Packers, Seahawks have swapped defensive positions

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By Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Sunday, December 15, 2013

GREEN BAY--At the turn of the decade, the Green Bay Packers didn’t need to take a back seat to anyone when it came to playing defense.

Back in 2009 and 2010, the Seattle Seahawks hadn’t had a defense ranked higher than 15th since the mid-1990s.

Today, the Packers and Seahawks have flipped positions. Whereas Green Bay ranks 21st in yards, 20th in points and tied for 26th in takeaways, Seattle is first in yards, second in points and second in takeaways.

In January 2010, Seahawks owner Paul Allen hired Pete Carroll from Southern California to serve as executive vice president of football operations and coach. In turn, Carroll hired Green Bay’s John Schneider to serve beneath him as general manager, and a few months later they hired former 49ers GM and Packers college personnel man Scot McCloughan as their top scout.

The new Seattle brain trust inherited a franchise that had won nine games in the previous two seasons in possibly the National Football League’s poorest division.

While the Packers have been doing a mediocre job replenishing their aging defense in the last four years, the Seahawks have been busy acquiring a stunning array of defensive talent. Not only at the top of its depth chart but also at the bottom, several NFL personnel executives agreed this week that Seattle clearly has better players on defense than any other team.

In 2009, the Packers led the league in run defense and takeaways, and were second in yards.

Despite a ton of injuries the next year, they ranked fifth in yards and sixth in takeaways. Then, in four playoff games, they took the ball away 11 times, shut down running attacks and gave up a mere 308.5 yards per game.

Green Bay was the Super Bowl champion, and the defense was every bit as responsible as the offense.

Ted Thompson still is the GM. Mike McCarthy still is the coach. Dom Capers still is the coordinator. Mike Trgovac, Kevin Greene, Winston Moss, Joe Whitt and Darren Perry still are the defensive position coaches.

But move by move, decision by decision, the Seahawks have done a better job in personnel. They’re the best defense now, and it’s appropriate to compare the Packers to them because Green Bay was playing elite defense as recently as 2010.

So what happened?

Carroll and Capers employ vastly different defenses, but both schemes have stood the test of time. Capers calls a game and directs his coaches and players with the same seasoned, analytical, straightforward approach that he brought to Green Bay in 2009.

If by some chance McCarthy thinks he can do better than Capers after the season, Capers would have his pick of other coordinator jobs. Last week, one personnel director said Capers remained a top-five to top-10 coordinator and suggested his team might pounce on him if he were available.

Certainly the Seahawks have benefited by drafting higher than the Packers. However, the only defensive standout drafted by Seattle that Green Bay didn’t have a shot at was free safety Earl Thomas, who was the 14th pick in Carroll’s first draft and is a candidate for defensive player of the year.

Another factor is injury. Both defenses have had problematic injuries, but certainly the Packers suffered the two most damaging ones.

Nick Collins was a big-play, Pro Bowl safety when his career abruptly ended with a cervical injury in September 2011. Eleven months later, Desmond Bishop’s days as an every-down impact player in the middle of the defense ended.

There are no excuses beyond that for the course the two defenses have taken.

From 2010-’13, Seattle wound up spending 22 of its 39 draft picks on defensive players just as Green Bay was using 18 of its 36.

Neither team had limitations when it came to unrestricted free agency, trades and college/street free agency.

Admittedly, these are subjective judgments, but the four best players on the Green Bay defense—Clay Matthews, Tramon Williams, B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett—were acquired before 2010.

Of course, judgments change weekly on players because it’s such a fluid industry. As it stands, Thompson’s best defensive additions since 2010 have been Sam Shields, Mike Daniels and Casey Hayward, and then either Morgan Burnett, Mike Neal or Nick Perry for the No. 4 slot.

Just two players on Seattle’s defense—starting linemen Red Bryant and Brandon Mebane—arrived before Carroll.

After consultation with several scouts, one could conservatively arrive at a list of nine players acquired by Seattle in the last four years that are every bit as good if not better than the Packers’ top four.

The group would include defensive ends Chris Clemons and Cliff Avril, inside pass rusher Michael Bennett, outside linebackers K.J. Wright and Bruce Irvin, middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, cornerback Richard Sherman and safeties Kam Chancellor and Thomas.

How many are better than Shields, the Packers’ best?

Clemons, Wright, Sherman, Chancellor and Thomas. Wagner would be close. So are Bennett and Avril.

When you watch Seattle’s defense, the difference in speed compared to Green Bay’s stands out.

Last Sunday, the Seahawks played the latest installment of their NFC West grudge match against the 49ers. The game was played at Candlestick Park, where the Packers’ 2012 season died in the playoffs and they lost a close one on opening day.

In the first quarter, on second and 10 from the Seattle 14, San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick bolted through the left-side C gap on a quarterback draw. What looked like a sure touchdown became a 9-yard gain when Wagner, the 241-pound middle linebacker, accelerated to the right and chased him down.

Seattle held on third and 1, and the 49ers had to kick a field goal.

Carroll loves speed. Schneider loves speed.

Wagner ran a 4.46-second 40 before the 2012 draft. Despite concerns about his score of 8 on the Wonderlic intelligence test, the Seahawks took him to anchor the middle of their defense.

Last week, a pair of scouts estimated the Packers’ A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones are playing in the 4.75 to 4.8 range. As the game turns more to speed, their inability to run leaves the Packers’ defense a step or two slow and with weaknesses Capers and his staff must consistently try to hide.

But Wagner isn’t the Seahawks’ only speedy linebacker. Wright, the 99th pick in 2011, is fast, long and smart. The Packers liked Wright as a fit inside for their 3-4, but with the 96th choice they opted for running back Alex Green.

Malcolm Smith, another outside linebacker, was drafted in the seventh round that same year. He has utilized his 4.48 speed in an effective spot-starting role.

Carroll also began collecting jackrabbit-fast pass rushers to fill his hybrid “leo” position.

He has five on the 53, including Chris Clemons, acquired from Philadelphia in a heist of a trade in March 2010; Avril, an unrestricted signing in March; Irvin, the 15th pick in 2012 who can run like the wind but is feeling his way as a starting base linebacker; former Badger O’Brien Schofield, and rookie free agent Benson Mayowa, who was impressive in August.

Not only hasn’t Thompson signed a legitimate unrestricted player on defense since Brandon Chillar in 2008, the only defensive players he has ever traded for are Robert Thomas, Derrick Martin and Anthony Smith.

Schneider, a Type A personality with a gift for gab, never stops gathering information and bringing it back to Carroll. He learned that style of management from former Packers GM Ron Wolf, and friends say he felt stifled at times under Thompson’s “home-grown” approach to roster-building.

Carroll and Schneider have made their share of blunders on offense, but it’s hard to find anything major to fault them on with the defense.

Last spring, the Seahawks allowed interior rusher Jason Jones to depart for Detroit. He helped Seattle in his only season, but injuries were a concern.

To replace Jones, the Seahawks signed Tampa Bay’s unrestricted Michael Bennett for one year at $4.8 million. All Bennett has done is become their best pass rusher. As effective as Daniels has been, one NFC scout said Bennett is much harder to block.

Seattle got two strong seasons out of cornerback Brandon Browner, whom they signed out of the Canadian Football League. Browner got old fast, ran afoul of the NFL’s drug program and hasn’t played since Nov. 10.

Walter Thurmond, their capable nickel back, is two weeks into a four-game suspension.

Against the 49ers, the Seahawks started Byron Maxwell (sixth round, ‘11) on the outside and Jeremy Lane (sixth round, ‘12) in the slot. Scouts say both players are on the cusp of being starter-quality, and No. 3 safety Jeron Johnson (undrafted, ‘11) probably would start for some teams, too.

Despite all those many successes, perhaps the most inspired moves by Carroll and Co. were getting Chancellor in the fifth round in 2010 and Sherman in the fifth round in ‘11.

Many teams thought Chancellor was too big and too slow. The Seahawks loved his big-hitter’s temperament and his brain. By playing him at the line and to his strengths, Carroll unlocked one of the game’s 10 best safeties.

Sherman (6-3, 195), a former wide receiver, instantly appealed to teams because of his size and respectable speed. However, his inconsistencies on and off the field red-flagged him off some boards.

Today, Sherman rates as a top-five cornerback.

“They’ve done a hell of a job there,” an NFC personnel director said. “They take a lot of chances, but they feel they have a coach who can manage those guys. It’s working.”

No team has more continuity in the front office and coaching staff than Green Bay. Their schemes on both offense and defense challenge every opponent, and their player procurement methods are the envy of some across the NFL.

“It’s worked,” the NFC personnel man said. “I respect him (Thompson).”

Now the Packers are in Dallas, where this afternoon will be the moment of truth. Against a potent offense, Green Bay’s defense needs to win a game if the Packers intend to make the playoffs.

The personnel pipeline from Thompson to the defensive staff has been clogged for too long. You win with people, as the Seahawks have shown, and they come from every avenue of the personnel spectrum.

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