McCarthy, Packers set to tackle a big issue
GREEN BAY, Wis. — As Packers coach Mike McCarthy went through evaluations Wednesday with defensive coordinator Dom Capers, there was one aspect of this season that troubled him the most.
"My biggest disappointment with our defense was our productivity in tackling," McCarthy said in his season-ending press conference. "The tackling just was not there all year. "We did not tackle well enough as a football team, from start to finish. It's not acceptable. That's probably the biggest fundamental flaw, I would say, of our football team.
"We need to be a better tackling team next year. That's something we'll talk a lot about as a football team and will be a primary focus for us."
The struggles of the defense that occurred throughout the regular season showed up again in Green Bay's home loss to the New York Giants in the divisional round of the playoffs. Missed tackles in that game contributed to several big plays, including a 66-yard touchdown on New York's second drive when Packers safety Charlie Peprah attempted to shoulder tackle wide receiver Hakeem Nicks to the ground instead of wrapping him up.
"I'll say this is about our team this year, it's clearly the most accountable football team from top to bottom that I've coached," McCarthy said. "The player accountability was extremely high."
That wasn't true just in the exit interviews conducted by McCarthy with players Monday and Tuesday. It was also true in postgame interviews, as Peprah fielded questions at his locker for more than 20 minutes, on several occasions acknowledging that he did a poor job of tackling in the game.
Poor tackling and an inability to pressure the quarterback were significant factors in Green Bay finishing last in the NFL in team defense in the regular season and allowing Eli Manning and the Giants to score 37 points on Sunday.
Despite the defensive issues, Green Bay's 15 wins was the most in franchise history. But that made no difference once the postseason began.
"We took care of Step 1, but unfortunately, Step 2 is the most important," McCarthy said of the team's regular-season success. "The reality is, you put yourself in position to make a run in the playoffs, and we did that very well. But once the second season started, we did not play to the identity that we were able to formulate all season, and that's my frustration."
Part of that identity was having few turnovers. Not once during the regular season did the Packers have three turnovers in a game, but against the Giants, Green Bay lost three fumbles, and Aaron Rodgers threw an interception.
"What's disappointing to me is we were dropping passes and fumbling in uncontested situations," McCarthy said. "So that leads me to believe it's more mental focus, and we're looking on to the next element too fast. It's a hard lesson to learn. We did not play to our identity in Sunday's game, and that's hard to swallow."
During the regular season, the Packers were the second-best team in the NFL with only 14 turnovers on offense. Running backs Ryan Grant and John Kuhn gave up one fumble combined all year, but on Sunday each lost a fumble that was recovered by the Giants.
"There's a reason why that ball was on the ground four or five times, and we had four turnovers," McCarthy said. "Those are the types of things we'll continue to look at. It's uncharacteristic of our football team, it's uncharacteristic of our football team in the past. Any time something doesn't go right, the first thing I look at is myself. Why did we not handle the football properly in that game?"
McCarthy has yet to watch the game film but said he is not avoiding it.
In the week leading up to the game, preparation did change for the Packers, and it happened due to the most tragic of situations after the son of offensive coordinator Joe Philbin drowned in an icy Wisconsin river. Players always talk about being "creatures of habit" during the season, but last week that was not possible. Philbin was not with the team as he grieved with his family, leaving McCarthy and assistant coaches to take on additional responsibilities. Many players also broke routine to attend visitation and the funeral for Philbin's son on Thursday and Friday.
"We had a week of things that probably didn't make a whole lot of sense," McCarthy said. "Did we handle the highs and lows of that football game as well as we did other games? Probably not. That's something that I would point to. That's what we'll continue to learn from. To handle the football in that manner, I didn't see the signs leading into the game of that happening. It was not a good day."
Dropped passes aside, Green Bay's offense will only need minor changes and adjustments before next season. Defensively, it would go against what general manager Ted Thompson believes in to sign a high-priced free agent this offseason. But even if the only new players on McCarthy's roster next season are rookies, he thinks it will be enough.
"As a football team, we will improve from within," McCarthy said. "We will improve with the new draft class and everything else is just things you look at. Our football team will improve. I believe in what our coaching staff gives us during the offseason program. History reflects that. And we will be adding another significant draft class to this football team.
"As far as free agency, those are really hypothetical situations. I'm sure it's fun for everybody to play GM. But we'll go through the process like we always do."
McCarthy also hinted that the Packers would not abandon their normal draft strategies to address their struggling defense, which went from one of the league's best in 2010 to one of the worst this season.
"We will always try to create as much competition as possible," McCarthy said. "The philosophy of drafting and developing, the philosophy of taking the best football player available. With that, that breeds competition in your program."
With the Packers unable to advance to the Super Bowl for the second consecutive season, McCarthy and his staff will coach the NFC in the Pro Bowl.
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