2011 Packers Defense Preview
Whereas the offense preview likely left most of you with a boner that’d rival a horny teenager Bub discovering Viagra for the first time, the defense preview will probably only hit the “honeymoon” boner status.
D-line: BJ Raji was easily the most underrated player on the Packers last year right up until we heard the call, “Hanie throws it over the middle, intercepted! BJ Raji… in the endzone for the touchdown!”
It was as if God (Capers) had called down from above the perfect gift (play) that fell into his lap (incompetent Bears’ quarterback throw) that resulted in a game-winning, Super Bowl birth-confirming interception for a touchdown. With that, Raj received all of the praise that comes along with such a high profile play. Basically what I’m saying is Raji’s interception/TD was pure luck that garnered him the national attention and praise he deserved after last season.
The numbers to back up such claims? Raj played 85% of the snaps in 2010 (1,070 of 1,259), the most by a Packers d-lineman in a single season in over a decade. He led the d-line in tackles for losses (4.5), batted balls (3), and tied for sacks (7.5), combining with that 6 knock-downs and 19.5 hurries. For a guy who’s listed at 337, those numbers are simply incredible. He should have been a pro-bowler, but as previously stated, karma eventually did repay the Freezer.
All that said, 2011 should bode well for Raji. Less will seemingly be more for Raji, even in Cullen Jenkins’ absence. I’d like to think a 337 pound guy will be more effective when playing only, say 75% of snaps. Don’t forget that last year, Jenkins and Pickett probably didn’t play a full 16 games at 100% between them, after suffering a broken hand and severe, high ankle sprains. A healthy d-line rotation will hopefully get BJ off the field more, allowing him to be better rested and more effective when he plays. This will be his third year under Capers’ system, he’s going to want a new contract soon. He should go ahead and book his flight to Hawaii already.
Mike Neal right now smacks of Justin Harrell light. Not as high profile of a pick, not as serious of an injury history (yet) but clearly plenty of promise shown hindered by injury. His development and performance this year is probably the most crucial of any player on the defense.
A healthy, effective Neal and the d-line is better than it was last year. He’s 295 and was called the team’s best d-line pass rusher in last year’s camp. Reports say he won’t fully recover from his shoulder surgery until October, but he should be well enough to play week 1. If he can avoid the Harrell injury bug, he should really boost the line’s production. The team let Cullen Jenkins walk and didn’t offer him anything after he couldn’t negotiate a blockbuster deal with Washington. Philly definitely got him a discount the Packers could have afforded, but they still opted not to sign him. I’d chalk that up to both his age and the team’s confidence in Neal. Neal’s a gym rat who sleeps in a hyperbaric chamber every night. The guy eats, sleeps and dreams football. Pray he’s healthy.
Ryan Pickett is one of two players on the defense signed through free agency that isn’t pulling in the league minimum. He led the defensive line in tackles per snap played last year and is bringing the team’s average age way up at 31. At 340 lbs, he was moved from DT to LE last year and it did nothing to hinder his production. Most teams probably wish they had this guy on their line.
The Journal Sentinel did a puff piece on Howard Green, who is also wrecking the team’s average age (32), and how he’s living in a hotel in Green Bay until he makes the team. He’s been cut 10 times already in his career, but leave it to Capers to find use for all 360 lbs of him. Word is he’s in camp in great shape, and he can go ahead and buy a house in Green Bay now because he’s going to make the team. He’ll work a yeoman’s job on the d-line, for sure, but it’s a role the team desperate needs filled to give other guys (Raji) a breather. You’ll see him again in 4-4 fronts, eating up blocks and making tackles, he had the second most tackles per snap last year for the guys in the trenches.
CJ Wilson should see more playing time this year as he’s not buried behind both Jenkins and Neal. He’s a 7th round draft pick who got his weight up to around 300 without sacrificing any speed in the process. We’ll see a lot of him if something happens to Neal, the result of that extra PT remains to be seen.
Jarius Wynn will probably get the 6th and final d-line spot on the active roster. He was a 6th round draft pick out of Georgia and saw 160 some snaps last year compared to 75 a year ago. He’s another end rusher, but clocks in on the lighter side around 290 lbs. What’s interesting about Wynn and Wilson are that they’re both young projects who’re being slowly weaned into games. Both are 24 and are slowly being developed in camp each year. That’s the luxury of having such a good, deep defense. Both will be suitable replacements in the event of 2010-esque problems.
Lawrence Guy, Eli Joseph, Jay Ross and Chris Donaldson will probably be shown the door to the practice squad, but there’s a likelihood that a non-concussed Guy could prove something before Saturday’s final cut. If not, it’s a waste of a draft pick even this blogger could see ahead of time.
Linebackers: Leroy Butler came right out and said it on Milwaukee morning radio a few weeks ago: Clay Matthews doesn’t like to practice. Hence the hamstring “issues” that kept him out of the past two camps. For a guy that spends his offseason working out and practicing mix martial arts to get better at football, I’ll go ahead and say he can miss as many practices as he’d like. He played with a broken shin last year and still put up the league’s second highest sack total despite the double teams and depleted depth chart starting around him.
He’s healthier in camp this year and had an even longer period of time due to the lockout this offseason to work out without the bother of “practice.” Needless to say, I can’t wait until he’s let out of his cage.
Opposite Matthews, you’re primarily going to see Walden (Pond). Camp reports are that he’s the best physical specimen of the three competing for the starting job, capable of both the rush and coverage duties associated with the position. He probably needs some time to develop and learn the role, but thankfully he’s surrounded by a team of what will be 3-year starters in their positions. I’d expect him to take his form midseason. Pond was an undrafted FA picked up by the Packers after Dallas let him go. He’s this year’s Sam Shields, the raw talent we hope the coaching staff can turn into a great player.
Zombo broke his shoulder playing a preseason game and made the competition for the position much, much less interesting. I expect him to be PUP’ed (ala Harris and Starks last year), and they’ll likely put off the decision on what to do with him until they have to in week 7. He excels at the pass rush, but not run defense nor coverage. He’s an overrated work in progress. Unfortunately, unlike the d-line, the team doesn’t have much depth at this position to bring him along properly.
Brad Jones, the 7th Rd draft pick out of Colorado that won the starting job opposite of Matthews last year, broke Brett Favre’s foot before joining the IR party. He’s played a lot (394 snaps in ‘09, 292 in ‘10) so it’s a bit of a surprise that he’s not winning this position battle right now. Word is the shoulder that kept him out of games the past two years is a big reason why. If anything, he’ll be good depth at the position.
Beyond those guys, we’ll have some interesting battles for roster spots. Based on camp results, DJ Smith, Vic So’oto and Jamari Lattimore are likely fighting for 2 spots. DJ Smith and So’oto have the highest upside. DJ Smith was the record-setter at Appalachian State who was overlooked because he’s short. The guy was a D2 monster drafted in round 6 this year. So’oto is the preason success story, another physical specimen we also want to succeed. He’s an undrafted FA this year out of BYU who runs a 4.68, and did 35 bench reps at 6’3” 260. Thems Clay Matthews numbers at the same height, with 20 lbs more to him. Lattimore has shown promise and holds his school’s second highest career sack total, behind none other than Walden. Expect Elmore and the rest to be shown the door, another wasted draft pick.
Francois will back up Hawk and Bishop on the interior. Francois has bounced around the NFC North as an undrafted FA and has been around long enough to have the position pretty well locked up. Expect both him and DJ Smith to serve as the backups on the inside.
As for Hawk and Bishop, there’s not much more to say. Bishop finished the season second in team tackles (151), just 6 behind Hawk’s 157, despite player 4 fewer games than Hawk. Although he led LBs in missed tackles, he was clearly the best interior blitz option.
Hawk hasn’t missed a game since being drafted, hence the huge contract. He’s slow and seemingly a run specialist, but he improved his coverage numbers once he took over as a starter again last year, not allowing a TD in coverage after week 5. He’s been downright miserable in pass rush. These two are probably overpaid, but healthy and moderately effective will certainly provide the glue necessary to keep the defense together.
CBs: Prepare your boners. Green Bay kept 6 last year and will probably do that again. Woodson, Williams, Shields, Bush, Davon House, and probably Josh Gordy.
Many of you might be concerned about Tramon Williams’ big contract. You know, management patting themselves on the back for finding an undrafted CB turned Pro Bowler, and paying out the ass after seemingly one season of production. Welp, ease your concerns, Football Outsiders has numerical reassurance for you. He ranked 4th in the league in pass success rate (4 percentage points behind Revis at 66%) and 9th in yards per pass allowed (5.5 yards).
Those two statistics cover the scope of performance for a d-back in football much like OPS would for a batter in baseball: he forces a high rate of incomplete passes when thrown to AND doesn’t allow much yardage when those passes are completed. Include his playoff numbers, you know, two interceptions that basically won the team two playoff games and he undoubtedly ranks highers. Those are just secondary statistics. Other more significant ones to note? He allowed only six plays of more than 20 yards and gave up ONE touchdown pass all of last season. Basically, he’s an elite player and they extended his deal below market value. Now say a “Glory Be…” in gratitude for Thompson.
Charles Woodson and Sam Shield’s production will be directly related this season. The more effective Shields is, the better Woodson is. Woodson has another two or so magical years of being essentially a coach in a player’s body. He makes great decisions, is always around the ball and is one of few players in the league who legitimately looks at his role on the defense as an opportunity to score points for his team. He’ll be listed as a starting CB, but really will be a starting headache for opposing QBs. He’ll blitz a lot, he’s as sure a tackler as the secondary has (led the team in 5 forced fumbles), he can keep up with teams’ #2 receivers. Hell, he broke his collarbone in the Super Bowl running stride for stride with one of the league’s fastest receivers in Mike Wallace. Of course, knowing Chuck, he broke up the pass before breaking his collarbone.
Sam Shields is primed for the sophomore slump, but if he’s productive, it’ll enable Woodson to just be where the ball is on the field. Shields is probably the fastest on the team, as shown by the fact he committed one penalty all of last season. He can use his speed to make up for mistakes. That said, he gave up 10 20+ yard plays last year and 4 TDs. He needs more time learning the position because 2011 will be his third year playing CB.
Davon House runs a 4.41 40, good for top 15 in this year’s draft class. He was a four year starter who set a school record for downs played at New Mexico State and scored a 20 on his Wonderlic. He impressed in camp early before being injured, but we definitely want him to succeed because…
It keeps Jarrett Bush off the field. Yeah, we’re digging into dime backs at this point, but Bush is clearly the worst. He’s a great special-teamer we’d love to bump one more spot down in the depth chart. He’s looked deplorable in pass coverage this preseason. Shocking.
Josh Gordy is the physically-talented undrafted project at corner this season. He runs a 4.42 and has a huge vertical. He showed versatility in the Cleveland preseason game (a sack and an interception) that will probably fit in well with Capers system. Pat Lee has been more disappointing than a Jewish guy’s penis after a solid postseason run. Brandian Ross will be a casualty of cuts, too.
Safties. Pretty cut and dried. Collins, Burnett, Peprah and Anthony Levine.
Nick Collins, despite being a Pro Bowler, is a pretty underrated player at his position. Right now, he’s probably better than Ed Reed is, the Packers could probably start Steve at SS as long as Collins is on the field. He instructs, reads the ball well and hits hard.
Burnett has as much promise as any early round draft pick on the roster and showed as much on the field last year. Remember, TT traded UP to get him. Peprah filled in very well for Burnett by starting the last 16 games of the (post)season. He was an undrafted FA out of Alabama who signed a modest two year extension this year. Levine will get the job over Underwood’s headaches. He’s another undrafted practice squad guy with an impressive camp. Underwood had troubles off the field and seemingly on, when trying to transition from CB to SS. He’s the one who was unable to stay academically eligible at Ohio State under Tressel. I’d call that too many character issues…
And there you have it, the summation is that the defense is full of raw, undrafted young depth with super-talented veterans filling in the key positions around them. Given Capers’ complex schemes and some tough passing offenses on the schedule, they’re sure to endure headaches this season, but the on-field product, if healthy, will be as good or better than last year. If they experience half of last year’s injuries, they’ll be worse.
This preseason, the only managerial complaint I have is not achieving the full value of players and draft picks. There isn't much room for Matt Flynn with a healthy Rodgers, but he's valuable to other teams, I hope they move him if they can, they can probably get a decent draft pick for him. Same goes for the draft picks this year they're going to cut (Guy, Elmore, etc...). The problem will be worse next year if the team is successful and healthy. They'll have 7 draft picks, plus another 3 compensatory (untradeable ones) in 2012 all while carrying one of the youngest rosters in the league. Rather than draft the aforementioned shit, trade later round picks for more early round ones. With TT still in control going forward, the Packers will just need more quality, not quantity in future drafts.