Since writing about blueprints seems to be in vogue these days, I’ve decided to write my first post in months on that very subject. But instead of providing a blueprint on how teams can beat the Packers (that would be sacrilegious), I’ll be providing a blueprint on what needs to be done to fix the defense.
1) Draft an impact outside linebacker – I’ve begged for general manager Ted Thompson to upgrade the position opposite Clay Matthews for two years (I still cringe every time Antwan Barnes gets another sack for the Chargers. TT could’ve acquired him for next to nothing on any number of occasions over the past 18 months). Coordinator Dom Capers got by in 2010 with a motley collection of right outside linebackers, but that was only because of Cullen Jenkins. The former Packer and current Eagle was one of the top handful of pass rushing defensive linemen in the league last season and he essentially took the place of a second outside linebacker in passing situations. With Jenkins gone and Mike Neal unable to take his place, the Packers have played with only one legitimate pass rusher all season. And no matter how special Matthews is, that’s simply not enough. So unless Thompson can find a defensive lineman like Jenkins between now and the start of training camp next summer (and those guys are almost as hard to find these days as a Wisconsinite who still loves Brett Favre), he must use one of his first two draft picks on a playmaking outside linebacker.
2) Replace Hawk at inside linebacker - After watching his defense play so well en route to a Super Bowl championship, it came as no surprise when the Packers decided to re-sign A.J. Hawk and send Nick Barnett packing. After all, not only was Hawk one of Thompson’s first draft picks after taking over as GM in Green Bay, but more importantly, the former Ohio State star was coming off his finest season since joining the team in 2006. Unfortunately, the decision has proven to be a mistake – a $36 million mistake. Hawk’s play has clearly regressed. He’s only 27, but he appears to have lost a half step – a half step he couldn’t afford to lose. Even worse, he seems content to arm tackle rather than take on running backs and tight ends. As for Barnett, he hasn’t been a world beater in Buffalo, but he’s having a better season than Hawk. And while I didn’t criticize Thompson then and I won’t criticize him now for choosing Hawk, he has to admit his mistake and rectify things in the offseason. A tougher and more athletic inside linebacker must be found to pair with Desmond Bishop in 2012, and if that player is not on the current 53-man roster (maybe rookie D.J. Smith), then it’s up to Thompson to go out and get him.
3) Upgrade at safety – Regardless of whether Nick Collins returns in 2012 (I’d be shocked if he ever plays again), the Packers must add a quality safety in the offseason. Charlie Peprah obviously can’t be a starter next season, and truth be told, he shouldn’t even be third on the depth chart when training camp opens. The former Alabama star has been forced to start 24 games since October 2010, and that’s about 20 games too many. Capers was able to hide Peprah’s glaring lack of athleticism in 2010, but that hasn’t been the case this season. The difference? A year ago, the pass rush was consistently strong and Collins was playing at his usual Pro Bowl level. This year, the pass rush has been anemic and Collins has been replaced by struggling second-year pro Morgan Burnett. That leaves Peprah as an easy target for opposing offensive coordinators, who must spend the work week salivating over the chance to isolate a tight end, or god forbid, a wide receiver, on the slow-footed journeyman. I don’t know if Collins’ potential replacement is currently on the roster (maybe Charles Woodson), but I do know it’s up to Thompson to make sure the defense won’t have to turn to Peprah for a third time in 2012.
4) Draft at least one defensive end – The Packers can’t count on Neal to be the player he was prior to suffering serious shoulder and knee injuries and Howard Green, C.J. Wilson and Jarius Wynn have all proven to be – at best – deep reserves. Thompson needs to overhaul this group. While Green has the size to play in a 3-4, he’ll be 33 in a couple of weeks. Wilson and Wynn are both under 300 pounds, and neither has the physical ability to overcome their lack of bulk. There are a number of reasons why the run defense has been so porous this season, but one of the biggest is not a having a capable third lineman to play alongside B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett. Johnny Jolly filled that role ideally in 2009 and Jenkins, while certainly no run stuffer, held his own a year ago. Thompson needs to find a player who can at least hold his own in 2012. Fortunately, those players are often available in the middle rounds of the draft.
5) Get veterans to play better – The final step in my plan to fix the defense isn’t up to Thompson, it’s up to the coaching staff and the players already on the roster. More specifically, Raji and cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Sam Shields simply have to play better in 2012. All three took a step back this season. Raji might’ve been the most disruptive interior defensive lineman in the league late last year and throughout the playoffs. Not only was he fairly stout at the point of attack, but he was making tackles for losses and getting consistent pressure on the quarterback. His relative lack of success as a pass rusher this season can probably be explained away by the loss of Jenkins and by having to play too many snaps. But his struggles against the run cannot be as easily excused. No player with his size, strength and athleticism should ever be pushed around as often as he’s been pushed around this season. As for Williams and Shields, neither is playing nearly as well as he did 10 months ago. The former deserves a lot of credit for playing through a painful shoulder injury, but he’s been healthy for the past month or so and he still hasn’t retuned to his previous form. The latter has steadily improved in coverage throughout the season, but his tackling has been pathetic. Capers fully expected these three players to be stars this season. Unfortunately, like the defense as a whole, they’ve come up short.
So there’s my five-step plan for fixing the defense (by the way, it also wouldn’t hurt to add another cornerback). Needless to say, I’m expecting Thompson to focus on defense in next April’s draft. The good news is that improving the defense in 2012 shouldn’t be a Herculean task. A few shrewd draft choices and the return to form of a few veterans is all it should take. The even better news is that the Packers, even with a defense that has more holes in it than a piece of Swiss cheese, are currently 14-1 and in great position to win their second consecutive Super Bowl. Hey, ain’t it a great time to be a fan?!