Is this a defensive team?

Coming into this season, many—including myself—thought that this team would go as far as the offense would carry them.  Yes:  there was much anticipation and buzz surrounding new defensive coordinator Dom Capers and his installment of the 3-4 scheme.  However, many of the discussions involving the defense were tempered and came with an important caveat:  learning and adjusting to the scheme will take time—in fact, the defense might not even adjust fully to the scheme this season, as some of the personnel are considered better suited for a 4-3 rather than 3-4 scheme.  Consequently, the line of thinking throughout Packerland seemed to be thus:  if the defense can just improve from last year, where they were 20th in the league overall and a horrendous 26th in the league against the run, to just an above average defensive team—say, just out of the top 10—then this team can be dangerous considering the weapons they have on offense.

Well, the defense is holding up their end of the bargain—at least statistically.  A defense that was, as just noted, 26th against the run, allowing 131.6 yards a game, is now 4th against the run, allowing 93.1 yards a game.  A defense that allowed 4.6 yards per carry, the 7th worst average in the league, now allows only 3.5 yards per carry, which is tied for 3rd best in the league.

However, as most of us know, stats can be misleading.  As exhibit A, I offer Aaron Rodgers’ QB rating.  And as most of us have witnessed, this defense has not played as well as the stats have indicated over the first 8 games of the season.  The Bengals, who statistically are barely better than the Packers running the football, carved this defense up on the ground.  Although many of us would like to forget it, Brett Favre had his way throwing the ball against this defense not once but twice.  Worse, perhaps, was seeing rookie QB Josh Freeman move the ball quite effortlessly down the field, though his confidence surely grew due to his special teams and defense routinely giving him a short field with which to work.  These slipshod defensive performances are more discouraging when you consider the good defensive performances came against teams the likes of the Chicago Bears, St. Louis Rams, Detroit Lions (who were missing both Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson), and Cleveland Browns.  That’s a pretty underwhelming smorgasbord of inept offenses.

But maybe, just maybe, this defense is starting to turn a corner; maybe this defense is starting not only to adjust but to flourish in this 3-4 scheme.

At least that’s what seemed to happen against the Cowboys this past Sunday.

Woodson had perhaps the best game of his career against the Cowboys

The Cowboys, ranked 4th in overall offense, were flat out abused by the Packers’ defense.  The man receiving the most press after the game was Charles Woodson—and rightfully so.  He lead the team with 8 tackles; he forced two fumbles, both of which the Packers recovered; he had a sack off a beautifully executed blitz; and he had an amazing interception, breaking on a goal line pass to Jason Witten and in turn all but sealing the Packers’ victory.  In sum, this was probably the best game of Woodson’s illustrious career, which says a lot, and he was an absolute stud—the best player on the field.

That all said, I would be remiss in saying that the Packers’ defensive performance was the work of Woodson alone.  After a defensive performance of that magnitude, there is a lot of praise to be dolled out.

Let’s start with the linebackers, a unit imperative to the success of a 3-4 scheme and a unit for the Packers that had been much maligned last year and early this year.  I too was down on these linebackers for much of the year.  I’ve been a vocal Nick Barnett critic; I’ve come to see AJ Hawk as expendable; I’ve never thought too highly of Brady Poppinga; and I’ve noticed a significant decline in production from Aaron Kampman as a linebacker.  The lone bright spot had been the emergence of Clay Matthews, who continues to play phenomenal football for a rookie and who looks more and more like the impact player many Packers fans hoped he would become.  Lately, however, and especially against Dallas, this linebacking unit has been playing great football.

Barnett is finally healthy and playing some of his best football

Barnett is finally healthy, and as a result, he is putting together one of his better seasons.  McCarthy was adamant about slowly acclimating Barnett back into the game, keeping his snap count at about 40.  Now, 10 weeks into the season, Barnett has his burst and confidence back—and it shows.  He’s getting to the quarterback better than, well, I can remember, and his team high 2.0 sacks Sunday is indicative of that.  Barnett was never a lauded blitzer; in fact, he’s never really been considered an above average blitzer.  This year, however, he’s a new man, and the reason, some have to imagine, is the new 3-4 scheme.  Most people considered Barnett out of position in the 3-4:  they believed his skill set was better suited for a 4-3 defense, particularly a Cover 2 scheme.  Thus far, however, Barnett has proven those people emphatically wrong.

Hawk too has silenced some of his critics.  He remains reliable and assignment steady, and he continues to play well filling in for the injured Brandon Chillar.  He’s playing so well, in fact, that I’m flummoxed by Dom Capers’ recent affinity to play more dime packages, essentially opting for Jarrett Bush over Hawk.  Bush, who in my opinion should never see the field unless it is to play special teams, is nothing but a liability, something Hawk has consistently shown this season he is anything but.

Matthews continues to impress and came up with two big fumble recoveries

Matthews has received a lot of adoration for his play throughout the season, so for the sake of not being too redundant, I’ll keep this brief:  the kid is special, and he’s only going to get better.  He’s just explosive off the snap, which was highly apparent when he burned five-time Pro Bowler Flozell Adams for a sack this Sunday.  Matthews is also becoming a “Johnny on the Spot,” as he recovered both of the fumbles Woodson forced.  The kid, put bluntly, makes plays, and he’s going to be a staple of this 3-4 defense for many years.

Brad Jones, a sixth round rookie filling in for the concussed Kampman, also played admirably and exceeded my expectations.  Capers is purportedly very high on Jones, whose elusiveness and instincts he compares to Chad Brown’s, which, if you didn’t know, is a compliment.   After watching him play a whole game, I too can see his upside.  Jones held the point of attack quite well against a strong Cowboy offensive line, recording 7 tackles in the process.  Jones isn’t going to usurp Kampman as a starter, but his potential makes you think Kampman might be expendable next year if he continues to struggle as a linebacker.

These linebackers played fantastic 3-4 football this past Sunday, but as many will say, good linebacker play starts upfront; that is, if the defensive linemen aren’t able to do their jobs and hold the point of attack then offensive linemen can hit the second tier and render the linebackers obsolete.  And that didn’t happen against the Cowboys because the Packers’ defensive linemen played great.  Pickett, whom last week I labeled the Packers’ midseason defensive MVP, continued his steady play against the Cowboys, so that really isn’t news.  What is news, or at least what stood out, was the play of Cullen Jenkins and a healthy BJ Raji, both of whom elevated their respective games.  Jenkins was Mr. Hustle against the Cowboys, making plays all over the field, and Raji had some great push.  You can see the talent that made him a top 10 pick in last April’s draft.  He’s going to be a dominating player sooner rather than later.

Lastly, you might have seen Nick Collins flying around your television.  Although he was channeling his pre-2008 Nick Collins, dropping two interceptions, his speed and instincts are something special.  He really can break on the football.  Now, like last year, he needs to start catching the ball.

Overall, Dom Capers dialed up more blitzes, which is easier when you’re sitting on a double digit lead, no doubt, but those blitzes mean nothing if your players can’t get to the quarterback.  And for most of this season, the defense has been unable to do so.  That changed Sunday, however, as the defense showed great push and tenacity.  Too bad it took them 8 games and a loss against one of the worst teams in the NFL before they played with some urgency.

**

So, having said all that, my question, the one I pose in the title, is thus:  Are the Packers now a defensive-led team?

My answer?  It’s too soon to tell.

Part of the reason is I still, perhaps against my better judgment, have faith in this offense.  Yes, they continued to struggle in the same areas, committing their usually holding penalties and allowing the obligatory 4+ sacks.  However, I felt the line held up fairly well against a very strong Cowboy front seven.  TJ Lang had a sound game at right tackle, and I wouldn’t be upset if he plays there the remainder of the season and heading forward.  He’s a guy that is going to end up starting on this offense somewhere, and I don’t see why it can’t be at right tackle.  In addition, this offense is starting to get back some important cogs.   We saw the impact a Jordy Nelson can make, and his good play made me only salivate at the prospect of getting Jermichael Finley back this week.

Rodgers did a fantastic job of managing the game, completing passes to 10 different receivers

Perhaps most importantly, Aaron Rodgers played one of his most efficient and smartest games of the season.  The numbers aren’t startling, but he got rid of the ball quicker than he has in the past, and he spread the wealth, completing passes to 10 different receivers.  Furthermore, his two 3rd down passes on the 15 play 80 yard drive (easily their best drive of the season), one to Greg Jennings and the other to Donald Lee, were two of his best passes this year—and in the most critical of situations, mind you.  In other words, I have to wonder if this offense, which this coming Sunday will probably be the healthiest it’s been all season, is about to turn a corner.  That, and I need to see the defense replicate that performance for a couple of weeks before I’m willing to give them the definitive nod and say they are the better unit.

Nonetheless, this team is getting healthy at the right moment. They’re starting to become balanced, and perhaps most importantly, they showed a swagger, aggressiveness, and intensity against the Cowboys that we haven’t seen all year.  I just hope the Packers can reproduce that intensity and performance against the 49ers next week because if they don’t, this win was all for naught.  And I truly mean that:  the calls for McCarthy and Thompson to be fired will be just as vehement following a loss to the 49ers at home as they were following the loss to the winless Buccaneers.

With the Eagles, Bears, Falcons, and Cowboys all losing, it’s amazing what a difference a week makes.  I just hope I don’t find myself saying that next week, as all the hope and confidence that was gained from this win can easily dissipate with a loss to the 49ers.

Until then, Go Pack Go.

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