GREEN BAY—When the Packers defense didn’t generate a single turnover against the 49ers last week, it virtually assured Green Bay of defeat.
That’s what the statistics show since Dom Capers brought his ball-hawking defense here in 2009.
Annually among the league leaders in takeaways in Capers’ first few seasons running the defense, the unit on Sunday turned in just its 10th game without a turnover dating back to the start of the ’09 season.
The Packers’ record in those 10 games? 1-9.
Keep in mind that the Packers have lost just 18 regular-season games since the start of ’09, meaning exactly half of those defeats occurred when the defense didn’t get a turnover.
“It’s frustrating, because that’s how our defense is made, to turn the ball over,” veteran defensive lineman Ryan Pickett said. “We live on turnovers, and to not get any, to me, that’s the reason why we lost. We didn’t get the ball. We have to get turnovers on defense. We have to get them this week.”
That’s no easy task against a Washington team that had the fewest giveaways in the NFL last season, with just 14. Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III threw only five interceptions last season as a rookie, fewest in the league among full-time starters, though he did begin his return from reconstructive knee surgery with two picks this past Monday night against Philadelphia.
It’s worth mentioning the 49ers as a rule don’t turn it over much, either. Their 16 giveaways last year were tied with several teams (including the Packers) for second fewest in the league. One of the Packers’ other nine non-turnover games under Capers came in the 2012 opener against San Francisco, and the 49ers’ only giveaway in their three meetings with the Packers over the last calendar year was Sam Shields’ pick-six early in January’s playoff tilt.
Of greater concern than the opponent, though, is that turnovers in general have been drying up for Capers’ defense over the past year.
In his first three seasons as defensive coordinator (2009-11), the Packers were blanked in the turnover department just four times, all losses (at Pittsburgh in ’09, at Atlanta and at New England in ’10, at Kansas City in ’11).
Last season alone, however, saw the defense fail to generate a turnover in five contests, including the aforementioned opener vs. the 49ers (also at Seattle, vs. New Orleans, at N.Y. Giants, at Minnesota). The lone victory was a 28-27 squeaker over the Saints in Week 4.
Last Sunday made it six zero-turnover games for the Packers in their last 17 regular-season contests.
“It was very disappointing on defense,” lineman C.J. Wilson said of Week 1. “It’s going to be a big emphasis every day until the finish of the season.”
With Seattle on the 2012 list, it could be argued that M.D. Jennings should have been credited with an interception on the game’s final play, thereby giving the Packers a turnover and a win. But at 1-8 in the other nine takeaway-less games, the Packers are still facing tough odds if the defense doesn’t generate a turnover.
Head Coach Mike McCarthy often preaches that protecting the ball and taking it away are “fundamentals” of the game. Daily practice periods are devoted to it, and have been since McCarthy arrived.
The head coach wasn’t thrilled with the offense’s two giveaways against San Francisco, either, noting the 49ers defense did nothing “extraordinary” as Eddie Lacy fumbled the ball while fighting for extra yards and Jermichael Finley had a pass bounce off his hands and into a defender’s for an interception.
Big picture, it’s the overall plus-minus turnover ratio that matters most, but obviously it’s impossible to come out on the plus side if the defense doesn’t get at least one. In a tight game between two NFC heavyweights like last week’s at Candlestick Park, one takeaway might have been all the Packers’ defense needed to turn the tide.
“Hits on the ball, we didn’t have enough of them, and when we did, the technique wasn’t quite what it needed to be,” McCarthy said.
Indeed, the opportunities were lacking. The 49ers never fumbled, and on Colin Kaepernick’s 39 pass attempts, the Packers were credited with just four break-ups. The Packers have averaged 7.6 passes defensed per game over the past four seasons.
Whether it’s deflecting more passes, anticipating routes better or just plain getting the ball out, the Packers have to do more of it. With two playoff teams from 2012 on the slate the next two Sundays, Green Bay's hopes of avoiding an uphill climb for the bulk of 2013 could depend on it.
“When you’re playing a good team, a playoff team, you have to make the critical plays in a game,” defensive lineman B.J. Raji said. “Sometimes you don’t know when they are, and we just didn’t get the job done last week.”
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