Analysis: Packers defense turning a corner

GREEN BAY, Wis. — It’s only been two games, but so far, this year’s Packers team looks quite a bit different than they did in 2011.

It starts on defense, where Dom Capers’ group appears to be turning a corner. Whether Green Bay is as dominant defensively throughout this entire season as they were in Week 2’s win over the Chicago Bears remains to be seen, but it’s highly doubtful that it could be that good. But even if Clay Matthews, Tramon Williams, Charles Woodson and the rest of the starters perform close to that level, it’s a significant improvement over last season.

Matthews already has six sacks, matching his season total from all of last year. At this rate, Matthews could surpass his 13.5-sack mark from 2010 by Week 6. He’s playing so well that the rest of the league has a lot of catching up to do if they plan on giving Matthews any type of challenge whatsoever for the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award. Yes, it’s very, very early, but Woodson believes that nobody can block Matthews. Right now, that seems like an accurate statement. And if it remains that way, Matthews could single-handedly fix several of the defensive issues that plagued the Packers a year ago.

Green Bay’s pass rush goes as Matthews goes. With Matthews struggling to bring down opposing quarterbacks last season, with it came declining numbers in team sacks. When Matthews had 13.5 sacks on the way to the Super Bowl in 2010, the Packers were second in the league in sacks with 47. In 2011, with Matthews only getting six sacks, Green Bay fell to 27th overall in the NFL in that category with 29 sacks as a team. Matthews’ pass-rush gives opportunities to his teammates because of the attention he draws.

A year ago, there wasn’t enough talent around Matthews to make other teams pay for double- and triple-teaming him. Now, with rookies like Nick Perry, Jerel Worthy, Mike Daniels and Dezman Moses contributing instantly, there’s young, talented players who are capitalizing on their chances. If that continues, Matthews will get more one-on-one matchups with an offensive lineman. And if Matthews only has to beat one lineman in order to get to the quarterback, he looks capable of breaking every sack record in the books.

The secondary looks better, too. The most important aspect of this unit’s improvement is that Williams appears to be completely over the shoulder issue that bothered him throughout all of last season. Williams was a Pro-Bowler in 2010 and an emerging star at cornerback. Then, a shoulder injury in Week 1 last year forced him to play hurt. He didn’t have mobility in his shoulder and couldn’t play the aggressive style that led him to his breakout season a year earlier.

With Woodson moving to safety in the Packers’ 3-4 base defense and to the slot cornerback role in the nickel, Williams is the clear-cut No. 1 outside cornerback. It was determined before the season that Williams would always guard an opposing team’s No. 1 wide receiver, and the results early on have made that look like a wise decision by the coaching staff. Williams completely shut down Bears receiver Brandon Marshall, just four days after Marshall had nine catches for 119 yards in Week 1.

Williams also had two interceptions against Jay Cutler, with Woodson getting one and rookie safety Jerron McMillian getting the first of his career. An NFL-best 31 Interceptions was the one thing that saved the Packers’ defense from a completely disastrous season in 2011. Because, despite all the yards that they allowed, there was almost always a key forced turnover that made the yards relatively inconsequential. It’s true in most NFL games, but turnovers are usually the biggest factor in determining the outcome. In Week 1 against the 49ers, Green Bay didn’t force any turnovers, so it was of little surprise that it was a loss.

An improved pass rush, of course, will also help the secondary get better because the cornerbacks won’t have to spend as much time in coverage. It will also lead to rushed throws, like it did with Cutler, and that will become opportunities for turnovers. The Packers’ defense was a much bigger factor in their win over Chicago than Green Bay’s offense was, and that was not something that was ever true last year.

And that leads to Aaron Rodgers and the offense. Right now, something is just off. Rodgers was so unstoppable in his MVP season a year ago that expectations have perhaps become unrealistic. But even after just two games this season, there have been misfires and miscues between Rodgers and his receivers that rarely happened throughout all of last year. The receivers have dropped passes, but they’ve also had a few that have been just out of their reach. In some cases, passes have hit a receiver’s outstretched fingers before falling to the ground, but it would take a pretty harsh evaluator to call most of those drops.

The 49ers are arguably the best defense in the NFL and the Bears rank in the top 10, so some of the Packers’ early offensive struggles could be attributed to the quality of the opponent. But there’s more to it than that, and Rodgers is visibly frustrated about it. That became evident when he berated James Jones on the sideline in the second half against the Bears. The parties involved, including coach Mike McCarthy with his play call, implied that Jones made a mistake with his route. But, for Rodgers to demonstratively flail his arms around towards Jones with 70,000 people watching in the stands and millions more on television was out of character for the team’s leader.

This is not to imply that Rodgers has been bad or even average in the two games this season. He’s still performed above average for a starting NFL quarterback. If Ryan Tannehill looked this good, the Miami Dolphins would be ecstatic about their future. But for Rodgers, after the record-breaking season he had a year ago, it’s not what people are used to seeing. Once upcoming games against the Colts, Rams and Jaguars roll around, Rodgers will likely go back to throwing four touchdowns per game. But when the playoffs begin, Rodgers won’t be going against the Rams. He’ll be back to facing the 49ers and Bears, so the passing offense will need to make strides in the next four months.

Another notable difference this season is the possibility of the running game becoming more important to the team’s success. The signing of Cedric Benson midway through training camp could become a move that may save the offense from being overly dependent on Rodgers. It didn’t look that way in Week 1, with Benson getting devoured near the line of scrimmage by the 49ers and finishing with just 18 yards on nine carries, but there was a strong commitment to running the ball in Week 2.

With the Bears playing deep in coverage to prevent the long passing plays, the play-calling of McCarthy (and Rodgers through his pre-snap checks) did not give up on the running game. Benson ran it 20 times for 81 yards and was instrumental in keeping drives going in a positive direction. If Benson and the Packers’ offensive line look can perform all season like they did in Week 2, and not repeat their poor Week 1 performance, Green Bay’s running game will help the offense become much more two-dimensional and eventually free up Rodgers for the long pass plays.

With one-eighth of the season already over — the equivalent of 20 MLB games or 10 NBA games — the Packers are .500, sitting idle for 11 days between games with a 1-1 record. Though much can (and likely will) change over the next 15 weeks, Green Bay appears to have improved in the areas that the team needed to, but surprisingly, has fallen off a bit in the passing game. There won’t be any talk of a potential undefeated season this year, but after two games, the Packers are still clearly a Super Bowl contender once again.

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