Well folks, here we are. Fresh off a defensive performance so bad that it defies description, the Packers stand at 4-6 and with only the faintest glimmer of hope for salvaging their season.
What We Learned: This is the worst of all the bad Packers defenses.
Since 2010, when the Packers had a good defense (maybe even very good, but certainly not great), the assumption has been that the Packers just needed to get the defense into the top third of the league, and then the offense would do the rest of the heavy lifting on the way to the Super Bowl. Now that the offense has come back to Earth, the flaws of this mindset are strikingly clear, as the Packers defense has now dissolved into one of the bottom few units in the league, and the worst I can remember in over 20 years of watching the Packers.
When the problem is systemic, you have to look to the top. I took Dom Capers to task last week for his consistently under-performing units (seriously, when was the last time this supposed blitz-design guru dialed one up with a free rusher?), so now we look even higher to, to Ted Thompson. Although he certainly has tried to infuse the defense with talent by adding high pick after high pick, the results have been far more down than up.
When you look at the way this defense was constructed, how can you be surprised by the results? There are only two actual difference makers on the entire defense. One (Clay) is perpetually injured, and the other (Mike Daniels) plays at one of the lower-impact positions in a 3-4 defense. Besides Daniels, there are no linemen who provide any sort of pass rush whatsoever. And the defensive line is sorely lacking that Gilbert Brown style immovable object in the middle that tells teams “don’t even try running near me, I will eat you.”
Moving away from the line of scrimmage, the problems only get worse. Nick Perry has certainly elevated his game this year, but he is still a complimentary player, and not someone that opposing offensive coordinators will lie awake at night worrying about. Kyler Fackrell, Jayrone Elliott, and Julius Peppers have provided next to nothing all year. And while a healthy Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez are preferable to the disasters we have seen at ILB since the Packers instituted the 3-4 defense, they are below-average players and neither has made a significant play all year. Why some veteran cover was not brought in to solidify the position is beyond puzzling.
Worst of all is the secondary. Morgan Burnett has shown up ready to work every day since he joined the Packers, but it is time to accept that he is what he is: an average player at best, someone to do the dirty work, ideally leaving his Safety partner to freelance and make plays. The problem is, his partner on the last line of defense, Haha Clinton-Dix, has been a huge disappointment in his third year. For all his size, athleticism, and range, he makes so few big plays you begin to wonder whether he should be added to the long list of Ted Thompson first round under-performers. Even more concerning than his lack of impact plays is how easily he can be worked from side-to-side by average Quarterbacks like Kirk Cousins, opening up gaping holes downfield for easy completions. Haha needs badly to increase his play awareness, or he will never be close enough to the ball to take advantage of his supposed play-making abilities.
Finally, we get to the Cornerback position. Why Thompson would construct a roster with only two Cornerbacks even capable of playing outside man coverage-Randall and Shields-is beyond me. An injury to either was going to lead to one of the remaining CBs-Gunter, Hyde, Rollins, or Goodson-playing out of their depth on the outside, as all are better suited to playing in the slot due to their lack of speed.
This defense is miles away from being good enough, and the man at the top has to take the blame for that.
What We Hope We Learned: Jared Cook can be the match-up problem this offense so desperately needs.
Finally returning from an ankle injury, Jared Cook looked like the best chance the Packers have this year to find a legitimate offensive weapon. Often deployed outside as a WR, Cook looked too massive to be guarded when matched with a CB, and too fast for anyone else. His first two receptions were particularly impressive, one on a sideline fade that he stretched into a 47 yard gain and the other an impressive adjustment to a perfectly floated ball that Rodgers had to throw well before Cook made his break. The chemistry with Rodgers all night was impressive given their limited experience together.
Cook did have the glaring miscue when he fumbled on a late drive in the red zone with the Packers still alive in the game. Although a turnover in a spot like that should never happen, sometimes a defensive player just lands a perfect punch directly on the ball. Jared, you get one of these-but just one, OK?
Cook, who came to the Packers from the Rams on a one-year deal, will have an interesting negotiation with the Packers this off-season. He will have some leverage in that the team clearly needs the mismatch he presents, but the market was pretty dry for him last off-season, and missing half the year while playing on a bad team certainly will not improve his stock. The Packers would be wise to lock Cook up with a deal for 2-3 years at $3-4 million annually, a deal that should leave both sides satisfied. The Packers cannot afford to lose a potential difference maker like Cook as they attempt to rebuild the roster.
What We Hope Isn’t True: This is exactly who this team is.
10 games into the season, you can usually tell who a team is. At this point, its just about time to accept that what we are seeing is who the 2016 Packers are: a flawed team, decimated by injuries at a few key positions, coached by a staff whose ideas have gone stale. I am trying to keep the faith, but at this point can anyone honestly see this team turning it around and going on a run in the playoffs?
After a lackluster start to the year, Aaron Rodgers is back to playing mostly excellent football. He is still not quite at his MVP-level, but he has been close enough that his on-field play is now so far down the list of problems with this team that it doesn’t even justify in-depth analysis. He was great on Sunday after a couple errant throws on the first few drives, and if his teammates had played anywhere near his level, the score would have looked much different. His improved play is perhaps the only reason there is some hope left.
But when you look at the rest of the roster, is there really any hope left? What I see is a bunch of bad defensive players playing poorly, a Special Teams group that once again will rank among the very worst in the league, and an offense with average-at-best talent being propped up by a superstar QB. This simply does not appear to be a team that is just waiting to kick into a higher gear. Unfortunately, it seems this team is playing to exactly the level we should expect.