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Aaron Rodgers Is Not the Problem

The Green Bay defense is a complete disaster

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Three weeks ago, the Colts marched into Lambeau Field and dropped 31 points on the Packers in what then seemed like a shocking upset. Well, it’s not so shocking anymore. The 31–26 Indianapolis win was supposed to tell the story of an improved Colts offense, but in reality, it was just the first example of how bad the Green Bay defense had suddenly become.

Through four weeks, Green Bay had the league’s best run defense. Through nine weeks, it still had the seventh-ranked defensive group, per Football Outsiders DVOA. But the Packers notched their fourth straight loss on Sunday, and after falling to Washington 42–24 on Sunday Night Football, they’ve surrendered 30-plus points in four straight games for the first time since 1953. We can no longer blame Aaron Rodgers for Green Bay’s struggles; during the four-game skid, the two-time MVP has thrown 12 touchdown passes and just three picks and averaged over 300 yards a game. No, the Packers defense is completely broken.

The number of yards (an average of 480.5) and points (an average of 44.5) the Packers have surrendered to the Titans and Redskins over the past two weeks is nothing short of astounding. We can’t just write this off as a blip for an otherwise good team: Denver hasn’t surrendered more than 40 points in a game in two calendar years. Neither have the Patriots, nor the Ravens. The Steelers haven’t given up 40 points in a game since 2013. The last time the Seahawks gave up 40 or more points was the 2010 season.

Surrendering 40-plus points two games in a row is even more of an accomplishment, and this is the first time since 1952 that the Packers have achieved that ignonimous feat. The injury situation in Green Bay has been a big part of the collapse — Clay Matthews just returned to the lineup this week after missing three games, and the Packers have been playing without starting cornerbacks Sam Shields (concussion) and Damarious Randall (groin) for most of the season. Making matters worse, they lost another cornerback on Sunday when Demetri Goodson went out with a terrible knee injury. But the battle of attrition is something every team has to weather throughout a season, and the Packers haven’t adapted. The results have been … how do I put this? They’ve looked like the worst defense in the NFL.

This nosedive stems from a variety of issues. A lack of depth in the linebacker corps and in the secondary is a major issue — picking in the back end of the draft every year has started to take its toll, as has Green Bay’s reluctance to sign outside players in free agency. The decision to let Casey Hayward sign with the Chargers over the summer seems like a mistake, too. In addition, they’ve struggled to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks and have shown a remarkable lack of discipline — players are often out of position, easily fooled, or both — which has just been compounded by the inexperienced young players they’ve depended on in the secondary.

Even Green Bay’s normally stout run defense, which surrendered more than 90 yards just once in its first eight games (against the Cowboys, who are destroying everyone), has surrendered 305 yards in its past two outings, including a 75-yard run by DeMarco Murray on the Titans’ first play from scrimmage in Week 10. On the play, both cornerback LaDarius Gunter and safety Morgan Burnett bite hard on the end-around motion by receiver Tajae Sharpe, and that takes two defenders out of the action. Wth no run support from the strong safety, a couple of blocks at the point of attack is all that Tennessee needs to spring Murray into a giant field of green.

Later in the first quarter of that game, the Titans fooled Burnett again. When Marcus Mariota tossed the ball to Murray on a sweep, Burnett came forward to help in run support, but was too late reacting to Delanie Walker’s route, and Walker ran right past him. Murray pulled up and tossed it to his tight end in the corner of the end zone.

Still in the first quarter, Tennessee again tricked the Packers defense, this time with a simple play-action fake. When Mariota took the snap, pivoted, and faked the handoff to Murray, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix bit on it, coming to his left, toward the line of scrimmage. With those three or four steps forward, he let Anthony Fasano get by him on his right. Fasano waltzed into the end zone uncovered and Mariota hit him with the pass.

In addition to the simple misdirections and the trick play, Tennessee added a fourth touchdown midway through the second quarter with a deep bomb to Rishard Matthews. Then in the third, the Titans got their sixth touchdown thanks to some garden-variety busted coverage by Green Bay’s secondary. For some reason, whether it was Burnett on the left side or Clinton-Dix on the right running the wrong coverage, no one picked up Sharpe running down the sideline.

A week later, the Packers’ loss in Washington highlighted the most troubling trend: Green Bay’s alarming lack of a pass rush. The Packers notched two sacks Sunday but those were their only two quarterback hits all game. Nick Perry was the only productive pass rusher, picking up a sack and two hurries, but otherwise the rest of the front seven was quiet. Matthews, perhaps still not fully healthy, had zero sacks, zero quarterback hits, and just one hurry all game.

What happens when you give professional quarterbacks a clean pocket and time to throw, especially against a young secondary? Bad things.

Late in the first quarter, on a third-and-2 from the 17-yard line, Kirk Cousins had time to sit in the pocket against a four-man rush, work to his second option on the left, and deliver a dart to DeSean Jackson, who had beaten Micah Hyde, for the score.

Trailing 16–10 late in the third quarter, with Washington facing a third-and-11 near midfield, Green Bay badly needed to force a punt and get off the field. (Teams are converting third-and-11 into a first down just 26 percent of the time this year.) Instead, the Packers gave up a touchdown. Facing a four-man rush that generated little push and zero pressure, Cousins calmly dropped back, hitched up, and delivered a pass to Jamison Crowder, who simply beat Quinten Rollins downfield.

The final nail in the Packers’ coffin came early in the fourth quarter, and this time Gunter was the victim. Again, Cousins sat calmly in the pocket and delivered a football deep to Pierre Garcon. God knows where Gunter’s help over the top was.

The touchdown throw to Garcon was the 11th time the Packers have allowed a score on a pass 15 or more yards downfield — tied with the Browns for worst in the league. They’re one away from doubling their number from last year with six games to go.

"Pass defense is all about getting the quarterback off his spot and having the pass rush to do that," Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said after the game. "And be able to cover."

His team has been doing neither. Getting beat by misdirection happens to the best defenders once in a while. Sometimes players guess on the wrong route. Sometimes somebody misses the play call or simply busts a coverage assignment. Sometimes a cornerback gets beat deep. But when they’re all happening within the course of a single game or on the same damn play, the results are disastrous. We’ve seen that the past two games for Green Bay, and there’s no easy fix. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers can’t just tell his guys to not get burned deep or to sack the quarterback more often, and seamless communication between members of the secondary, which would cut down on blown coverages, really comes only with experience.

Time is running out for the Packers to right the ship. They’re 4–6, two games out of the division lead and two-and-a-half games behind the Redskins for the final wild-card spot (plus Washington has a tiebreaker now), and FiveThirtyEight’s ELO ratings give them a 6 percent chance at the postseason. Green Bay will have a chance to figure things out the next two weeks as it faces off against a couple of struggling offenses in the Texans (ranked 31st per DVOA) and Eagles (20th). But even if the Packers can somehow get the offense and defense both functioning at the same time, it might already be too late.