Green Bay Packers defense makes the grade at halfway point of 2010 season : Packers Insider

Green Bay Packers defense makes the grade at halfway point of 2010 season

November 6, 2010 by  
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Nov 7, 2010 ~ by Rob Demovsky

~Two weeks ago, this was a season on the brink.

The Green Bay Packers were on a two-game losing streak and had fallen to 3-3. They were facing Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings, who swept them last season, and then a difficult road test at an AFC power, the New York Jets.

Thanks to near-heroic defensive efforts, the Packers salvaged their season and found themselves right back in the thick of the NFC race at the halfway point of the season. At 5-3, they’re behind only the three 5-2 teams (Atlanta, New York and Tampa Bay) in the NFC.

A team that was supposed to be carried by its high-powered offense has been no better than average on that side of the ball, ranking 16th in yards and 13th in points.

Instead, in the second-year under coordinator Dom Capers, the defense has taken control. They came up with a game-winning stand against Favre and the Vikings, then followed that with a masterful shutout of the Jets. Though their run defense ranks just 25th in the league, the Packers are fourth in points allowed — the most important defensive stat.

That’s why in the Green Bay Press-Gazette’s annual midseason report card, several areas on defense received the highest grades on the team. Thanks in large part to the play of NFL sacks leader Clay Matthews, the linebackers received a B-plus, followed closely by the defensive backs with a B.

Capers’ schemes and game planning combined with coach Mike McCarthy’s ability to hold the team together in the face of massive injuries — 10 players, including five starters, have been lost for the season — was reflected in the coaching grade, B-minus.

The lowest marks went to the running backs (D-plus) and the personnel moves (C-minus), a grade largely impacted by General Manager Ted Thompson’s unwillingness to bring in a difference-making running back to replace the injured Ryan Grant, who was lost for the season in the opener.

Quarterbacks

Aaron Rodgers has a significantly lower passer rating (85.3) than he did at the midway point the last two seasons (103.3 last year, 95.3 in 2008) in large part because his interception total is higher. He already has thrown nine interceptions through eight games, which is two more than he had all of last season. He’s also off his 30-touchdown pace from a year ago with just 12 this point, and his completion percentage is down (61.3 percent compared to 64.7 percent last season). Teams have played Rodgers differently this season, sitting back in zone coverage more and blitzing less. He hasn’t had any dominating performances, yet he still ranks fifth in the NFL in passing yards (2,011), which means he’s on pace for 4,000 yards for the third straight season, and the Packers rank 10th in the league in passing offense. Perhaps most telling is that his fourth-quarter passer rating (74.6) ranks just 23rd in the NFL and his third-down rating (65.7) ranks 24th. His production likely has been slowed because of the loss of tight end Jermichael Finley to a season-ending knee injury. Also, without running back Ryan Grant, the threat of the running game has been diminished. Backup Matt Flynn has thrown one pass, on a fake field goal, that was right on the money, but rookie tight end Andrew Quarless stumbled and didn’t catch it.

Grade: C-plus.

Running backs

Coach Mike McCarthy all but abandoned the running game after Week 1, when Grant was lost for the season because of an ankle injury, which probably speaks volumes about what he thinks of his remaining backs. The Packers rank 10th in the league in rushing average (4.2 yards per carry) but just 22nd in rushing yards per game (97.0). After having almost an equal mix (34 passes and 33 runs) in the opener, the Packers have run on just 37.3 percent of their offensive plays in the last seven games. Brandon Jackson, the fourth-year pro, has been wildly inconsistent, and his 4.4-yard average on 95 carries is skewed by a 71-yard run at Washington in Week 5 and a meaningless 27-yard gain at the end of the first half last week against the Jets. He’s been decent in the screen game and superb in blitz pickup. Converted fullback John Kuhn (3.6-yard average on 49 carries) lacks the speed to be effective in anything other than short yardage. Fullback Korey Hall has been charged with one of the Packers’ 16 sacks allowed this season. Third fullback Quinn Johnson hasn’t played since missing a block on a goal-line play that was stuffed against Miami. Dimitri Nance, signed after Grant went on injured reserve, hasn’t gotten much of an opportunity.

Grade: D-plus.

Receivers

When Finley was lost for the season, the onus was on Greg Jennings to be the main target in the passing game. He’s had his moments – an 86-yard touchdown catch against Miami – and has five touchdowns, which is three more than he had at the halfway point last season, but went through a stretch where he wasn’t getting the ball and became frustrated. In Weeks 3-5, he caught only six passes combined. In the three games since, he’s had 18 catches, including a six-catch, 133-yard game against the Dolphins. He’s been targeted a team-high 60 times, and has 32 catches (18th in the NFC, 34th overall) for 471 yards (eighth in the NFC, 18th overall), which means he’ll need to increase his production in order to post his third straight 1,000-yard season. Jennings has two dropped passes after dropping five last season and eight in 2008. The ageless Donald Driver had caught more balls (28) through six games than Jennings before a quadriceps injury rendered him ineffective the last two weeks but leads the team with four drops. James Jones (19 catches for 284 yards and one touchdown) and Jordy Nelson (22 catches for 239 and no touchdowns) have been inconsistent. Jones had a game-changing fumble in the Week 3 loss at Chicago, but then had a 107-yard game against Minnesota in Week 7. Both have two drops apiece. As a group, the drops are down from last season. They have 10, which is three less than at this point last year.

Grade: C-plus.

Tight ends

Finley was borderline dominant until a knee injury wiped him out early in the Washington game. Before that, he had a pair of standout games – four catches for 103 yards in Week 2 against Buffalo and nine catches for 115 against the Bears. He still ranks seventh in the NFC in receiving yards among tight ends based on his four games. Rookie Andrew Quarless (seven catches for 90 yards) has skills like Finley but is unpolished and a weak blocker. He caught a touchdown pass against the Vikings that probably would have been ruled incomplete had Brad Childress bothered to challenge it. He relies on his body too much to catch the ball and needs to learn to pluck it out of the air with his hands. He has two drops. Veteran Donald Lee (seven catches for 98 yards) has made a couple of plays on bubble screens but otherwise is limited. First-year pro Tom Crabtree is used mostly in the line and is the best blocker among the group.

Grade: C.

Offensive line

A year after this group couldn’t protect Rodgers, who was sacked 37 times through eight games last year, it has been solid in front of the quarterback, who has been sacked just 16 times. Rookie Bryan Bulaga has given up the most sacks (4½) in the fewest amount of starts (four) and was responsible for the hit that concussed Rodgers late in the Washington game, but the first-round pick has played well enough in relief of the injured Mark Tauscher (shoulder) that he’ll probably retain the job even when Tauscher is healthy. His five penalties is tied for the most among this group. Left tackle Chad Clifton looked washed up after he couldn’t finish the Buffalo game because of a sore knee but has made a resurgence and looks as solid as ever. He has given up three sacks and three of his four penalties came against the Bears. The interior of Josh Sitton (no sacks, two penalties), Scott Wells (1½ sacks, no penalties) and Daryn Colledge (one sack, four penalties) has been solid. Run blocking has been only OK.

Grade: C-plus.

Defensive line

B.J. Raji has been the workhorse for this banged-up group and although he’s unheralded, he has been everything defensive coordinator Dom Capers wants in a 3-4 nose tackle. He leads the team’s defensive linemen in tackles (33) and has 2½ sacks. Ends Cullen Jenkins and Ryan Pickett have been effective when healthy, but that’s been rare. Jenkins started fast with a sack in each of the first four games but the club cast on his broken hand cost him several more sacks. He’s also been slowed by a calf injury. Pickett has missed about half the snaps because of an ankle injury. Rookie C.J. Wilson and second-year pro Jarius Wynn (who was re-signed after getting cut at the end of camp) have been forced into action. Massive Howard Green, claimed off waivers last week, played well against the Jets and could help improve the run defense, which has dropped from first last season to 25th.

Grade: C-plus.

Hard to believe that Demovsky only gives the Packers D-Line a C+ at this point in the season. They've played injured, and missing key guys, and they've done a pretty good job in the points allowed category.

Linebackers

Outside backer Clay Matthews is a candidate for defensive player of the year thanks to his league-leading 9½ sacks. He leads the team with 27 quarterback hits. The defense wasn’t the same without him in the loss to Miami, when he was out because of a hamstring injury. On the other side, it’s been a rotation of Brad Jones, Frank Zombo, Brady Poppinga and even recently acquired Erik Walden. Jones (shoulder) and Poppinga (knee) were lost to season-ending injuries but weren’t that effective anyway. Zombo, an undrafted rookie, is now the starter, at least in the base and will split nickel snaps with Walden. Inside, the play of A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop have made people forget about the loss of Nick Barnett to a season-ending wrist injury. Hawk still gives up some plays in coverage, but he rarely makes mental errors. Bishop has been able to avoid the mistakes that have cost him playing time in the past. Brandon Chillar has been limited because of a shoulder injury but should be healthy for the second half.

Grade: B-plus.

Defensive backs

Reigning NFL defensive player of the year Charles Woodson hasn’t been the turnover machine he was last season, when he tied for the NFL lead with nine interceptions (three of which he returned for touchdowns). He has just two this year, including one he returned 48 yards for a touchdown in Week 4 against Detroit. He already has more penalties (nine, including four pass interferences) than he had all of last season (eight). He has allowed only two touchdowns but has given up completions 51.1 percent of the time he’s been thrown at (which is up from 47.6 percent last season). The other starting cornerback, Tramon Williams, has picked up for Woodson. Williams has had a Pro Bowl first half with three interceptions, two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble and 10 pass breakups. He has allowed two touchdowns and has just one penalty (for illegal contact). Safety Nick Collins has been solid but lacks the big plays that sent him to the Pro Bowl the last two seasons. He hasn’t allowed a touchdown pass and has eight pass breakups but only one interception. After rookie Morgan Burnett was lost for the season because of a Week 4 knee injury, veteran journeyman Charlie Peprah has filled in nicely. Surprisingly, teams haven’t thrown at undrafted rookie nickel back Sam Shields very often. He has given up eight completions in 17 times targeted and doesn’t have a pass breakup.

Grade: B.

Special teams

Devin Hester returned a punt 62 yards for a touchdown to help the Bears beat the Packers, and kicker Mason Crosby hit the upright on a potential game-winning 53-yard field goal against Washington, which would go on to win in overtime. Other than those two black marks, this unit has been much improved over last season. First-year punter Tim Masthay was inconsistent early but is coming off two strong games, including a game-changing performance against the Jets. He ranks 11th in the NFC and 25th overall in net punting (35.6) and has 10 punts downed inside the 20 and only three touchbacks. He’s averaging an acceptable 4.2 seconds of hang time on his 34 punts. The coverage and blocking units took a hit when Derrick Martin was lost for the season because of a knee injury against the Redskins. Jarrett Bush, Korey Hall and Pat Lee have been the best of those units. Lee and Nelson have been nothing special on kickoff returns and opportunities have been few for Williams on punt returns. Perhaps most important, penalties are down — only eight so far after committing 30 last season.

Grade: C-plus.

Coaching

On the offensive side, McCarthy and offensive coordinator Joe Philbin haven’t found a way to make up for the losses of Grant and Finley, but line coach James Campen has his unit protecting Rodgers better than at any time in his three seasons as the starting quarterback. Even though the defensive rushing stats don’t look good, Capers has done wonders, considering all the injuries he’s dealt with. Year two of the 3-4 defense has allowed Capers to mix in more looks, and moving Matthews around has helped him be more effective. Cutting down on penalties was Slocum’s top priority, and he’s made strides, although the penalty on Robert Francois for lining up illegally over the snapper on a punt against Miami might have cost the Packers the game. Overall, McCarthy deserves credit for keeping spirits high during all the injuries and preventing a woe-is-me attitude from ruining the season.

Grade: B-minus.

Personnel moves

Once again, General Manager Ted Thompson did nothing in free agency. His third-round pick, Burnett, opened the season as a starter. His first-round pick, Bulaga, moved into a starting role during the season. Second-round pick Mike Neal looked like a good addition to the defensive line but couldn’t stay healthy. Quarless, a fifth-rounder, looks like a promising prospect. He and his staff may have found gems in undrafted rookies Shields and Zombo. So it looks like he’s put together another good rookie class. The in-season addition of Green looks good, but failing to add a quality running back after Grant got hurt has crippled the offense. Thompson refused to bid enough to get former first-round draft pick Marshawn Lynch in a trade from Buffalo. Thompson’s former understudy, Seattle GM John Schneider, did it, and the Seahawks have been happy with his contributions.

Grade: C-minus.

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