If the Green Bay Packers expect to be legitimate Super Bowl contenders in 2012, the defense will have to improve.
Overall, the defense, led by Dom Capers, was ranked 32nd in 2011. If you break it down, the D was ranked 32nd against the pass and 14th against the run.
Not very good.
Still, with all that, the defense managed to lead the NFL with 31 interceptions, which paced the league by a wide margin. The Packers returned four of those picks for TDs, too.
Plus, Green Bay also had a 15-1 record in the 2011 regular season, mostly due to the prolific offense led by NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers. But the ugly warts of the defense showed up in the painful playoff loss to the eventual Super Bowl XLVI champs, the New York Giants.
Judging by Capers' track record with the Packers, the 2011 season defensively was really an anomaly. In 2009 when Capers became defensive coordinator, the defense was ranked second in the NFL. In 2010, the year the Packers won Super Bowl XLV, the D was ranked fifth.
Bottom line, there have to be some changes made to improve the overall defense in 2012.
Part one of that equation is bringing in some new personnel. Part two is making sure you choose the right people to man the various alignments that the defense will utilize.
That certainly will be the case with the defensive line that the Packers will put out on the field in 2012. And there sure are a lot of candidates for the job: Right now there are 12 players competing for six jobs, maybe seven, on the defensive line.
Of those 12 players, five were not with the Packers in 2011. Here are the list of candidates, starting with the players that were on the team in 2011:
- Ryan Pickett
- C.J. Wilson
- Jarius Wynn
- Mike Neal
- Lawrence Guy (injured reserve)
- Johnny Jones (practice squad)
Ted Thompson also used free agency and the draft to bring in other defensive linemen. He acquired these linemen via free agency:
- Anthony Hargrove
- Daniel Muir
- Phillip Merling
Here are the two players Thompson picked for the Packers in the 2012 NFL draft to help the defensive line:
- Jerel Worthy
- Mike Daniels
Before we can talk about how this will all shake out, we need to talk about the suspension situation which is currently looming over Anthony Hargrove and Mike Neal.
First Hargrove. Commissioner Roger Goodell upheld yesterday the eight-game suspension he gave Hargrove earlier this year due to the bounty program run by the New Orleans Saints when Hargrove was a member of the team.
So Hargrove is definitely suspended eight games in 2012, right?
Not so fast, Sherlock.
It appears the the players suspended in this bounty caper will utilize the court system to circumvent their suspensions. This is similar to what happened in the StarCaps case involving five NFL players, which ironically included three former New Orleans Saints players, plus DTs Kevin Williams and Pat Williams of the Minnesota Vikings.
The suspensions in the StarCaps case were eventually upheld, but not for almost three years. This allowed the players to suit up until the final verdict was reached, which finally occurred in early September of 2011.
We shall see what happens with the status of Hargrove.
Next, there is the four-game suspension that Neal currently has to serve in 2012. I believe Neal has a better chance of seeing Goodell overturning his earlier decision via appeal because of Neal's use of Adderall. Players that have used Adderall in the past have seen their suspensions overturned.
Okay...just for argument's sake, let's say that both Hargrove and Neal will be able to play in 2012, and that their respective suspensions will not be issues, although for different reasons.
I'm also going to mark down seven roster spots available for the defensive line, instead of six, which is normally the case.
The first thing we have to do is look at the locks that will make the defensive-line rotation in 2012. To me, that would include Pickett, Raji, Worthy and Daniels as players who will definitely make the team.
That means eight players will be battling for three spots on the roster.
I think that those three players will most likely be Neal (his final chance to stay healthy), Hargrove and Lawrence Guy.
If Hargrove and Neal are indeed suspended to start the season, then their spots will be taken most likely by Phillip Merling and C.J. Wilson.
In terms of how the Packers will line up defensively, based on their formations (base, nickel and dime), expect to see the Packers substitute freely to keep their players fresh.
The Packers obviously need to improve both their run stopping and especially their the pass coverage. Pass coverage is directly connected to pass-rushing pressure. The Green Bay defensive line contributed only six sacks in 2011, and the Packers as a whole had only 29 sacks, which tied for 27th in the NFL.
When the Packers won the Super Bowl the year before, they were ranked fifth in total defense and second in sacks in the NFL. The Packers were also second in the NFL in interceptions.
In the base defense (3-4-4), which the Packers used about only 10 percent of the time in 2011, expect Green Bay to line up Pickett, Raji and Worthy as starters. I would expect players like Guy and Neal to get time in this rotation, as well.
In the nickel defense (3-3-5 or 2-4-5), which the Packers utilized most of the time in 2011, expect to see Worthy, along with Raji, based on what we saw at the first OTA. Expect to see pass-rush specialists like Daniels, Hargrove and Neal (who has shown flashes) to be part of this alignment, too.
The NFL has become a pass-happy league, which is why the Packers used the nickel so often in 2011. Green Bay will also use the dime defense (3-2-6 or 2-3-6) quite often in 2012, mostly because they have better personnel in the defensive backfield this year.
Expect to see the same personnel on the defensive line in the dime that the Packers will use in the nickel defense: guys that can get to the QB.
It's tough to speculate in early July about how all of this will actually come together.
We haven't see the players with pads on yet, for one thing. Plus, the the cases of Neal and Hargrove are still in question.
There is one thing we know for sure, though: There will be plenty of competition for the jobs, not only on the defensive line, but in the linebacking corps and the secondary, as well.
It will all begin on July 26th, the first day of training camp.
Buckle your chin straps.