Improved defense gives Packers hope
OCT 02, 2012 1:51p ET
A 15-1 regular-season record, even without a trip to the Super Bowl (or the NFC Championship Game) was still a rare -- and extraordinary -- accomplishment. That success was achieved mostly due to a dominant offense that led the league in scoring with an average of 35 points per game.
The vast majority of Green Bay's 2011 roster returned this season, including the NFL's reigning Most Valuable Player, quarterback Aaron Rodgers. There were also a couple positions on offense that could arguably be considered upgrades, including running back Cedric Benson instead of Ryan Grant and center Jeff Saturday in place of Scott Wells.
And yet, so far in 2012, the Packers are just not as good offensively. Green Bay is currently ranked 20th in the league in scoring with 21.3 points per game, 15th in passing yards and 25th in rushing yards.
Rodgers, who set the NFL's all-time record for passer rating last season, is 12th in that category, trailing rookie Robert Griffin III and second-year quarterbacks Andy Dalton and Christian Ponder, among others.
It's certainly true that the Packers already have faced three of the league's best defenses (San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle), which would be a perfectly reasonable explanation for their statistics not being as good as they were last year. Once Green Bay got a chance against the New Orleans Saints' inferior defense in Week 4, the Packers scored a season-high 28 points.
After scoring only four offensive touchdowns in the first three games, Rodgers led Green Bay to four touchdown drives in the Saints game alone. It was the first sign all season that the Packers' offense has the potential to regain its 2011 form.
With the Colts next on Green Bay's schedule, there should be another big game on the way for Rodgers and the offense. Indianapolis has allowed 27.7 points per game so far this season, and that was against the Bears, Vikings and Jaguars, three offenses that aren't exactly high-powered attacks.
But what about in Week 6, when the Packers travel to Houston and match up with the Texans' No. 1-ranked defense? What about when the playoffs begin and Green Bay's journey to the Super Bowl likely requires a rematch with the 49ers?
That is the challenge the Packers will have to overcome. It's one thing to score points on 0-4 New Orleans, but reacquiring the offensive spark that propelled Green Bay to six 40-plus-point games in 2011 will not be as easy.
Based on the rate at which the Packers' offense found the end zone last season, expectations may be unrealistic for Rodgers and his group. But one thing that Green Bay can feel good about to this point in the season is that the team hasn't had to rely solely on its offense to win games. Following a year in which the Packers' defense gave up the most yards in the NFL and finished 27th in sacks, Green Bay is now ninth-best in total defense and fourth in sacks.
The most notable reason for the turnaround is outside linebacker Clay Matthews' early-season success. Matthews has racked up seven sacks (second-most in the NFL), already passing his 2011 season total of six. That amount of backfield pressure from Matthews is bolstered by the contributions of several rookies, including fellow outside linebacker Nick Perry (one sack), defensive linemen Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels (one sack each), safety Jerron McMillian (one interception) and cornerback Casey Hayward (two pass breakups).
It's also been very helpful to the Packers' defense that nose tackle B.J. Raji and inside linebacker A.J. Hawk have been more productive in the first four games than what they showed during most of last season. Tramon Williams has been very good as Green Bay's shutdown cornerback with two interceptions and five pass breakups. Veteran Charles Woodson has transitioned well to his new role as safety in the 3-4 base defense packages with 1.5 sacks and one interception.
Green Bay's pass rush has been good enough up front that defensive coordinator Dom Capers has not had to blitz as often as he did last year. This has allowed for more defensive backs to stay in coverage, which, up until Drew Brees picked them apart in Week 4, worked well for most of the first three games.
Coach Mike McCarthy has kept things interesting on special teams in the first four weeks, calling for and successfully executing both a fake field goal and a fake punt. Both of those calls were somewhat necessitated by the situations of those particular games, but McCarthy would not have had to resort to trick plays last season. If the Packers' offense were still averaging 35 points per game as it did a year ago, there's very little chance that McCarthy would have taken those same risks.
Due in large part to the replacement referees' missed call in Week 3, Green Bay isn't sitting as comfortably as it should be at this point in the season. A 2-2 record is the Packers' official record, but 3-1 would be a more accurate portrayal of their season to this point.
If Green Bay's offense can use its Week 4 progress as a building block for the next 12 games, though it still probably won't be as explosive as last season, that will be a good start for the Packers becoming a feared team once again. Then, if Matthews and the defense continues with quality performances, by season's end, this Green Bay team has a chance to be even better than it was last year.
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