Thus, the Green Bay Packers' season came to an end on Sunday with a 51-45 loss in overtime against the Cardinals. A defense that finished first against the run, fifth against the pass and first in takeaways gave up 156 rushing yards, 531 total yards and forced only one turnover.
It was a nightmare come true for defensive coordinator Dom Capers, and a Fox camera showed the frustration and disgust in the face of the esteemed 59-year-old coordinator.
"The thing that frustrates me is when I see things that I've seen done well in practice and we've got the exact same thing and we don't get it done in the game," Capers said on Wednesday.
And so, on the day of the week when the coaches and players take the game plan to the practice field for the first time, Capers was huddled with reporters for the final time of the season, trying to explain what went wrong on Sunday and how it will get fixed for next season.
"We made progress in a lot of areas but I think there's still a lot of areas that we can make more progress on," Capers said. "That's what we'll do now is go back through and evaluate and put everything down. These are pluses, these are minuses. How are we going to get those minuses to be pluses? We'll spend an awful lot of time in self-scout and self-evaluation over the next few weeks."
There was no doubt what the challenge would be against the Cardinals. To the surprise of absolutely no one, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt — who as an assistant coach with Pittsburgh had worked against a similar scheme for six years — let star quarterback Kurt Warner throw the ball all around the field. Could the Packers' makeshift secondary match up with superstar receiver Larry Fitzgerald and young Steve Breaston and Early Doucet?
The answer was a resounding "no." Warner threw five touchdown passes and only four incompletions.
With Capers and his players searching for answers on how to cope with the Cardinals' receivers and how to get some sort of pressure on Warner, Arizona suddenly found a running game. No team ran the ball less often than the Cardinals, but big rookie Beanie Wells blew through the Packers' defense to the tune of 6.5 yards per carry.
Nick Barnett goes low against Beanie Wells.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
In the passing game, Capers was stuck because of a lack of quality cornerbacks, with Pat Lee going down in training camp, Will Blackmon at Minnesota in Week 4 and Al Harris against San Francisco in Week 11. Even without Anquan Boldin, the Cardinals had too many receivers for the Packers to handle.
Capers stuck in a two-deep zone, which leaves the safeties free to help against the outside receivers but leaves the middle vulnerable. The other option was a four-deep zone, which could have helped cover the middle but would have left one-on-one coverage on the outside.
"You've got to make decisions on where your help is going to go. You can't help every place," Capers said.
So, where do the Packers improve entering next season? Capers has some ideas.
Better zone coverage: "In terms of our approach and our teaching approach, in installing the defense, we were showing a lot of teaching tapes of other people doing things. Now, we've got an awful lot of good tape of us doing it the right way, not doing it quite as well as we want to do them. I really believe that will give us an advantage with these guys being able to watch themselves and us being able to point out, ‘This is the way we want this done. This is the way it looks when you're doing it well. These are some of the problems you have if you're not doing it well.' I'm excited about that because we're going to have a whole library of tapes to teach from with all the different techniques. To me, that's the way you make progress, where they have it down, where there's no doubt in their mind about things."
Better pass rush: Last year, the Packers finished 25th in sacks per pass attempt. This year, that figure climbed to 12th. Capers was relatively happy with the figure, especially considering the Packers' troubles rushing the passer early in the season.
In the first four games, the Packers had five sacks. Through eight games, they had 13. They finished with 37. Taking into account a shutout against Arizona in the finale, the Packers' defense notched 24 sacks in Games 9 through 15. Clay Matthews finished with 10, with seven in the second half of the season. Fellow rookie linebacker Brad Jones had all four in the second half of the season. Cullen Jenkins finished with 4.5 — Capers said he could have had 10.
"Is it where I want it to be? No. History tells me that we'll make strides in that area," Capers said.
Better, period: Adding a couple of quality cornerbacks is a must, whether it's through the draft or free agency, getting contributions from Harris, Lee and Blackmon, or a big second-year improvement from sixth-round pick Brandon Underwood.
Underwood was one of five rookies who played on defense, with B.J. Raji, Matthews and Jones being starters and Underwood and defensive end Jarius Wynn adding depth. Maybe Aaron Kampman will be re-signed and will contribute, and inside linebacker Nick Barnett should be better after being a spectator during offseason workouts as he rehabbed from a torn ACL.
This defense improved throughout the season after an early bout of what coach Mike McCarthy called selfishness, brought on the new scheme leading to less freedom for some players, especially the linemen. Once that hurdle was cleared, the defense soared up the rankings.
"I think if we can come back in and take the same approach that we've taken this year — I think we made an awful lot of progress this year," Capers said. "From Day One and coming in and putting something that's brand new in and then working our way through a few bumps in the road early in the year — then seeing the guys play the second half the season the way they played. If we can pick up where we've left off and make the same kind of strides next year, which I think we can. We played a lot of young players, and hopefully the experience those guys gained will make them that much better. Our veteran players have a much better feel of the scheme and i think they'll be that much better based off of all the repetition and the techniques that they'd had. Now, where that puts us, I don't know. Hopefully, it puts us to where we're a better defense going into next year than we were starting this year."
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