Safety Morgan Burnett (left) and linebacker A.J. Hawk, along with the entire Packers defense, gave up numerous big plays last season, including this touchdown catch to 49ers tight end Vernon Davis.
Mike Dinovo/Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports
GREEN BAY, Wis. — With the positive elements that are working in the Green Bay Packers’ favor out of the way (see Friday’s story), the focus shifts to the negative side of things. And, as many fans would guess, the majority of the Packers’ weaknesses exist on the defensive side of the ball.
With months still to go before free agency begins and the NFL Draft takes place, there are several issues standing between the Packers calling it a season in early January rather than getting back to the Super Bowl.
1. A lack of defensive playmakers
It’s a broad assessment, but if forced to pick just one thing that the Packers need, it’s defensive players who can actually make a big play that changes the course of a game. Clay Matthews is a playmaker. Even while being double- and triple- teamed, Matthews led the team in sacks (7.5) and forced fumbles (3) despite playing in only 11 games — and in several of those games he wasn’t anywhere near full health. General manager Ted Thompson has been trying for years to find a few other players who could get the job done alongside Matthews. Sam Shields got to that point (a team-best four interceptions) in 2013, but now Thompson has to worry about whether to hand out a big-money contract extension to him. Mike Daniels is nearing that point, but his 6.5 sacks and four tackles for loss didn’t produce any turnovers. Tramon Williams showed his value as a playmaker at the end of last season but not much at all in the first half of the year. Other players made some plays too, but it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t even close to enough. Finishing 12th out of 16 teams in the NFC in takeaways is one of the big ways to demonstrate that Green Bay just didn’t make the impact plays necessary to finish any better than the team did. The Seattle Seahawks, as a comparison, led the NFL with 39 takeaways, almost twice as many as the Packers (22). Until Green Bay closes that gap, it may not matter how good Aaron Rodgers, Eddie Lacy and the rest of the Packers offense is.
Safety was Green Bay’s worst position group in 2013, and it wasn’t a close race for that unwanted title whatsoever. As a unit, the Packers’ safeties had zero interceptions. Zero. This was well-documented during the season, giving the coaching staff an opportunity to be ready for reasons as to why this number doesn’t tell the entire story. And, to an extent, that’s true. But it’s a major indication of the general inability this group showed throughout the season. In July 2013, it seemed like a good idea for Thompson to lock in Morgan Burnett to a four-year extension worth nearly $25 million. One season later, it looks like a big mistake. While Burnett could have a major turnaround in 2014 and show why he earned that money in his first three NFL seasons, he’ll want to forget that the 2013 season ever happened. Zero interceptions are one thing, but the number of times that Burnett was late in getting to his assignments in coverage went well beyond an acceptable rate. The No. 1 topic above regarding a lack of playmakers points largely in Burnett’s direction, and he was paid to be just that. With more money comes more responsibility, or at least more expectations. Burnett didn’t deliver there. It sure didn’t help that he was flanked by Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings for most of the season. McMillian was so bad that the Packers actually gave up on a 2012 fourth-round pick and released him midseason. Jennings’ performance wasn’t as egregious, but having him as a starting safety in the NFL is a problem before he even steps onto the field. It stands to reason that if Green Bay upgrades significantly at safety this offseason then Burnett can get back to his old form. But with a season like what the Packers just had at that important position, it’s almost impossible for the defense as a whole to stand up well.
3. Not enough talent surrounding Clay Matthews at linebacker
Two years in and the Nick-Perry-at-outside-linebacker experiment is not going as planned. Perry was supposed to be the answer, the tag-team partner opposite Matthews that changed everything. That has not happened. Perry has often been injured, so there’s a built-in reason (or excuse) as to why he hasn’t yet lived up to being a first-round pick. But the conversion process of getting him comfortable standing up (after being a college defensive end and even vocally stating his preference to remain as such in the NFL before the 2012 draft) is still ongoing, and it remains to be seen if it will ever work to the level that the Packers need it to. Mike Neal’s conversion to outside linebacker from defensive lineman was much more positive, but he seems best served as a situational pass rusher. Plus, Green Bay needs to decide whether Neal is worth the money it will cost to re-sign him this offseason. Andy Mulumba showed potential as an undrafted rookie, but he’s not ready to be the difference-maker who takes pressure off of Matthews. At inside linebacker, A.J. Hawk had the best season of his career, but at age 30 and with being more of a consistent presence than a playmaker, the Packers would be better off not having him on the field for 95 percent of the snaps (like he was in 2013) for much longer. Brad Jones, who re-signed for more than $11 million over three years last offseason, did not play up to that new deal. For a defense that relies on its linebackers to make plays and be disruptive, the Packers have only one of their four starters capable of fulfilling that requirement on a regular basis. Look at the San Francisco 49ers’ linebacking corps and compare it to Green Bay’s; it won’t take long to realize just how far behind the Packers are in talent at those spots.
B.J. Raji played the most snaps among Green Bay’s defensive linemen in 2013, and that was only 58 percent of them. No other Packers defensive linemen played more than 50 percent of the time. Again comparing to San Francisco, that’s a defensive line with two players (Justin Smith and Ray McDonald) that both played more than 70 percent of the snaps. Green Bay was mixing and matching, mostly using Raji, Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly in running situations and inserting Daniels and Datone Jones in passing situations. Though there’s more to it than that, it was a recipe that didn’t work and is a result of many of those players being relatively one-dimensional. Raji, Pickett and Jolly are all free agents, so this group could see a major overhaul this offseason, but where do the Packers go from here? If Daniels and Jones can develop into every-down players, the problem can almost be solved on that alone. The coaching staff is confident that can happen, too. There’s also the hope within the organization that Josh Boyd and Jerel Worthy can take a big step forward soon. If that happens, Green Bay would be fairly well set at defensive line for a while. But it’s a lot of "ifs," and there are more negatives than positives when looking back at the 2013 season.
5. A playmaking tight end to step in immediately
The season-ending neck injury to Jermichael Finley got somewhat lost amidst the injuries to Rodgers, Matthews and Randall Cobb, but it was felt on the field. Finley’s career could be in jeopardy following neck surgery, and even if he does continue on uninterrupted, he’s a free agent and the Packers are a team with a cautious medical staff. Basically, Green Bay seems unlikely to have Finley on its 2014 roster and needs to replace his production without hesitation. That won’t be easy, as Finley was a middle-of-the-field target that defenses respected and paid attention to. Andrew Quarless isn’t the same type of receiving threat (and he’s a free agent, too) and Brandon Bostick isn’t yet ready to be Finley, Jr. That leaves a major hole at tight end in an offense that, as position coach Jerry Fontenot admitted at the end of the season, needs a playmaker. Rodgers and Lacy will be better and have more room to work if there’s a Finley-type tight end making plays. The answer likely lies in the draft, but with so many needs on defense, Thompson will have to hope that the ideal tight end is waiting atop their big board in one of the early rounds. The Packers’ offense will have weapons to work with even if it is Quarless and Bostick sharing the majority of snaps in 2014, but it won’t reach its full ability unless a player of Finley’s skill set is on the field.