The Packers defense denied big plays and took a step toward recovery on Sunday, which raised the question: Are the Packers’ problems on defense fixed?
“I’m saying it’s the first step,” Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers said on Monday. “We have to go to Kansas City and build on the things we did well.”
What the Packers defense did well in a 46-16 win over the visiting Oakland Raiders is to have intercepted four passes and returned a fumble for a touchdown. Takeaways, of course, had long ago become routine for Capers’ unit. What’s most gratifying about the defense’s performance on Sunday is that it allowed only two plays of 20 yards or longer, pass completions of 24 and 34 yards, both of which occurred in the second half, long after the game had been decided.
“I saw some signs of things I like. We didn’t have the big plays. The result of that is the number of points on the board,” Capers said. “That’s a direct result of making them go a longer field. We didn’t have any defensive penalties. If we can continue to eliminate the big plays, it’s a step in the right direction.”
Yardage-wise, the defense’s league ranking didn’t budge; it remains 31st overall and 31st against the pass. Clearly, this isn’t going to be a yardage year for the Packers defense, but it certainly has been a banner season for intercepting passes. The Packers have intercepted 27 passes, nine more than the closest pursuer. Those 27 interceptions, against the six Aaron Rodgers has thrown, has the Packers second in the league to the 49ers in turnover differential at +20.
A big chunk of that turnover differential was achieved with reserve linebackers Robert Francois and D.J. Smith playing in place of A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop, both of whom have been out of action since sustaining calf injuries in Detroit. Francois and Smith were awarded game balls for their performances on Sunday. Francois was credited with nine tackles, an interception, a pass-defensed and a forced fumble. Smith had 10 tackles, an interception and a pass-defensed.
“Those guys kind of represent what our defense is about,” Capers said.
Offensively, the Packers hit the 30-point mark for the 10th time this season, which padded the Packers’ league lead in points per game.
Coordinator Joe Philbin even got a chance to get some playing time for first-round draft pick Derek Sherrod, who stepped in for Marshall Newhouse at left tackle in the first half.
“He’s a guy who’s improved a lot. We felt this was an opportunity to get a look at him and see where he’s at. That was the thought process. Get his feet wet and see how he grades out,” Philbin said. “Can he run a twist with a guy? Can he pass-block one-on-one? He competed hard. He represented himself well. All in all, it was a good effort.”
Philbin did not sign off on his offense’s total performance. He singled out four sacks, one of which resulted in a safety, penalties and a 27 percent conversion rate on third down as negatives.
“It’s the same old tune, unfortunately,” he said of the sacks.
What is he seeking in his offense between now and the postseason?
“I’d love to see us get better. There are tons of things we have to get better at,” he said.
One phase of the Packers offense did improve dramatically on Sunday. The running game gained 136 yards and posted a 5.7 yards-per-carry average, led by Ryan Grant’s 85 yards and 8.5 average.
“When he got to the second level, he made a couple of guys miss,” Philbin said.