Packers 2013 primer: The defense
Last week we looked at the Packers offense for the upcoming season, now it's time to take a look at the defense. No matter how you slice the numbers the Packers were absolutely gutted in their final two losses of the season. In the Week 17 loss to Minnesota and the divisional round playoff loss to San Francisco the Packers gave up a combined 82 points, 1,023 yards and 14 3rd down conversions.
So will 2013 be more of the same?
The defensive overhaul starts upfront and the Packers addressed this need with the selection of Datone Jones in the first round of the draft. Jones played in a 3-4 defense at UCLA so his transition should be a smooth one. The question becomes how much of an impact will he have right away? There are also questions about B.J. Raji. While his play on the field has been solid the Packers elected not to offer him a long-term deal, meaning Raji enters 2013 in the final year of his contract. Will Raji elevate his play while his future is in doubt? On the other side Ryan Pickett enters his 13th season in the league. His role as a space eater continues but he likely won't be able to play at a high level for the entire season. Aside from stopping the run the Packers once again need to address the issue of pass rush, especially upfront. Mike Neal finished second on the team with 4 1/2 sacks but he may transition to outside linebacker. Perhaps it will be Jones, Neal, Mike Daniels or someone else but the Packers are desperate for a pass rushing force along the front three.
It is a year of transition at linebacker. Clay Matthews will continue to be the playmaking threat he has always been. However there are questions abound at the other three positions. Nick Perry enters his second year with the same level of expectation as last year: a bookend to Matthews. However, Perry was lost for the year in Week Six and his value never came to fruition. Will he be the player the Packers expected him to be when they used a first round pick on him in 2012? A.J. Hawk returns on the inside along with Brad Jones. With Hawk and Jones starting Desmond Bishop was released, as was D.J. Smith. Both suffered season ending injuries so the Packers elected to move ahead without them. While Hawk is serviceable he does not make enough big time plays and isn't nearly as sure a tackler as Bishop is. Jones moved from outside to inside successfully last year but was a sub until the middle of the season. Now he's expected to perform for the entire year. The Packers are deep at linebacker again but with a lot of unproven talent like Terrell Manning, Jamari Lattimore and Nate Palmer.
For the first time since 2005 Charles Woodson will not be patrolling the secondary for the Packers. The team released the veteran in February after getting a solid year out of a number of younger cornerbacks. Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Davon House all performed well and looking ahead to 2013 Shields and Hayward are expected to get the most snaps along with Tramon Williams. The real issue is at safety, where the Packers elected to stand pat with Morgan Burnett, M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian. There's always a chance that GM Ted Thompson might go out and pick up a veteran safety in the preseason but for now the team has a lot of faith in those three guys.
Just how good (or bad) the Packers defense will be is a very wide-ranging topic. If first round picks Perry and Jones play to potential, if Brad Jones, Casey Hayward and Sam Shields continue their play from 2012 and if the front seven can generate enough of a pass rush to mask issues at safety then the Packers defense will do just fine. But if injuries take its toll, as it did in 2012, if the young corners regress, if the linebackers other than Matthews don't make enough plays then 2013 will look at lot like 2012. Statistically-speaking the entire 2012 season wasn't bad. The Packers finished 11th in both scoring and total defense and produced 23 takeaways. But the defense struggled to get off the field on 3rd downs and gave up huge chunks of yardage down the stretch. From the start the Packers will be tested with read option-heavy San Francisco and Washington. The run defense will especially be tested throughout the season by blue chip running backs like Adrian Peterson, Steven Jackson, Alfred Morris, Frank Gore and Trent Richardson. The defense doesn't have to be great but it does need to hold its own if the Packers want to get beyond the divisional round of the postseason this year.