Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson has used a significant amount of draft capital over the last three seasons to build a defense that simply isn't championship worthy.
Despite possessing an elite quarterback many consider to be one of the best players in the game, the Packers dipped out of the postseason before the conference title round for the third straight season on Sunday, losing a 23-20 decision to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Wild Card.
Unlike previous years, this latest lost can't be pinned solely on the defense. It played well for long stretches and held the 49ers to just 23 points, a total that is expected to be beat by a quarterback of Aaron Rodgers' caliber.
However, Sunday's result also exposed the Packers defense for how few true difference-makers that side of the football possesses. The talent gap between Vic Fangio's defense in San Francisco and Dom Capers' in Green Bay remains as wide as it is striking.
And there the Packers' undermanned defense was again, facing a do-or-die situation on the game's biggest drive, and the end result was another 49ers dagger through Green Bay's postseason run. Colin Kaepernick's methodical march ended in Phil Dawson's 33-yard field goal as time expired.
The ending was perfectly fitting for the Packers, who allowed Kaepernick to engineer a similar drive in the season's opener to seal another 49ers win over Green Bay. That drive went 50 yards in 11 plays and 4:26, ending in a Dawson field goal that put San Francisco up six with under 30 seconds left. Sunday's went 65 yards in 14 plays and 5:06, with Dawson's kick giving Rodgers no chance to win the game on his own.
The result then was the result now.
Many will blame Dom Capers, a coach as well-versed in defense as any in football, but one who hasn't produced a good unit since 2010. Many of the playoff exits during his tenure have been the direct result of a defensive calamity.
However, any blame for the last three seasons of disappoint shouldn't escape Thompson, who has invested numerous picks on a defense that hasn't gotten any better.
Since 2011, Thompson has used seven picks in the first four rounds of the NFL draft on defensive players. They are, in order: Davon House in 2011; Nick Perry, Jerel Worthy, Casey Hayward, Mike Daniels and Jerron McMillian in 2012; and Datone Jones in 2013.
Giving that much draft capital to a talent evaluator as respected as Thompson would seem to underwrite significant progress on defense. But that simply hasn't been the case. In fact, his defenses have been among the league's worst.
Since winning Super Bowl XLV in February of 2011, the Packers have allowed the third-most yards in the NFL, behind only the New England Patriots and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Green Bay is also 14th in points allowed during that span, but of the 13 teams that have allowed more points, only one—the New York Giants—has a winning record since 2011.
All three seasons have seen the Packers produce a defense just good enough to make the postseason but far from the quality needed to make a Super Bowl run.
|Lacking the D: Packers Defensive Ranks Since 2011|
|Points||Yards||Passing Yards||Rushing Yards||Turnovers|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
In 2011, Green Bay ranked 32nd in yards allowed and 19th in points. The Giants rather nonchalantly rolled in Lambeau Field and hung 420 yards and 37 points on the 15-1 Packers in the divisional round.
The defensive rankings improved to 11th in yards and 11th in points in 2012, but the 49ers still managed to total 579 yards and 45 points in the NFC Divisional Round last January.
This season, the Packers dropped back to 25th in yards and 24th in points. San Francisco's 381 yards and 23 points were enough to beat Green Bay again.
Overall, opposing teams have averaged 426 yards and almost 29 points over the Packers' last four playoff games. Take out a 324-yard, 10-point performance against the Joe Webb-led Minnesota Vikings last January, and those numbers shoot up to 460 yards and 35 points per contest.
|Packers Defense in the Postseason, Since 2011|
|vs. NYG, 2011 Divisional Round||37||420|
|vs. MIN, 2012 Wild Card*||10||324|
|at SF, 2012 Divisional Round||45||579|
|vs. SF, 2013 Wild Card||23||381|
|Per Game (4 Games)||28.8||426.0|
|*Only win of the four games|
So many factors deserve blame for the last three seasons of defensive ineptitude, with injuries ranking somewhere near the top. But a lack of impact from Thompson's new wave of defensive players might be closer to No. 1.
A fourth-round pick in 2011, House has always been more potential than production. His 27 career games have resulted in just one interception and 15 passes defensed, and his three-year grade at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) remains in the red. He was benched on more than one occasion in 2013, and he only played Sunday because of an injury to Sam Shields.
Two years after being drafted in the first round, Perry is now teetering on bust status. He has six sacks over 17 career games, as injuries and a difficult transition to outside linebacker have hampered his development. But even when healthy, Perry hasn't been a difference-maker—despite playing opposite Clay Matthews. He is still far from a refined pass-rusher, and his measured athleticism hasn't translated to the playing field.
Worthy, a second-round pick in 2012, suffered an ACL injury late last season and then struggled to return in 2013.
His rookie season was still mostly a disappointment, as he struggled as an interior pass-rusher in sub-packages. Worthy finished 32nd out of 34 qualifying defensive ends in pass-rushing in 2012, per PFF (subscription required). At times, he looked completely misfit for the 3-4 defense. And he hardly played this season after being activated from the PUP list in late November.
Hayward, a 2012 second-rounder, enjoyed a breakout rookie campaign last season but played less than 100 snaps in 2013 due to recurring hamstring problems.
Thompson can't be dinged for finding Hayward, who proved to be one of the game's premier slot cornerbacks in 2012. He led the Packers in interceptions (six) and looked more than ready to take on added responsibility in Green Bay's secondary this season. However, a hamstring injury suffered in training camp manifested itself again once he returned, and the Packers eventually shut him down for the season.
Thompson should also be praised for snagging Daniels in the fourth round of 2012. A disruptive interior lineman, Daniels was arguably the Packers' most consistent defensive player in the front seven this season. Including the playoffs, he tied for the team lead with 7.5 sacks. He could be an emerging star.
But just one pick later, Thompson made one of the worst picks of his drafting career.
After taking Daniels at No. 132, he gambled and lost with safety Jerron McMillian at No. 133.
A mix of small-school inexperience and impressive measurables, McMillian lasted just 28 games in Green Bay before the Packers flat-out cut him in early December. He never showed signs of development and eventually made too many crucial mistakes. It is certainly telling that in a league so devoid of quality safety play, McMillian couldn't last two years on a team dying for help at the position. And he's still without an NFL job over a month later.
The book is still out on Jones, Green Bay's first-round pick in 2013. He showed signs of disruptive ability, but the Packers played him on less than 300 total snaps this season. He wasn't a difference-maker during his first season.
From the seven picks used in the first four rounds since 2011, the Packers now have an inconsistent cornerback, a bust-approaching outside linebacker, a misfit defensive lineman, a recently cut safety, a still-unknown defensive line asset and two game-changers in Hayward (when healthy) and Daniels. Two (and maybe even three, with Jones) hits out of seven tries just isn't good enough.
Add in the rapid decline of B.J. Raji, a 2009 first-round pick, the up-and-down career of 2010 second-rounder Mike Neal and the maddening disappointment that is 2010 third-round pick Morgan Burnett, and it becomes much easier to see why the Packers are hurting so badly on defense.
Without being too harsh, one could say that the Green Bay defense received better than average seasons in 2013 out of just three picks in the top four rounds since 2009: Clay Matthews, Neal and Daniels. And even Neal's inclusion on that list is debatable.
Now we're at the crux of why the Packers can't handle the heavyweights in the NFC.
The easy answer is always to blame the defensive coordinator, in this case Capers. But look at what he was working with Sunday, and it's a football miracle that the 49ers only scored 23 points.
The Packers' four starting linebackers were Neal, who was injured in the first quarter, A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones and Andy Mulumba, a 2013 undrafted free agent. By the final drive, it was Datone Jones at outside linebacker, Hawk and Brad Jones inside and an obviously hobbled Mulumba on the other side. Jones had never played outside linebacker before Sunday.
After starting cornerback Sam Shields dipped out with a knee injury on the first series, the always competitive Tramon Williams was flanked by House, who played one of his better games, and 2013 fifth-round pick Micah Hyde. The rookie was responsible for a deep fourth-down conversion in the first quarter and then he dropped a sure interception on San Francisco's final drive.
At safety, Burnett again played a hesitant, impact-free game that featured a missed opportunity for what could have been career-defining play. During the fourth quarter, he was late rotating to a deep seam route and missed an interception by a foot or so. It's a play that sums up his entire career to this point.
Alongside Burnett were M.D. Jennings, a former undrafted free agent who might not start on any of the other 31 NFL teams, and Sean Richardson, a big, athletic safety lacking experience who also went undrafted.
Without Matthews, who missed Sunday with a broken thumb, the Packers defense simply didn't have the talent to compete for 60 minutes. And at some rudimentary level, a lack of talent always comes back to the general manager. Coaches coach and players play, but talent-pickers are tasked with giving those coaches the right players.
Thompson has afforded himself ample opportunity to fix the defense. He spent his first six picks in 2012 and his first-round pick in 2013 on defense. Yet the results aren't any different, mostly because the players he picked haven't generated enough cumulative impact.
Sunday's third consecutive early playoff exit has provided more evidence that the Packers do not possess a championship-caliber defense. That reality is as much on Thompson as it is Capers.