Let’s pump the brakes on defensive expectations

I happened to be watching the NFL Network that day. James Jones, a former Packer receiver, has been taking care of Green Bay’s defense for next season. “The firmness, if they stay healthy, could have the best defense in the NFL this year,” he said. It is not uncommon to take this out of season.

The perception appears to be that because the Green Bay defense played so well in the 49ers playoff, along with the addition of two defensive players in the first round of the draft, the re-signs of Rasul Douglas and De’Vondre Campbell, and the return of Jair Alexander, the unit should be nonstop.

They played really well in the post-season game. They held San Francisco to 106 passing yards, 99 rushing yards, and no touchdowns. Despite the crushing loss, the performance left for most of Packer’s fans a glossy image of the defense. An image that is decorated and amplified almost day by day. Green and Gold believers seem to have visions of a unit that will take the field in September as ’84 Bears, Doomsday Defense, Steel Curtain, and Legion of Boom all rolled into one.

I don’t really mean to play Debbie Downer here, but it might be worth doing some reality checking as we move through this long dead spot in the off-season. During the 2021 season, the defensive unit was good but not great. Improved, but far from elite. In fact, it was as if the defense played two different seasons last fall. The first ten games, during which they were in the top ten by force (let’s just consider the opening-day disaster against the Saints out of the ordinary), and the last seven games, when the quality of their play plummeted.

Ironically, the decline began immediately after their best game of the season, perhaps the best in recent memory, as Russell Wilson and the Seahawks closed out 17-0. The following week, the Packers coughed 34 points to the Vikings, followed by 28 to the Rams, 30 to the Bears, 30 to the Ravens, and 22 to the Browns, and finished the regular season by conceding 37 points to the Lions. The Packers sent reserves in the second half of that Lions game, but the starters struggled hard in the first half. The only quality seen in those last seven games was in Week 17, with the Packers holding a Viking decimated by injury to ten points.

The Packers defense finished ninth in yards, but only 14th in most important stats, points allowed. They were 11 against the rush. Tenth against the pass.

However, in his first ten matches, D gave up an average of 18 points per competition. That dropped to over 27 points per game in the seventh inning. It was the pass defense in particular that collapsed. After surrendering 202 yards-per-game in the air for the first ten weeks, the package has ceded 242 yards-per-game in the last seven weeks. They only yielded fifteen drops during the tenth week, but have since been hacked for sixteen times in the last seven. Backtracking wasn’t bad when it came to stopping the run. Opponents carried the ball for 107 yards per game in the top ten, compared to 111 in the last seven.

And while the overall performance against the Niners in the playoffs was impressive, the defense let down at the end of the game when the team needed them most. They let their opponent out in the last 3:20 of the contest at 44 yards that ended with a field goal shot. What was most disappointing was giving up the nine-yard race to Deebo Samuel in the third and seventh, putting the Niners in the net and giving them control of the clock.

So what are we going to do where this unit stands? What is the Packers true defense, the powerful unit of those top 10 games and into the playoffs? Or the shaky group that struggled in the last seven? Much depends on how much rising players Quay Walker and Devonte Wyatt can contribute. Few rookies, especially defensive players, make much of an impact in their first seasons. There aren’t many men like Micah Parsons Cowboys out there. But at the end of the day, Georgia’s former superstars should at least be a promotion at the inner-back and defensive line. It may take several matches for themselves to appear, but by the play-off match in December, I expect the two of them will have established themselves.

Alexander’s return should renew the pass defense. The rim lunge position is very weak and an injury to Rashan Gary or Preston Smith would be debilitating. Same thing in safety. Chandon Sullivan is gone and the team does not have an experienced, experienced defender. We take it for granted that someone from the Alexander, Douglas, and Eric Stokes triumvirate could handle it, but we don’t know for sure. Garan Red Wyatt was added to the fore, but Kingsley Kiki and Tyler Lancaster were gone.

Put it all together, and the signs will outweigh the negatives, but only slightly. The corner, inner supports and D line should be better. The safety and rim should be approximately the same. At face value, we can expect a moderate improvement from this defense. It wouldn’t be the best defense in the league. It probably won’t be in the top five. But it may hover near that zip code. Injuries will tell the tale. If key players fall over the edge or safely, coaches will have to scramble.

Bottom line, I expect the attack will still need to win most of our matches. The defense must be improved enough to keep us in it.