Defense

As the Packers' season went down the drain last year with four consecutive losses, the main problem on defense apparently boiled down to bad communication, poor fundamentals and mental miscues. Through four games, the Packers' new defense isn't any better.

Too often, a postgame media session brings back memories of the dark comedy of the late John McCay.

Asked about the execution after one of the 26 consecutive losses of his expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, McCay cracked: "I think it's a good idea."

Those words echoed after Monday night's loss at Minnesota. The lowlight of Brett Favre's monster night was his 31-yard touchdown pass to Bernard Berrian early in the third quarter. Before the snap, cornerback Al Harris was yelling toward safety Derrick Martin. Berrian wound up blowing past Harris, and Martin's deep help was several moments too late in arriving. Touchdown. Vikings 28, Packers 14. Game effectively over.

"We have good players," a frustrated Charles Woodson said after the game. "If you're not going to go out there and execute, you're not going to win."

Execution. Where have we heard that before concerning the Packers' defense?

Oh, yeah, from coach Mike McCarthy.

— After a 51-29 loss at New Orleans on Nov. 24: "It's November. Can't make the mistakes we made, whether it's communication, alignments and the number of things that went wrong today. There's no excuse for it. We need to correct it."

— After a 35-31 loss at home to Carolina on Nov. 30, in which the Panthers drove to the winning touchdown in the blink of an eye: "I don't think I have ever seen our defense give up rushing touchdowns like that in the red zone. We need to fix that. We've done a good job of making the opponent kick field goals down there, so those are all of the things that we'll address. We'll take those corrections forward and we'll apply to our planning for the Houston Texans. "

— After a 24-21 loss at home to Houston on Dec. 7, in which the Texans drove 75 yards in the final 1:49: "You have to stay gap-sound, technique-specific and so forth, and we didn't do that for four quarters today."

— After a 20-16 loss at Jacksonville on Dec. 14, in which the Jaguars drove 80 yards for the go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes: "The communication in the first half defensively as far as the calls and so forth put us in some tight spots, and the two-minute to win the game. Those are all the keys to why we did not win today."

So, as the Packers' season went down the drain last year with those four consecutive losses, the main problem on defense apparently boiled down to bad communication, poor fundamentals and mental miscues.

And with that, defensive coordinator Bob Sanders was fired and everyone but assistant head coach/linebackers coach Winston Moss was jettisoned with Sanders on the defensive side of the ball.

Hired to replace Sanders was Dom Capers, whose track record of first-year turnarounds has made him one of the league's top assistant coaches since becoming Pittsburgh's defensive coordinator in 1992.

Al Harris chases Bernard Berrian.
Jaime Squire/Getty Images
But through four games, the Packers' defense isn't any better than it was last season. Last year, the Packers ranked 20th in yards allowed, including 26th against the run and 12th against the pass. This year, they rank 15th in yards allowed, including 17th against the run and 18th against the pass. More importantly, last year, they finished 22nd in scoring defense with 23.8 points allowed per game. This year, they rank 22nd with 23.2 points allowed per game.

That this year's defense has been prone to some breakdowns isn't necessarily surprising. It is, after all, a new defense — with basically the same group of players from last year's 4-3 scheme lining up in this year's 3-4 scheme.

But what's troubling is two other teams making the switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4 have made it seamlessly. Last year, Denver finished 30th in scoring defense (28.0 points per game) and New Orleans ranked 26th (24.6). With two of the top contenders for the Green Bay gig, Mike Nolan and Gregg Williams, landing in Denver and New Orleans, respectively, the Broncos rank first in scoring defense (6.5 points per game) and the Saints are seventh (16.5). Both teams are undefeated.

How do you explain the early success of Nolan's Broncos and Williams' Saints and the comparative uneven play of Capers' Packers?

Are the Packers' defenders just not very good? With three Pro Bowlers in the secondary (Woodson, Harris, Nick Collins), a Pro Bowler at outside linebacker (Aaron Kampman), a first-round pick at nose tackle (Ryan Pickett) and two first-round picks at inside linebacker (A.J. Hawk and Nick Barnett), that doesn't seem to be the case. This group was, after all, good enough to get the Packers to the NFC title game in 2007.

Are the players not coached well enough? That was the assumption last year, but with the same mistakes being made under new coaches, that assumption has taken on a lot of water.

Are the players not smart enough? Considering how sound they played in 2007, that seems far-fetched, as well.

So, then, what is it?

The chronic absence of safety Atari Bigby has led to a parade of unworthy players filling the void, from Aaron Rouse to Charlie Peprah to Jarrett Bush to Martin. Bigby started all 16 games in 2007, with the Packers going 13-3. When he started and played most of the game in 2008, the Packers went 3-2. The Packers are 1-0 when he starts this season; 1-2 when he doesn't.

Getting Bigby back against Detroit will help, considering only four teams have allowed more 20-yard completions than the Packers. Beyond that, though, at some point, some tough decisions need to be made at inside linebacker. Hawk makes an impact play about as often as there's a total eclipse of the sun. Barnett was having a so-so 2008 until tearing up his knee and, not surprisingly, has been sort of finding his way through this season.

Backup Brandon Chillar, meanwhile, leads the team in tackles and is a better blitzer and cover man than either Barnett or Hawk. Whether Desmond Bishop is better than Hawk or Barnett is a mystery, but at some point, don't the coaches have to find out? If nothing else, maybe putting a highly paid first-round pick on the bench will provide the kick in the shorts that releasing the Aaron Rouses of the world has not done.

Whatever is going on, changes needed to be made during the bye week. After the Minnesota game, Woodson was irked that Capers had kept so much of the playbook under wraps, but the mental errors are a clear signal this defense can't even handle a scaled-back game plan.

It's time to be accountable. Mistakes and mediocrity have been the hallmark of this defense for too long. As the saying goes, it's time to put up or shut up.

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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 and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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