Packers, Patriots Have Same Issues on Defense
Two perennial playoff contenders, the Patriots and Packers, both laid eggs in their season openers, most notably on the defensive side of the ball.
Green Bay surrendered 36 points and 398 yards (207 rushing) to the Seahawks in front of a national television audience. New England gave up 33 points (23 in the second half) and 360 yards (191 rushing) to the Dolphins. Both fan bases had to be screaming, “Again!?” The Patriots were 27th against the run in 2013 according to FootballOutsiders.com; the Packers ranked 30th.
The Packers and the Patriots had similar problems in Week 1: questionable personnel placed in dubious positions by the coaching staffs. The good news? Both have plenty of time to regroup and rebound. But one team, the Patriots, stand a better chance. The Packers are in for more of a fight.
The problem with the Packers
The problem starts on the defensive line, where the personnel did not match up to the scheme. The Packers, despite professing a switch to a 4-3 under coordinator Dom Capers (whose specialty has always been a 3-4 zone blitz), played most of the game in a variation of the 3-4. Players like Datone Jones (6-4, 285 pounds), Letroy Guion (6-3, 303), Mike Daniels (6-0, 294) and Josh Boyd (6-3, 310) anchored the line. Boyd’s the only one who physically fits the bill as a 3-4 end, but he’s very green. Jones isn’t heavy enough for end, Daniels lacks the height and arm length, and Guion isn’t quite heavy enough for nosetackle. Green Bay inexplicably left the one big body they have, promising undrafted free agent Mike Pennel (6-4, 332), on the inactive list against Seattle. The Packers were thin at nosetackle because they basically put all their eggs into the basket of B.J. Raji (6-2, 337), and his season-ending injury decimated those plans.
McCarthy said all offseason this was by design. He wanted more athletic players up front to deal with the speed of the game.
“At the end of the day, I think you have to be honest with the fact that this game keeps getting more and more in space. Now it's in space and you can't grab a jersey," McCarthy said. “Team speed is important. The ability to run is more important than it's ever been. It's always been important. It's always been a determining factor if guys can play in this league. We've always looked for the best athlete that gives you the most flexibility to be a four-down player, whether it's any position. And it definitely carries to the defensive line.”
But a team can bury you with the running game before they even care about space. That’s what the Seahawks did. The Packers don’t have the length and/or girth to fight blockers and give their linebackers a chance to run and make plays. Inside linebackers Brad Jones and A.J. Hawk had blockers all over them on the second level.
It’s curious that McCarthy took this route, or agreed to go along with the personnel plan of general manager Ted Thompson, who put together the squad. When the Packers won the Super Bowl after the 2010 season, they lined up with a defensive line of ends Cullen Jenkins and Ryan Pickett, with Raji on the nose. All three were country strong. They were backed up by the big, athletic bodies of Howard Green, Jarius Wynn and C.J. Wilson. The Packers could at least attempt to stop the run, and play in space with that group. They were ranked 16th against the run by FootballOutsiders.com in ’10.
Green Bay would be much better off now if it converted to a 4-3, which would allow Daniels to move to the penetrating three-technique tackle position he was born to play. One problem with that switch is it likely would keep Clay Matthews from using his various skills since he would be an end.
The biggest problem is that type of scheme is not Capers’ forte. If the Packers took a more objective look at their personnel in the offseason, McCarthy might have come to the conclusion that it might better fit a coordinator with a more hybrid scheme. McCarthy and Capers are stuck together now. With few personnel and scheme options available, they’re going to be hard-pressed to get it turned around into a championship-level unit.
What’s ironic is that when McCarthy fired defensive coordinator Bob Sanders (4-3 scheme) and replaced him with Capers in 2008, it largely was to improve run defense. Green Bay had just finished the season ranked 27th against the run.
“Really, what it came down to, I just didn't feel that we were headed in the right direction on the defensive side of the ball,” McCarthy said then of the switch from Sanders to Capers. “From a personnel standpoint, I'm in favor of the 3-4 because it's the body type that I think will enhance the type of football we want to play here in Green Bay, particularly in November and December. … It is an excellent run defense.”
Now, Green Bay’s performance against the run has fluctuated, bottoming out last season. Those body types once coveted by McCarthy largely have been replaced by more 4-3 players.
All is not lost, however. Aaron Rodgers can cover up a lot of ills by himself. And even though the NFC North features big-time backs like Adrian Peterson (Minnesota), Matt Forte (Chicago) and Reggie Bush (Detroit), only the Vikings (185) ran for more than 86 yards in Week 1.
The problem with the Patriots
The Patriots, on the other hand, have a lot of options because Bill Belichick adapts his defense week to week. The scheme in the 33-20 loss to the Dolphins obviously was a misstep. Despite being a 4-3 heavy hybrid since the start of the ’11 season, New England decided to go with a lot of three-man lines, be it 3-4 in base or a 3-3-5 nickel. That called for Chandler Jones, an edge player at end/outside linebacker his first two years in the league, to play on the interior of the line. That was a mistake; Jones played one of his worst games as pro because the coaches did not put him in a position to be successful. Vince Wilfork played a solid, if rusty, game almost a year removed from tearing his Achilles. Joe Vellano was the other starter and is much too small at 6-foot-2 and 300 pounds for a 3-4. Rookie Dominique Easley (6-2, 290) was miscast on the interior as well. Backup Sealver Siliga (6-2, 325 and strong) better fits the mold. An ankle injury to the quick and strong Chris Jones (6-1, 309) might have been one of the reasons why the Patriots used more of a three-man line.
Like with the Packers, the lack of sturdy bodies on the front line allowed the interior linebackers to be exposed. Jerod Mayo was decent in his return from injury, but Jamie Collins was either out of position, manhandled or slow to react on too many plays. Basically, he was the Patriots’ version of Brad Jones. Collins, who is a tremendous athlete and like Jones a former edge player, didn’t come close to bringing the type of violent and physical nature that Brandon Spikes did before signing with Buffalo. That’s not Collins' fault. He is a space player who was asked to be more physical against Miami. Like the Chandler Jones experiment, it failed. When Jones and Collins were on the same side of the Patriots’ defense, it was like the Autobahn to the Dolphins’ running backs.
But the Patriots have the personnel and experience to tweak things for the better. The starting four-man line should be Rob Ninkovich and Jones at end, with Wilfork at nosetackle and Chris Jones at three-technique. Siliga can spell Wilfork, and Easley has vast pass-rushing potential sharing time with Jones. The Patriots and Belichick, the general manager, are taking a big risk counting so heavily on the 32-year-old Wilfork. If they lose him, it will look like the end of last season when teams piled up yards against the Patriots.
The linebackers are a good group with Mayo in the middle, Collins at the play-making weakside spot and Dont’a Hightower on the strong side. Hightower would be replaced in nickel, but to keep him on the field—Hightower had a team-high 4.5 combined quarterback pressures against Miami—he could share some time at end with Ninkovich and/or Jones, who both played over 95% of the snaps (way too many) in ’13.
In their openers, both the Packers and Patriots got off to lousy starts defensively that evoked bad memories of a year ago. They’ll both need to make tweaks to stave off a repeat. The Patriots have a better chance, and track record, of actually doing that.