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Who Killed the Packer Defense?

Nov. 23, 2016
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This is a story about Dom Capers, defensive coordinator for the Green Bay Packers, but really, it’s a murder mystery. I’ll give you an answer at the end, and while it may not be a correct one, it is an interesting one, supported by clues. Our first clue is this chart.

Years

Overall

Pass

Run

2009

2

4

2

2010

2

1

16

2011

25

24

29

2012

8

7

14

2013

31

28

30

2014

16

11

24

2015

9

6

19

2016

12

18

5

Capers took over a decent defense and almost instantly turned it into a dominant unit. Everyone remembers the classic overtime heartbreaker against Arizona in the 2009 playoffs, in which the defense surrendered 51 points to the Kurt Warner-led Cardinals, but few remember that the same defense held 10 regular season opponents to 17 points or fewer. Charles Woodson led the league with 9 interceptions and rookie Clay Matthews had 10 sacks. In 2010 the defense regressed a bit in some ways, but the pass rush and secondary became the NFL’s best, and the Capers-style defense, with a great secondary and pass rush supporting an at-best average run defense, emerged for the first time. 2009 was the only time, until this season, that Capers has fielded a team with a run defense superior to his pass defense. There is a lot to be learned from this fact.

Capers focuses on pass defense by design. With Aaron Rodgers at the helm, the assumption is that most opponents will be trailing, and therefore passing.  The Capers defense is at its best with a lead. A typical Capers defense almost dares you to run the ball and eventually someone would, but not quite yet. In 2010 their dominant pass defense and ascending offense was good enough to win it all, and 2011 was even more impressive due to a historically great season by the offense, however while the Packers were destroying people, no one seemed to notice that their defense had regressed immensely. The tragic loss of Nick Collins to a career-ending neck injury and nagging injuries to Charles Woodson left the Packers vulnerable to the Giants in the playoffs, who possessed one of the better defenses they would face on the season, along with an offense capable of abusing the depleted Packers. Woodson was the lynchpin to the great Capers defenses. His ability to play a hybrid safety/corner/linebacker meant that any formation Capers would throw out there could instantly morph into any other just by moving Woodson. Woodson’s ability to be unpredictable, and to cover huge chunks of the field single-handedly was unprecedented, and made things much easier on the rest of the defense. 

2012 would see the defense rally once again, finishing 8th in DVOA, but this is where things get really interesting. Capers always dared teams to run against the Packers, and generally, in a passing league, that strategy was fine, but in the playoffs Jim Harbaugh called their bluff. Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore would combine for 300 yards rushing as the 49ers ran read-option after read-option. The Packers, built as they were to stop the pass, were completely helpless, and just like that the book on stopping Capers was written, and would be copied repeatedly most famously by the Seahawks. 2013 was the year in which Aaron Rodgers was hurt and Kaepernick got them again in the playoffs, but then 2014 arrived and something else interesting happened.

The Packers lost another heartbreaker to the Seahawks mostly due to bad luck as the Seattle managed to recover an onside kick just as Clay Matthews had to leave with an injury. Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch had dominated previous meetings with the Packers with an impressive power running game, but in this instance the Packers moved Clay Matthews inside, and suddenly the Seahawks were unable to do anything, run or pass. It was a rare moment of a simple move making all the difference, and its effectiveness was confirmed by just how vulnerable the Packers became when Matthews left with an injury.

This brings us to 2015. The defense in 2016, especially in the secondary, has been a disaster, but in 2015 they were the 6th best unit in football against  the pass. There are a lot of things you can point to on that team, including a younger Julius Peppers, a healthy Sam Shields, and the presence of Casey Hayward at slot corner, but Hayward didn’t actually play that well in 2015, and Peppers play this season is almost as much about his presence on the field, as he has ceded time to Matthews on the outside. Health has obviously also been an issue as Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins have missed time, but the single biggest change from last year to this year is obvious: Clay Matthews no longer plays inside. 

I’ve criticized the offense for basically stumbling into a good thing with Ty Montgomery in the backfield, and then subsequently ignoring it, but it seems like Capers may be guilty of the essentially the same thing. It is NFL gospel that outside pass rushers are more valuable than inside linebackers, and I’ve said so myself on numerous occasions, but defenses aren’t so simple. They are organic blobs moving together in unison, and each small part has a great effect on his neighbors. Matthews did not grade well as an inside linebacker by scouts, but I think they missed his contributions as simply a presence of chaos. Matthews is almost nothing like Charles Woodson except that they both cover tons of space against run or pass if allowed to do so. Matthews isn’t great in coverage, but in the middle of the field he is a very good run-stopper, dangerous on a designed blitz, and if asked to run with someone, he can and will. Frankly, at this point he is more dangerous on a schemed pass rush than he is beating a tackle one-on-one, and is coming off maybe his worst game of the season in terms of providing a sustained rush. 

The fact is that everyone, including Randall, Rollins, and Burnett played better with Matthews in the middle. Rollins and Randall were good last year. They did show actual promise and justified the release of Hayward. Nick Perry, Julius Peppers, and Mike Daniels combined with Capers’ blitz packages are more than sufficient to provide a pass rush without Matthews outside. Having him outside keeps better talent off the field and makes everyone around him worse, while, by his own admission, making it more likely that he will be injured. I suspect that when Matthews is in the middle the secondary just doesn’t have to react as much to certain routes and fakes. They don’t need to be as charged up to take on roles in run support. The middle of the field is being controlled  by an undisciplined maniac playing a game of see-ball get-ball. When he is outside, tackles often use that against him to push him out of the play. In the middle, aggressiveness works just fine.

The entire defense collapsed on Sunday, and the secondary put up some truly ugly numbers.

Washington has a fine offense, but Gunter can be much better than this, as can Rollins. When the Packers started the year with a dominant performance against the run behind Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez, they removed any notion that it might be wise to have Clay Matthews in the middle. The rest of the NFL pulled quite the trick in this regard and, for the first time since his inaugural season with the Packers, Capers has a better run defense than pass defense. When a Capers defense shows this type of balance, the odds are that something has gone horribly wrong. There is nothing  wrong with stopping the run in a vacuum, but in the modern NFL pass defense comes first, and while Matthews originally moved in the middle to stop running quarterbacks, it turned out that this move stopped almost everything. They should seriously consider returning to it, and, with health a big concern at inside linebacker, they may have some incentive to do so.  It may be injuries or stagnating youth, or, simply, the offense not giving them a lead to hold, but it may very well be Clay Matthews playing where he wants to play, instead of where he should play.   

The Must Win 

The Eagles have the league’s best defense per DVOA, to go with a bad, run-based offense led by rookie checkdown artist Carson Wentz. If the Packer defense is going to rebound, this is a good team to do it against, as the Eagles do not excel at the deep ball where the Packers have been especially vulnerable. On the other hand, I’ve heard too many people say that the Packer offense hasn’t been bad lately. In fact, they have played a string of terrible defenses that frequently allow huge point totals, and only scored in the mid-20s against all of them. If they can put up points on the Eagles it will be truly impressive. I suspect we’ll see a low-scoring game, and another tough loss. 

Football Outsiders has the current Packer odds to make the playoffs at 8.8% and FiveThirtyEight has them with about a 6% chance. 

If the Packers lose this game they need to win out, and if the Packers lose this game, they will have shown themselves as being incapable of winning out.

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