GREEN BAY, Wis. — Two losses, 82 points allowed. Those are the results of the Packers’ past two visits to the divisional round of the playoffs.
If there is one key reason Green Bay has not been able to make it back to the Super Bowl since winning it all on Feb. 6, 2011, it’s been the Packers’ lackluster postseason defense.
It made some sense when Green Bay gave up 37 points to the New York Giants in last year’s playoffs. After all, that was a defense that, despite a 15-1 record, struggled all season to get stops. Those Packers allowed more passing yards than any team in NFL history and finished 27th in sacks. The only redeeming factor was their league-leading 31 interceptions, but when the turnovers weren’t coming, players couldn’t sell the ‘bend-but-don’t-break’ philosophy with much conviction.
This season was supposed to be different. For the most part, until Saturday night against the San Francisco 49ers, it was. General manager Ted Thompson drafted defensive players with the team’s first six picks, a clear admission by Green Bay’s front office — though it wasn’t publicly admitted — that the Packers needed a lot of help on that side of the ball.
But, once again, when the season was on the line, Green Bay’s defense failed to show up. The 49ers scored 45 points and sent the Packers into offseason mode, leaving plenty of questions about what Thompson can do to try to fix it this time.
Between scheme, personnel and execution, something has been missing.
Blame will inevitably fall on defensive coordinator Dom Capers, the 62-year-old who has been orchestrating his 3-4 scheme in Green Bay since 2009. Nearly every call Capers dialed up en route to winning the Super Bowl worked, but the postseason hasn’t been kind to him since. Saturday night against the 49ers, aside from the opening drive, Capers had no answer for dual-threat quarterback Colin Kaepernick. San Francisco’s offense was always a step or two ahead of Capers’ play-calling as Kaepernick ran and passed at will, leading the 49ers to 579 total yards.
Consecutive divisional-round defeats to the tune of 82 combined points don’t happen without significant failures on multiple defensive fronts. Though Capers had his shortcomings, so did the players who were expected to execute at a much higher level than what was displayed on the field.
Linebacker Clay Matthews had a sack on Kaepernick while putting pressure on 49ers All-Pro left tackle Joe Staley and proved, as he does in most games, to be a difference-maker. Cornerback Sam Shields had the best defensive play of the game for the Packers when he intercepted Kaepernick and returned it for a touchdown. So, it’s not as if there aren’t any positives from Saturday’s game. But, overall, it was yet another defensive debacle that cost Green Bay a chance to build a dynasty.
A Packers dynasty seemed possible as confetti fell onto the field two years ago with then-27-year-old emerging star quarterback Aaron Rodgers grabbing hold of the Lombardi Trophy. Green Bay’s offense got even better the season following the Super Bowl victory, leading the NFL in scoring. Rodgers, along with a deep group of wide receivers, were in control of the league. To beat the Packers meant having to outscore them, and that appeared to be quite a challenging feat.
But Green Bay’s defense has not given the necessary support to its offense to create the juggernaut the team was capable of becoming. A dynasty can’t exist with this type of imbalance.
The Packers had the ball for only 21 minutes and 59 seconds in the loss to San Francisco. In that time, they scored 24 points — which does not include, of course, Shields’ defensive touchdown. It was far from Rodgers’ best game, but that’s a very solid point total within that time of possession.
Regardless of how the offense performed, though, Green Bay had almost no chance to win when allowing 45 points. Rodgers can’t be counted on to match that. He is the NFL’s reigning Most Valuable Player, but there’s nothing he can do if the Packers’ defense is so porous. Meanwhile, two years of his prime have passed by without a return to the NFL’s biggest stage.
The past two postseasons have exposed Green Bay as a team: Good enough to make it to the divisional round of the playoffs, not good enough to avoid a resounding defeat in the divisional round of the playoffs. That won’t change until the Packers’ defense changes. Whether it’s a change in coordinator, a rare leap into free agency or assembling the best draft class in the history of the NFL, nothing is going to make Green Bay a true Super Bowl contender again until its defense sees drastic improvement.