So we hear every year that the Packers defense is bad. Or at least it certainly seems that way. But how bad are they and in what way? It’s easy to pull baseline numbers, say things like, “the Packers were 22nd in yards allowed and 26th in points allowed in 2017.” That’s a true statement, but it doesn’t really tell the full story, does it? Where did those yards come? How many of those yards were in garbage time? Who on the defense was allowing points? Let’s find out.
For purposes of this piece I’ll be borrowing stats from Football Outsiders, because they do it best. In particular, we’ll be examining the Packers’ Defense-Adjusted Value Over Yardage, or DVOA. Now, you’re probably wondering what the hell that is. Fear not, I’ll explain. Let’s say you look at the stats at the end of a game and you see two players each had a four yard run. Those runs seem equal to each other if that’s all we say. However, what if one of those runs was on a 2nd and 15 in the first half, and the other was on 3rd and 3 in the second half of a close game? Safe to say that the second run was much more predictable, thus facing stiffer defense, and more important to the team’s success. Long story short, simply saying the yards doesn’t tell the whole story. DVOA assigns greater weight to plays based on their down and distance as well as the point at which they occur in the game. While no stat is perfect, this tells a better story than merely looking at points or yards. If you want a full breakdown of the complex statistic that is DVOA, you can read about it here.
In general, for the year, the Packers ranked 20th in terms of DVOA. So their defense was slightly better than the points and yards indicate. However, when weighting late season games more (so as to see how a team is performing as the year goes on) the Packers fall to 24, meaning they were strong early in the season and fell off as the year went on. Here’s the kicker though, the stats split considerably when looking at run defense as compared to pass defense (which should surprise no one). Based on the metrics outlined, Green Bay had the 26th ranked pass defense and the 8th ranked run defense. The sole saving grace for the defense is this, the Packers had the 8th hardest schedule in the NFL last season, based on how the teams they played fared overall. So at least, on average, they were getting beat by good teams.
Again, one stat seldom tells the full story. So, here are a few more to really make you sink your head. The Packers allowed 33.82 yards per drive last season, good for 28th in the league. They allowed 2.22 points per drive, dead last in the NFL. You can see how they compare to other teams in those two stats in the graph above. The red dot is the Packers, the higher and the farther to the right, the worse. Teams started at, on average, the 30 yard line on drives against the Packers, that’s the second worst of any NFL team. How about the average length of a drive against the Packers in 2017? 3 minutes, the longest average allowed by any defense in the league. What about the down series success rate, that is to say, the percentage of down series that turned into a first down or a score? You guessed it, we were dead last in that too, allowing a first down or a score 72.3% of down series. Basically what I’m trying to say is our defense is about as bad as it gets, or at least they were last year.
Now, as far as the run defense goes, the quality is none too surprising. The interior was well anchored by Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark, and Dean Lowry, with Blake Martinez roaming the inside and Clay Matthews doing a decent job of holding the line on the outside. The addition of Muhammad Wilkerson should only improve the defensive front, but overall they didn’t need too much work there. That explains why the draft was so focused on the pass defense.
So, to recap thus far, the pass defense is the concern, not the run. Again, no surprises. Again though, just saying we struggled against the pass doesn’t tell the full story. Where did we struggle and why? Well, how’d we do against team’s number 1 wideouts? We were the worst in the NFL, allowing 79.6 yards per game to the top wideout on opposing teams. How about against number 2 receivers? We were 26th in that category, not too shabby by our defense’s standards. Against tight ends? 21st in the NFL, borderline slightly below average, that’s world class as far as our defense is concerned. We ranked 10th against receivers that were third or lower on the depth chart, though it’s a bit easier to rank highly there when the top two are slow roasting you over an open fire week in and week out. Running backs had their way against the team too, the Packers were 29th in the league in pass protection against running backs.
So what? Did I write all this just to depress you? No, though it might seem that way at this point. Believe it or not, the team did address quite a few of the holes on the defense’s backend. For instance, let’s focus on number 1 wide receivers. For a better part of the season, Damarious Randall was lined up across from teams’ top guy, and he got killed. That’s not to fault him, he was the best corner on the team for much of the year, but being the best of the bad doesn’t make you good. Kevin King showed some promise when healthy, but he wasn’t 100% for much of the year and played in just nine games. Behind Randall and King we had Davon House getting cooked, along with Josh Hawkins, Lenzy Pipkins, and Quinten Rollins. Enter in Jaire Alexander, Josh Jackson, and Tramon Williams.
Jaire Alexander, the Packers’ 1st round pick this year, is as good a slot corner as you can hope to get in the draft, and he could play outside if need be. Make no mistake, the slot, or nickel corner, is a starter in the modern NFL. Teams played three wide receivers on 63% of snaps in 2017, meaning you need three cornerbacks on the field more often than not. Given that a slot wideout is often a team’s second best receiver, look for Jaire to shut down the Randall Cobb’s of the world.
Josh Jackson, the team’s 2nd round pick, is an outside cover corner in a similar mold to Kevin King. He’s a shutdown guy and, along with King, will match up with the top wideouts from opposing teams and could even face off against slender tight ends given his size. The point is, the Packers saw they struggled against top wide receivers and drafted cornerbacks specialized to deal with the areas we struggle in.
Let’s not forget about our third rounder from this year, Oren Burks. Weighing in at 233 and running a 4.59 second 40 yard dash would’ve made Burks a “tweener” in years past, too big to play safety and too small to play linebacker. In the modern NFL he’s exactly what every defense needs. A sideline to sideline linebacker who can specialize in covering running backs out of the backfield. A former safety turned linebacker, look for Burks to defend tight ends and running backs often.
I’m not saying you should expect a whole new Packers defense in 2018, but things should be on the up and up, finally. Mike Pettine is adept at making the most of what he has and is renowned around the NFL for his defensive mind. Enter in athletic, pass defense minded draft picks and a stellar defensive front and you could have the makings of a league average defense, which is a whole lot better than the bottom of the barrel bunch we’ve seen operating the last few years.