The Packers defense last season was fifth in yards allowed, third in sacks and second in points allowed, and it boasts two true star-quality players and two emerging star-quality players, but Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers is facing a significant challenge in 2011.
Can Capers replace veteran defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins, should he leave the Packers in free agency, and find a way to do what the Packers didn’t do in the Super Bowl, which is to say stop the run.
It would appear to be the major issue for a defense that, in all other ways, is loaded with talent.
Linebacker Clay Matthews is one of the game’s premier pass-rushers and impact defenders. He was runnerup to Troy Polamalu last season for defensive player of the year honors.
Cornerback Charles Woodson is on his way to the Hall of Fame, but even after 13 years in the league, Woodson is showing no signs of age.
Defensive lineman B.J. Raji is an impact defender in a run-stuffer’s role, and that’s the rarest of combinations.
Is young cornerback Tramon Williams the next Woodson? It looked that way in last year’s postseason.
Yeah, Coach Capers has a lot of talent on defense, including a second-year safety, Morgan Burnett, who had claimed a starting job last season until sustaining a season-ending knee injury.
“I like Morgan. I like his demeanor. You need a guy who can make all of those calls. I think he’ll be able to handle all of that. He’s got really good ball skills,” Capers says of Burnett.
Defenders with ball skills are aplenty. Sam Shields emerged at cornerback as an undrafted rookie last season and Capers believes this year’s fourth-round draft pick, Davon House, can become the Sam Shields of 2011.
“I hope we can see House make some of the same strides Sam did last year,” Capers said.
Everywhere you look, there are pass-rushers and pass-defenders, but where are the run-stuffers? Hey, that five-play – make that five running plays – touchdown drive by the Steelers in the Super Bowl is reason for concern.
In replacing Jenkins, the Packers would look hard to 2010 second-round pick Mike Neal, a three-technique, penetrate-and-disrupt defensive tackle at Purdue that will have to make the transition to 3-4 defensive end, which means penetrating less and holding the point more often. Neal missed nearly all of his rookie season with a shoulder injury.
“Mike has a good combination of strength and athletic ability. What Mike doesn’t have is experience. He can be a really good three technique, but the challenge with Mike is to do both. There are going to be times when we’re going to ask him to play run first and pass second,” Capers said.
Can Neal make the style change? Can he replace Jenkins? The answers to those questions could be critical to the Packers’ performance on defense.
“We have a lot of young guys. You never know who’s going to surface,” said Capers, who spoke of relying on “young, ascending linemen.
“To be a good defense, you have to have two, three difference-makers and a lot of guys around them playing their roles,” Capers said.
The Packers have plenty of difference-makers on defense. All they would seem to need now is another run-stuffer.