Green Bay’s D will take huge leap
By KC Joyner, ESPN.com
~After last season’s debacle that saw the Green Bay Packers’ defense tie for last in the league in yards per play allowed on its way to giving up the second-most yards in a season in NFL history (and the most passing yards ever), it’s easy to forget just how dominant this defense was in 2010 (With DL Cullen Jenkins along the front lines and S Nick Collins back in the hole).
That season, Green Bay tied for sixth in yards per play allowed (5.1), fifth in overall yards allowed (4,945) and second in points allowed (240). That platoon gave up 17 points or less in nine of Green Bay’s last 13 games and was therefore just as, or maybe even more, responsible as the offense for the team’s eventual Super Bowl title run.
If the Packers could find a way to combine the overwhelming strength of their offense with a return to the shutdown defense the team displayed two seasons ago, they could truly be on the verge of establishing the next NFL dynasty.
That is bad news for the rest of the league, because there are at least five reasons to think the Green Bay defense is going to see a return to something close to its 2010 form this season.
An elite ability to force opposing quarterbacks to make mistakes
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers builds game plans predicated on getting opposing quarterbacks to commit errors, and his defense was better than any other in the NFL at doing that last season.
The Packers tallied a 4.5 percent mark in the forced bad decision rate (BDR) category last season. That metric gauges how often a quarterback commits a mental error that leads to a turnover opportunity for the defense, and no team had a higher BDR than Green Bay (only one other team had a rate of 4.0 percent or higher).
To get a better idea of just how good this defense is at forcing errors, consider that the Packers were able to post a 3.3 percent BDR on short passes last season (short passes being aerials thrown 10 or fewer yards downfield). Those are the safest throws an offense can make and Green Bay was still able to force errors on one of every 30 of those passes. No other team in the league was even able to reach the 3.0 percent mark here.
Superb ballhawking talent
It’s one thing to force opponents into mistakes. It’s quite another to capitalize on those mistakes.
Green Bay’s high forced BDR shows they excelled at the former and their league-leading 16 interceptions off bad decisions shows they excelled at the latter as well.
Those picks were a huge contributing factor to the Pack notching 31 interceptions last season, by far the highest mark in the NFL.
These first two factors bode well for the Packers’ ability to once again be one of the most dynamic, turnover-inducing defenses in the league.
The emergence of Casey Hayward
Hayward may not have been the highest-rated cornerback in last year’s draft, but in some ways he may have been the most impactful.
Evidence for this can be found in the two games against the toughest passing offenses Hayward’s Vanderbilt Commodores squad faced last year (the Georgia Bulldogs and Arkansas Razorbacks).
Hayward was targeted 14 times in those contests and had one interception and six passes defensed. He also nearly picked off three of the passes that he defensed, so in reality Hayward had an interception chance on four of those 14 throws, an incredibly high rate.
Hayward also made an impression on ESPN NFL analyst Herm Edwards with his understanding of offensive patterns, intelligence and ballhawking instincts and he has shown solid open-field interception return abilities (check out this 50-yard touchdown return against Connecticut last year).
All of those skills have been on display during the preseason to an extent that at one point early on it was thought possible that he could become just the eighth rookie cornerback to start for Green Bay in more than 50 years. Hayward didn’t end up winning a starting job but it does go to show just how much he could improve this secondary.
An underrated run defense
The Packers didn’t fare well in a number of rushing statistical categories last season (their 4.7 yards per carry allowed ranked 26th), but this group actually performed better than some its stats indicate.
One reason is the Packers posted a 7.1-yard mark in the good blocking yards per attempt (GBYPA) allowed category. GBYPA measures how productive a ballcarrier is when given good blocking (which is very loosely defined as when the offense does not allow the defense to do anything to disrupt the rush attempt) and that mark tied for eighth in the league.
To be fair, teams did get good blocking against the Pack 47.3 percent of the time, a total that tied for eighth-worst. On the plus side, that just goes to show that even when opponents are able to get creases in the Green Bay run defense, the Packers are apt at keeping the long gains to a minimum, something evidenced by the fact they gave up only nine rushes of 20-plus yards last season, a total that tied them with Pittsburgh for eighth in the league in that metric.
The pass rush will be improved
It’s hard to get worse than the 4.4 percent sack rate that ranked Green Bay dead last in that category, but it should be noted that the Packers will face teams that gave up a combined 659 sacks last season. That is the ninth-highest total this season and thus bodes well for an improvement from a matchup perspective.
Green Bay should also benefit in this area from a personnel perspective with the additions of pass-rusher Nick Perry and defensive tackle Jerel Worthy, both of whom were all-conference players in college last year. They won’t be able to solve this issue by themselves but should give Capers even more weapons with which to attack the opposing pass pocket.
While it’s possible that any one of these elements might not be as impactful as expected, the volume of positives is overwhelming and should give Green Bay a top 10-caliber defense this season. Put that together with an Aaron Rodgers-led offense and an improved running game with the addition of Cedric Benson, and it shows why the Packers are considered the No. 1 team in the ESPN Power Rankings and the favored pick by many ESPN experts to win Super Bowl XLVII.
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