GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The same unit that held back the Green Bay Packers when it mattered most last season remains so problematic that even Aaron Rodgers' presence may not have been enough to get them back to the brink of the Super Bowl this season.
Without Rodgers to cover up for the missteps on defense, coordinator Dom Capers' unit was exposed for what it is: a subpar unit that may have fixed some of the problems that ended their season in the NFC title game last year but ultimately has too many other issues.
From a pure rankings standpoint, the Packers are once again below average at best on that side of the ball. They finished 22nd in total defense last season and rank in the same spot after seven games this year. They stand better against the pass (16th this year compared with 31st last season) and worse against the run (27th now, eighth last season).
Things looked even worse in last Sunday’s 26-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints at Lambeau Field. Two early takeaways -- interceptions by a resurgent Damarious Randall and Davon House -- only delayed the inevitable collapse against quarterback Drew Brees, who hardly ever tested the Packers deep. Instead, a variety of screens and short passes confounded the 11 on defense -- when they bothered to field 11, that is. They had only 10 defenders on the field for Mark Ingram’s 12-yard touchdown run on a third-and-2 play in the second quarter.
“That was kind of a gift touchdown off having 10 people on the field,” Capers said.
This defense isn’t good enough to give anything away.
“We’ve got to be better there,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “We talked about the communication; it was clearly not good enough. We’ve got to be way better than we were. We knew they were going to roll the personnel group in; they rolled in nine personnel groups [during the game]. They stretched you at the end of the 40-second clock. We weren’t even close to where we needed to be.”
The same could be said for the collective performance through seven games. Sure, injuries have ravaged the secondary, but at least on Sunday against the Saints they had all of their preferred players except for starting strong safety Morgan Burnett.
The issues that have plagued the defense have been many, missed tackles and the lack of a pass rush chief among them. The Packers rank 27th in sack percentage overall but 32nd (last) in the past three games, when they have recorded just two sacks (both by Nick Perry).
When the pass rush should be most effective on obvious third-down pass plays, it hasn’t been. Brees got the ball out quickly on a hitch to Ted Ginn, who converted a third-and-17. Earlier, tight end Coby Fleener was wide open for a 17-yard gain on third-and-3. On a third-and-9 play in the third quarter, Mike Daniels got to Brees a second too late to prevent a throw downfield to Michael Thomas for a 21-yard gain. On that play, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, a Pro Bowler with five interceptions last year, sat back behind Thomas and did not make a play on the ball.
Although Clinton-Dix insisted he isn’t hurt, his play this season would suggest otherwise. He hasn’t been around the ball as much as he was last season, and when he has been he hasn’t made many plays. Without Burnett, who has missed the past two games because of a hamstring injury, Capers has relied more on Clinton-Dix to get players lined up.
“He’s had a lot more on his plate, so who knows how much that affects people,” Capers said of Clinton-Dix. “When you get used to playing, he’s been playing with Morgan out there. Morgan takes on a different role and Ha can focus in on certain things, and now Ha’s had to pick up that role and it gives him a lot more responsibility.”