-Article Written for PackersHistory.com By Site Contributor Alexander Marino–
It’s been well documented that the last time the Packers defense ranked top ten in the NFL, they won Super Bowl XLV.
Aaron Rodgers had his best defense of his career behind him, as they finished 5th in yards allowed and 2nd in points allowed. Coupled with an offensive arsenal full of dynamic play-makers and excellent up-front protection, the Packers were the dangerous wild card team that no one wanted to see in the playoffs that season.
There’s one similarity that the 2010 defense had with nearly all of the last decade: injuries, and there were many of them. The front seven was decimated with injuries, seeing nine significant front men miss a large portion of time over the course of the regular season. One of those was a crucial leader and contributor in middle linebacker Nick Barnett.
His loss in the early stages of the season forced others to step up in leadership roles. Brady Poppinga, Mike Neal, Derrick Martin, Spencer Havner, Brandon Chiller, Johnny Jolly, Ryan Pickett, Cullen Jenkins, and Brad Jones all went down at different points throughout the campaign for multiple games.
In the secondary, the Packers had injuries, but weren’t hit as hard as the big men. Atari Bigby, Morgan Burnett, Al Harris, Derrick Martin, and Anthony Smith missed time during the regular season. How could a defense hit so hard with injuries not only stay afloat, but thrive throughout the season? Much of it had to do with the wizardry of Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers’ blitz packages and the players who stepped up when it mattered most.
The Pack were led by a Pro Bowl duo in the secondary of Nick Collins and Charles Woodson, and a Pro Bowl second year linebacker by the name of Clay Matthews, who broke out in a big way in 2010 with 13.5 sacks. Tramon Williams, who also made the Pro Bowl, had a breakout season as well with 6 interceptions. These stars flourished in Coach Capers’ defense on their way to a Super Bowl victory.
How can the Packers’ 2019 defense replicate that success? It starts at the top, and Head Coach Matt LaFleur is doing everything he can to prevent injuries this offseason by practicing smarter, not harder, and with efficiency. So far, early returns suggest that it’s working. No starters have suffered major injuries in training camp, seemingly a regularity throughout the past decade.
This defense can be at the level of the 2010 defense simply by staying healthy. Luckily, GM Brian Gutekunst and company prepared the roster for the worst and set it up for major success this offseason.
Gutekunst addressed the defense in a major way this summer by getting younger, signing huge contracts to free agents, and drafting well. Bringing in pass rushers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith and Safety Adrian Amos brought both youth and veteran experience to add to the defense. These three players also helped in making the Packers defense bigger, stronger, and longer, playing perfectly to the type of player that fits the Mike Pettine mold.
In the draft, the Packers brought in their number one target in Rashan Gary, the athletic freak of a pass rusher with all the tools but without the college production. Later in the first round, the Packers traded up for their next man they had to have in safety Darnell Savage, a rangy open field playmaker with lightning speed and excellent tackling.
These additions solidified Gutekunst’s desire to acquire athletic and physical players to seamlessly fit Mike Pettine’s blitz-heavy scheme, similar to the style of defense that Dom Capers coached, which was hard-hitting and aggressive. Pettine is looking to utilize exciting personnel packages with multiple linebackers on the field with the group of versatile players in the Packers front seven.
It’s clear that the front office prioritized versatility in all off their offseason acquisitions. Doing this allows for plug-and-play, serviceable replacements if injuries become somewhat of an issue. Otherwise, the litany of versatile chess pieces within the Packers defense opens doors for multiple variations of personnel packages with pieces moving around constantly throughout the course of a game. This alone will be one of the overwhelming intricacies within Coach Pettine’s scheme.
What separates 2010 and 2019 from the rest of the last decade of Packers defenses is the depth and versatility both have. The 2010 Packers relied on both of those throughout their injury-riddled playoff run, and the same will be said for the 2019 Packers this season.
The Packers have an AJ Hawk style player in Blake Martinez patrolling the middle. They have young upstarts in corners Jaire Alexander, Kevin King, and Josh Jackson, with veteran Tramon Williams still playing well and showing his ability to play everywhere in the secondary. Kenny Clark leads the way for the front three with Dean Lowry and Montravius Adams rounding out the run stoppers. The pass rush is as exciting as it’s been in years with the Smiths and Rashan Gary. The backend is secure with safeties Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage.
There’s a lot to be excited about on the defensive side of the ball for the Green Bay Packers. Regardless of where it ranks at the end of the season, the Packers defense could be special. If Aaron Rodgers has a special unit behind him once again, the rest of the NFL is going to be in for a rude awakening come September 5th.