Collapse continues for Packers' defense

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By Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Friday, November 29, 2013

DETROIT--As large a sample of bad football as the Green Bay Packers’ defense has compiled over a five-day period—1,008 yards on 159 plays to be exact—you would think they’d have a clue as to why they are one of the answers to the question, “Who has the worst defense in the NFL?”

But no, they don’t have a clue.

Sure, they can identify things like missed tackles, uncovered gaps and sloppy coverage, but that does not get to the heart of why a unit that returned three key players to the fold gave up 561 yards and five touchdowns in a 40-10 loss to the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving at Ford Field.

Something is wrong and coach Mike McCarthy can’t get it fixed.

“I’m not exactly sure what is wrong,” linebacker Brad Jones said. “I’m not trying to act or something. I’m just not sure. We have great players. We have a great scheme. For us to be up and down does not make sense to me.

“It was embarrassing. This is the worst game I’ve been a part of.”

It would be easy to say the result might have been different if quarterback Aaron Rodgers were playing, because the defense did cause four turnovers, including a fumble safety Morgan Burnett returned 1 yard for a touchdown. Turnovers should turn into points, but on the other three, the ensuing drives resulted in two punts and an interception.

The time of possession badly favored the Lions—40:26 to 19:34—and the difference between the offensive plays run was a hefty 37 (79 to 42). Coming off a five-quarter tie with Minnesota on Sunday, it’s understandable why the defense gave up three touchdowns in the second half.

“They got four turnovers and we didn’t do anything with it,” guard Josh Sitton said. “We had six or seven three-and-outs. Whenever we can’t move the ball, they’re going to be more tired. This game works hand in hand, offense and defense.

“You have to play as a team and we didn’t do that.”

Maybe so, but the defense also was its own worst enemy.

The Lions converted 9 of 12 third-down plays and they marched inside the Packers’ 20-yard line six times. The Lions rushed for 241 net yards, their highest total since gaining 249 against Indianapolis on Nov. 23, 1997. That was the year running back Barry Sanders rushed for 2,053 yards.

The Lions became the third team in four weeks to rush for more than 200 yards against the Packers, and it raises a question whether defensive coordinator Dom Capers is losing the battle of wits with his competition. McCarthy preferred to point out all the physical shortcomings and not any possible coaching ones.

“We can talk about scheme,” McCarthy said. “I’ll go back to our conversations with our football team, but you try to learn from your experiences of the past. Scheme is not a crutch.

“When you’re in run defense, you play with leverage, you’ve got a gap, you need to get off the damn block and tackle the ball carrier. So you can cut it any way you want, but we’re not doing that right now. We haven’t done that in a month.”

Don’t bother asking linebacker Mike Neal—“I’m not talking”—or end Johnny Jolly—“No comment”—about why the defense can’t tackle. Either they’re as clueless as the others or they are biting their tongue in order not to say anything they might regret.

The players continued to defend Capers and his scheme, but one thing almost all of them agreed on was there is enough talent for this defense to succeed.

“We have to make plays,” end Ryan Pickett said. “The coaches put us in position and it’s up to the players to play. You can only call so much. It comes down to, are you going to make the plays or not make them? I’m not worried about the calls. Whatever we do call, we have to execute.

“I’m sure (Dom is) hurt like the rest of us, embarrassed. It’s tough.”

Against the Lions, cornerback Sam Shields came back after a two-game absence due to a hamstring injury and did about as good a job as could be expected on superstar receiver Calvin Johnson, who had six catches for 101 yards and a touchdown. Shields, who matched up with Johnson wherever he lined up, broke up a fade into the end zone and intercepted another.

Johnson caught six of the 10 passes thrown his way, and Shields wasn’t in coverage when he caught his 20-yard touchdown pass.

Linebacker Nick Perry also returned from a two-game absence (foot/ankle) and had an impact. He knocked the ball out of quarterback Matthew Stafford’s hand on the play in which Burnett scored. He had five tackles.

Jolly also returned after a two-game absence due to a groin injury and had one assisted tackle.

Thus, the Packers had just about all of their best defensive players available. So, either the group of players they have isn’t as good as general manager Ted Thompson thought or the players have tuned out the coaches.

In this game, Lions coordinator Scott Linehan kept the Packers off-balance with an offense that almost resembled San Francisco’s with all the play-fakes and movement Stafford made out of the shotgun. The only difference is that Stafford was not a threat to run the option.

Despite his two interceptions and lost fumble, Stafford completed 22 of 35 passes for 330 yards and three touchdowns. Reggie Bush was his biggest partner in crime with 20 carries for 117 yards and a touchdown and five catches for 65 yards.

Why the Packers couldn’t put up a better fight against the Lions is something McCarthy is going to have to take a long look at. Finding a solution will be harder.

“You can pinpoint some things you see on one side of the ball, but it’s a total effort,” cornerback Tramon Williams said. “Offense may affect defense, defense may affect offense. You never know how it falls. It’s a total thing.”

Maybe Rodgers is the answer to all the defense’s problems. But it’s hard to imagine the Packers winning out with the defense they’re putting on the field.

Said Pickett: “We got four games left. We have to put it together. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t win these last four.”

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