The Green Bay Packers are only halfway to fixing their problems on defense.
The decision to change coordinators was the first step. Packers coach Mike McCarthy fired Dom Capers after Sunday’s season-ending loss at Detroit.
Whether it was Capers, the revered Fritz Shurmur or the inventive Buddy Ryan, it might not have mattered who devised defensive game plans and called plays for the Packers. The resources weren’t there.
Like most things in the NFL, it comes down to playmakers.
And that’s where general manager Ted Thompson failed Capers. Yes, Thompson devoted draft pick after draft pick to the defensive side of the ball, yet a dearth of impact players still exists.
Despite what coaches will say, the NFL isn’t about depth. Teams can lose players in bunches, but as long as they have one or two more difference-makers than everyone else, it doesn’t matter.
Quickly scan the Packers’ defensive depth chart — and consider the players on injured reserve, too — and it explains why Capers’ unit ranked 22nd in the NFL this season and hasn’t been in the top 10 since the Super Bowl season of 2010.
That Super Bowl defense had impact players at every level. There was B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett on the front line, and Clay Matthews and Desmond Bishop at linebacker. The secondary was loaded with talent — Charles Woodson, Nick Collins, Tramon Williams and a young Sam Shields.
Like this season, that Super Bowl team faced injuries in mass quantities, but the injured-reserve list isn’t about numbers but rather names. There were so many playmakers on the 53-man roster that it didn’t matter who was on 15-man IR list.
That defense, also coordinated by Capers, ranked No. 5 overall and came up with key takeaways in every postseason game, including Collins’ interception return for a touchdown early and the Matthews/Pickett forced fumble late in the Super Bowl.
What did Capers have to work with this season?
The veterans among his group were an aged Matthews, who still plays with high energy but hasn’t been as effective; an oft-injured Nick Perry, who was a risk to re-sign last year in free agency; an inconsistent Mike Daniels up front and Morgan Burnett, who for all his versatility in the secondary is a jack of all trades but master of none.
The secondary was supposed to be built around Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who made his first Pro Bowl in 2016. But he inexplicably regressed. Veteran cornerback Davon House provided the steady play the Packers expected when they signed him to a one-year deal in free agency, and he battled gallantly through injuries, but the young defensive backs were either too inconsistent (Damarious Randall and Josh Jones) or too injured (Kevin King and Quinten Rollins).
The best prospect Thompson acquired on defense is Kenny Clark, the 2016 first-round pick who finished the season strong with 4.5 sacks in the final five games.
It’s not like Thompson ignored that side of the ball and tried to load up with weapons for Aaron Rodgers, although perhaps that would have been a better roster-building strategy.
In his 13th draft as GM last year, Thompson used his first four picks on defensive players: King and Jones in the second round, defensive tackle Montravius Adams in the third and linebacker Vince Biegel in the fourth. King didn’t have an interception before he went on injured reserve in need of shoulder surgery, and Jones had just one. Adams and Biegel were non-factors after both suffered offseason foot injuries.
Assuming Clinton-Dix bounces back next season, it’s not a stretch to say he and Clark are the only two defensive picks in the past five drafts that could be considered young defensive playmakers.
As much as coaching has been to blame for the Packers’ defensive struggles, the shortcomings in personnel remain as big an issue — if not bigger — for a defense that’s now in transition.