Packers season report card: Defense and coaching
This was not a good season for the Green Bay Packers’ defense. One day after looking at the offense and special teams, today focuses on every defensive position, as well as the job that the Packers’ coaching staff did.
Defensive Line: C
Starting with the positive, Mike Daniels made the Year 2 jump that coach Mike McCarthy also hopes to see out of his players. Daniels was an absolute workhorse who never quit on plays, and it showed with his 6.5 sacks (second-most on the team) and four tackles for loss. He’s a defensive star in the making and gives the Packers someone to build around on their defensive line. Daniels also played the second-most snaps among Green Bay defensive linemen, trailing only B.J. Raji.
On the topic of Raji, it’s relatively unfair to judge him based on his 17 tackles, zero sacks and three tackles for loss. He spoke openly about accepting his role in the defense, one that doesn’t give him frequent opportunities to make plays. Nonetheless, Raji underperformed in his 618 snaps and had a very forgettable season. Johnny Jolly’s return to the NFL was a positive for the Packers’ defensive line, picking up five tackles for loss and one sack. Ryan Pickett’s performance showed that he still had something left in the tank at age 34. C.J. Wilson watched his role drastically decrease from a season earlier, only playing 108 snaps and being a healthy inactive on multiple game-day rosters.
Jerel Worthy never got going after returning from injured reserve following offseason ACL surgery. Rookie Josh Boyd found some life late in the season with fresh legs after spending the early part of the year not being used at all. First-round pick Datone Jones, whose experience in a similar defense at UCLA was supposed to prepare him to be an instant impact player, fell behind after a training camp injury and didn’t live up to his high billing in Year 1.
Overall, it was a disappointing season for this group. Though there’s far more to stopping the run than the defensive line, these eight players didn’t contribute well enough, got beat upfront too often and allowed Green Bay to finish 25th in the NFL against the run.
On the outside, Clay Matthews didn’t have a Clay Matthews-esque season, even when he was healthy (though they weren’t many opportunities during which he wasn’t banged up). After receiving a massive new contract last offseason, Matthews led the team in sacks (7.5) but wasn’t quite as disruptive as he’d been in previous years. Opposite Matthews, Nick Perry continued to be unable to live up to his first-round selection. Perry was frequently injured yet again, and while he had 4.0 sacks, he didn’t have any tackles for loss against the run. Mike Neal made a fairly seamless transition to outside linebacker, picking up 5.0 sacks and five tackles for loss. Neal showed at times that he still wasn’t comfortable at the position, but it was definitely a successful experiment. Undrafted rookie Andy Mulumba was a pleasant surprise for Green Bay, playing 304 snaps and filling in at an acceptable level when the starters were out. Mulumba vastly outperformed sixth-round pick Nate Palmer, who only played 200 snaps despite all the injuries at outside linebacker.
On the inside, A.J. Hawk had the best season of his career. Leading the team in tackles, Hawk also picked up 5.0 sacks and tied for the team-high with seven tackles for loss. Hawk’s impressive interception late in the season showed his athleticism, but it’s his leadership on the defense that adds non-statistical value to the defense. Brad Jones didn’t live up to his new contract and wasn’t healthy for most of the season. Jones tied Hawk for the team lead in tackles for loss and he picked up three sacks, but the Packers need more from a starting inside linebacker in their defense. Jamari Lattimore stepped in nicely for Jones at times with two sacks and two tackles for loss in just 272 snaps, but that playing time also revealed his weaknesses as a defender. Rookie Sam Barrington never played and veteran Jamari Lattimore tore his Achilles in his first bit of action.
Green Bay needs a lot more from its linebackers in order for the defense to be successful. A big reason for the defensive failures in 2013 was due to the inconsistent play of the linebackers.
Sam Shields was one of the Packers’ best defensive players in 2013, and Tramon Williams — after coming on strong late in the year — wasn’t far behind. Shields led the team with four interceptions and 17 passes defensed, and he did this while matching opposing teams’ best receivers on a few occasions. While Shields wasn’t the type of cornerback that quarterbacks purposefully avoided, he showed even further improvement in his development. Praised often by position coach Joe Whitt for his work ethic, Shields proved he’s now far more than just a speedster; he plays the ball well and stays with receivers on a consistent basis. Williams started slow, but by the end of the year, he was playing his best football since 2010. The veteran of the cornerback room, Williams was asked to play inside — where he’s not as comfortable or as good — out of necessity at times. But when moved outside permanently late in the season, Williams thrived.
Davon House failed to make the next step in his development, unable to prove himself worthy of consistent playing time. Whitt wasn’t comfortable playing him inside, and that cost House a lot of potential opportunities. After the season-ending injury to Casey Hayward, House settled into the role of No. 3 outside corner. Micah Hyde took advantage of Hayward’s injury, spending a lot of time in the slot. For a fifth-round pick, the rookie Hyde played 428 snaps and was one of the defense’s five best players. Jarrett Bush played more defensive snaps than expected and did quite well. Always a hard-worker, Bush proved his value on defense late in the season.
No interceptions from the safeties this season was explained by the defensive coaching staff as a product of multiple factors and that it shouldn’t be too negative of a reflection on the group. That’s a nice spin to put on it, but the fact is that the Packers’ safeties had a horrendous 2013 season. Morgan Burnett was given a new $25 million contract last offseason and ended up turning in a very lackluster year. It wasn’t just the lack of interceptions, it was Burnett being late with the help on deep passing routes. Expected to be an impact player (he is now paid like one, after all), Burnett was far from it.
Jerron McMillian, a fourth-round pick in 2012, was so bad that he was released midway through the season. Green Bay never wants to give up on its draft choices so quickly, but with McMillian, his performance made it an easy decision. M.D. Jennings is simply not a starting-caliber NFL safety, yet he was expected to perform like one due to the lack of depth and overall talent in this group. Sean Richardson was added to the active roster late in the year after being cleared from his 2012 neck injury and he was a good, physical run-stopper in his limited playing time. Chris Banjo was also a pleasant surprise, though he didn’t do enough to show the coaching staff that he deserved more snaps.
No position on the Packers’ roster struggled as much in 2013 as the safeties.
Mike McCarthy: C-plus
McCarthy described it as the most challenging season of his coaching career. Not having Aaron Rodgers for nearly eight games will do that to a coach, but McCarthy also had to deal with the pressure of keeping his franchise quarterback from getting too unhappy during that time. Daily questions about whether Rodgers will or won’t play clearly got to McCarthy. Green Bay went 2-5-1 during Rodgers’ absence, and McCarthy admitted that morale was affected by it at times. That’s his job to make sure it doesn’t happen. The Packers fought back hard at the end of the regular season — albeit while given a lot of help from a poor NFC North, which is a credit to McCarthy. But with a strong running game for the first time since 2009, McCarthy didn’t have the backup quarterback position ready to go and it cost the team some victories. Had Rodgers never gotten injured (at which point Green Bay had a 5-2 record), McCarthy admitted this could have been the best offense he’s ever coached, but that didn’t come to fruition.
Offensive Coaching: B
The addition of Eddie Lacy and the resurgence of James Starks, as well as the consistency of John Kuhn, is a big credit to running backs coach Alex Van Pelt. Losing tight end Jermichael Finley was a huge loss, but position coach Jerry Fontenot got the rest of the group to perform at an acceptable level and had Andrew Quarless emerge in the passing game a bit. The offensive line made a big improvement this year, with credit needed to be given to coach James Campen for getting a young group — especially rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari — ready. Without Randall Cobb for 10 games and with James Jones banged up on a couple occasions, wide receivers coach Edgar Bennett helped Jarrett Boykin become a relatively consistent presence for the group.
Defensive Coaching: C-minus
The "fire Dom Capers" crowd was probably not pleased that McCarthy gave a strong endorsement to the defensive coordinator at season’s end. The talent wasn’t good enough on defense for Capers to do much with it, but this was clearly a season that he’ll want to forget. Still, Capers’ scheme was exposed at times and he knows that it falls on him, even if he didn’t have a great group of players to work with. No position group performed particularly well, and none of them exceeded expectations to be certain. Whitt, as well as inside linebackers coach Winston Moss, could be rising stars in the coaching ranks.
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