Packers Defense Looks To Regain Championship Form
By Jake Dowling
Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy preaches the importance of players making the necessary leap in talent from their rookie season in the NFL to their sophomore season - not only for the player himself, but for the rest of the team as well.
Over the years, McCarthy has seen several of his players make these successful leaps. A prime example would be LB Clay Matthews. During his rookie season, Matthews started 13 games and recorded 10 sacks, forced three fumbles and scored a touchdown. In Matthews’ second season with the Packers, however, he posted 13.5 sacks (including six in the first two games), one interception that was returned for a touchdown and forced two fumbles - all while starting 15 games and helping the team claim its fourth Super Bowl title.
Now, McCarthy is looking for similar results in this year’s class of sophomore players.
2013 was a disappointment for former UCLA standout Datone Jones. The defensive lineman, who was enjoying a solid training camp, injured his ankle and was forced to miss time. When Jones returned, his pass rushing ability was quite limited. He finished the year with only 3.5 sacks, 10 tackles and one fumble recovery - not the production Green Bay was looking for in a first round selection.
Another defensive lineman looking to take a step forward is Josh Boyd from Mississippi State. Last season, he did even less than his counterpart Jones, recording six tackles and failing to bring down the opposing quarterback once. Nevertheless, coaches liked Boyd's mentality and his play, and gave him more opportunities than Jones down the final stretch of the season.
CB Micah Hyde had a relatively decent campaign in 2013, recording 55 tackles in three starts with one sack and a forced fumble. He was also a decent return man and once scampered for a 94-yard punt return touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings.
Fellow CB Casey Hayward could be another player on the rise. Even though he was a rookie back in 2012 when he had 52 tackles and hauled in a team-high six interceptions, his sophomore season was a washout due to a recurring hamstring injury he sustained one week before training camp.
If these four players can improve upon their so-so rookie seasons, the Packers defense is already a step ahead of the game. Along with this group, however, there are others that will be looking to turn things around.
Matthews missed almost half of the season and the team's safety play was atrocious at times, with no interceptions tallied at that position. However, with a healthy Matthews returning, the Packers are getting back one of the NFL's best threats on the edge who can not only rush the passer, but also play the run.
Green Bay also has solid depth opposite Matthews with 2012 first round pick Nick Perry and 2010 second rounder Mike Neal. Both players, when healthy, add an athletic dimension to the defense. Both players, however, have had problems with the injury bug, but showed flashes of greatness at times last season.
We also can't forget about the splash made with the signing of free agent DE Julius Peppers. At the age of 34, Peppers’ best days are behind him, but his role on defense has changed since his time in Carolina and Chicago. All the Packers need from him is an athletic player who can line up virtually anywhere along the front seven on a part-time basis. The veteran defensive end should provide Green Bay with flexibility and versatility.
DL B.J. Raji and safety Morgan Burnett also had disappointing seasons a year ago. Raji may not be able to regain his 2010 form, but he can be a solid player. This season, the Packers will place Raji back at nose tackle, which is his best position, and will not limit his time as they did last year. As far as Burnett goes, he knows what is at stake. He signed a big contract before the season began but underperformed. Burnett will never be another Nick Collins, but he can stop the run, tackle well when he commits to it and can make plays on the ball when there is not a communication breakdown in the defensive backfield.
This year’s first round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix will be the man opposite Burnett. He has the size, has shown that he can cover receivers, plays the run well and is athletic. Clinton-Dix is an automatic upgrade over the revolving door at safety that included M.D. Jennings, Jerron McMillan, Sean Richardson and Chris Banjo.
The only true weakness on the Packers defense is at middle linebacker. A.J. Hawk will be back and can play the run well, but he is undersized and plays the pass poorly. Brad Jones has size and can also play the run, but does not have enough speed to stay with receivers. At the same time, Green Bay's biggest strengths are at cornerback and a young, talented defensive line.
The Packers finished 25th in the league in yards allowed and 24th in points allowed last year. Injuries and underachievers on defense helped lead to the team's demise, but don’t expect that for a second straight season. Jobs are on the line (for both players and coaches) and a new mentality has set in.
All the more reason to believe the Packers defense can only be better in 2014. They may still not field a Top 5 squad, but any improvement made to a defense supporting a top-flight offense will go a long way in contending for another title.