Are the 2020 Green Bay Packers on a Super Bowl trajectory?
It might seem a little early to start talking like this, and it definitely is, but we can’t help but notice a similarity between this defense and some of the franchise’s best in recent history.
The last two times the Packers won the Super Bowl they had a very specific formula on the defensive side of the ball.
Sure, the Packers have had Hall of Fame caliber quarterback play for the better part of the last three decades, no one is disputing that. However when this team has found a way to win a championship it all started on the other side of the ball.
The secret ingredient, or formula, which has led to titles for the Packers?
Two defenders simultaneously playing at a truly elite level. Specifically one on the edge, rushing the quarterback and another in the defensive backfield. That rare combination of elite skill at both levels simply transforms a defense. Few defenses have that in the NFL at any given time.
More than anything else, the Packers won the Super Bowl in 1996 and in 2010 while being led by a future Hall of Fame quarterback and an elite defensive duo. One defensive superstar is good, but it’s not enough. History says it takes two.
Elite defensive duos:
1996: Defensive end Reggie White and strong safety LeRoy Butler.
2010: Outside Linebacker Clay Matthews and hybrid-cornerback Charles Woodson.
Those four names are royalty in Green Bay, Wisconsin. But the the current Packers have a pretty damn good duo at these positions, too. Perhaps they can be added to this impressive list.
The 2020 Packers feature a couple dynamic leaders in outside linebacker and edge-rusher Za’Darius Smith and cornerback Jaire Alexander. Both are versatile in their play, a hallmark of these elite duos.
Smith is one of the three permanent captains for the Packers. He’s largely credited with changing the Packers’ culture over the last two years. He made this defense fun again and has just turned 28 years old. Alexander is, somehow, only 23 years old despite it being his third NFL season. His swagger and confidence sets the tone for the entire defensive backfield.
In our view, Smith and Alexander are the two clear leaders on this defense in 2020. But we cannot forget about nose tackle Kenny Clark and safety Adrian Amos, either. The same can be said of a few guys on the 1996 defense including nose tackle Gilbert Brown and defensive end Sean Jones. In 2010, safety Nick Collins and nose tackle B.J. Raji fit the bill as other leaders on the defensive side of the ball.
In the mid-1990s quarterback Brett Favre got more of the attention, but they wouldn’t have won as many games without their elite defensive duo. The same can be said of Aaron Rodgers and his Super Bowl run in 2010. The NFL is still a game where offense wins games, but defense wins championships. That cliche is as true now as ever.
It takes a complete defense to compete for a title in the NFL, but when its two best players begin playing at an elite level together — that’s the rare moment when a good defense becomes great.
Both the ’96 and ’10 teams had varying degrees of talent at OL, RB, WR and LB but both had an elite quarterback, an elite player in the defensive backfield and an elite edge rusher. The same can be said of the 2020 Packers.
History repeats itself:
Interestingly, all three of these EDGE-DB duos features one homegrown Packers First or Second Round draft pick and one high-profile free agent signing.
White was the first major free agent signing in NFL history in 1993 and Butler was drafted in the Second Round of the 1990 NFL Draft. Woodson was signed in 2006 and Matthews was drafted in the First Round in the 2009 NFL Draft. Similarly, Smith was signed in 2019 and Alexander was drafted in the First Round in the 2018 NFL Draft. In Green Bay, these things tend to repeat themselves.
Obviously the Packers believe in investing premium draft picks and signing free agents at these premier positions. The culture in Green Bay really does transcend eras.
Butler and Woodson both snagged exactly 38 interceptions in Green Bay. They’re one interception behind Herb Adderley (who we’ll be talking about later). Only Bobby Dillon and Willie Wood have intercepted more passes for the Packers all-time.
Both White and Matthews averaged over 10 sacks per 16 games played while playing for the Packers. Both are probably trailing Willie Davis in that category (another man we’ll be mentioning later). We can’t say it for certain because the stats aren’t official, but they are certainly the only three guys to rush the quarterback that effectively in Packers history.
Can Smith and Alexander reach these guys in statistical dominance in the coming years? General Manager Brian Gutekunst certainly believes so and the same goes for most fans.
The first glimpse we got of this duo in 2020 is certainly encouraging.
Optimism isn’t foolish, it’s the language of fandom:
The Packers went 13-3 in 2019 and are 1-0 in 2020. Second year head coach Matt LaFleur is 7-0 against the NFC North. This team looks to be even better than the team that went to the NFC Conference Championship Game last year. They’re extremely young (which we’ve written about), they’re hungry and they’ve seemed to whole-heartedly buy into the system.
There’s ample reason for optimism.
Smith and Alexander are both off to fantastic starts this season. Alexander had one of the best games for a Packers cornerback in years with an interception, sack, safety and five tackles. With one sack in Week One, Smith is looking to build upon his 13.5 sacks last season. There’s nothing better than watching Smith do a brand new sack celebration on a Sunday afternoon.
We legitimately could see both of them being named First Team All-Pro in 2020. Smith should have gotten that honor last year and Alexander was our preseason pick for that honor this year. However we’ll be happy if just one of the two gets named First Team, like with the two elite duos that came before them.
It’s incredibly rare for a defense to have two First Team All-Pro players in the same season.
If you look back to 1996, White was coming off a First Team All-Pro, 12-sack season and he put together a strong Pro Bowl season with 8.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and an interception. Butler, named First Team All-Pro, had an even better season with five interceptions, 6.5 sacks, one forced-fumble, two fumble recoveries and one touchdown. It was one of his four First Team All-Pro seasons.
In 2010, Matthews was named First Team All-Pro (for the only time in his career) with 13.5 sacks, two forced-fumbles, one interception and one touchdown. No one has more official sacks in Packers history. His partner in the defensive backfield, Woodson, had a strong Pro Bowl season with an incredible five forced-fumbles, two interceptions, two sacks, 13 passes defended and one touchdown. He was named First Team All-Pro in 2009 and 2011. He might be the most versatile player in team history, right there with Paul Hornung and Tony Canadeo.
Both duos featured an AP Defensive Player of the Year winner. White won the award in 1998 and Woodson won it in 2009.
Does the duo of “Z” Smith and “Ja” Alexander have an AP Defensive Player of the Year award winner in them? They certainly have a chance. Do they have enough to lead this defense, and team, to a Super Bowl title? They certainly have a chance.
Are they going to be as dominant as the two duos that came before them? They might actually have a chance to get there. It might seem hyperbolic, but it’s realistic. Yeah, we need to see them play at this level for another four years or so, but a massive 2020 season from both of them would go a long way. If they add another Lombardi Trophy to the Packers’ trophy room? Man, it would be hard to not include them.
With Aaron Rodgers so comfortable in Matt LaFleur’s offense in year two and this young team a year more experienced, this team is going to be so much fun to watch. However it’s the defense, led by cornerstones “Z” and “Ja” that give this team a chance to win a title.
We’ve mentioned before how often history repeats itself in Green Bay and seeing these two harass quarterbacks from the edge and from the defensive backfield is so reminiscent of great duos from the recent past.
This history goes all the way back to the 1960s. Yes, this optimism is rooted in decades-old patterns.
The original duo:
Yes, even the Lombardi Era defense had a similar structure. We’re talking about defensive end Willie Davis and cornerback Herb Adderley as the original blueprint for a championship defense. Of course that defense had other Hall of Famers in safety Willie Wood, defensive tackle Henry Jordan and a couple linebackers, too. Still, if we had to pick just two players from that defense to start a team today, we’re taking Davis and Adderley by a mile.
Davis would be the Packers’ all-time sack leaders if his statistics were kept (we regard him as the all-time leader) and Adderley might be the most athletic player to ever step foot in Green Bay.
Three times Davis and Adderley were both named First Team All-Pro in the same season (1962, 1965-66). Remember when we said this was rare? Yes, they were that good. They combined to help the Packers win five World Championships including the first two Super Bowls. The elite quarterback they played with, of course, was Bart Starr.
To think that 60 years later the Packers would once again have such a duo at these crucial positions, for the third time since that Davis-Adderley, is overwhelming. For them to once again be on a Packers team with an all-time great quarterback? Man, Packers fans are blessed.
Look at this lineage:
It’s simply beautiful. And sure, we are barely into the Smith-Alexander Era, but they are on the right track to joining these legends that came before them. They’ll likely inspire the next great edge-rusher and defensive back duo in Packers history which might not come for another 10 or 20 years. Maybe it’ll come in five years. That’s what makes following this franchise, and its history, incredibly fun and interesting.
Where Smith and Alexander need to make their mark to join these duos is in the postseason.
Davis and Adderley both put together impressive postseason careers, far beyond their championships. Davis 5.5 sacks in his final four playoff games. Adderley intercepted four passes and scored a touchdown in his Packers playoff career. They also lost just one postseason game together.
In Super Bowl XXXI White set a (then) record for sacks in a Super Bowl. He had three in the second half to help seal that victory. Butler added a sack in that game, too.
Matthews amazingly recorded 11 sacks in his 15 career postseason games. In Super Bowl XLV he produced one of the biggest forced-fumbles in Packers history to start the fourth quarter. Woodson defended seven passes in his 10 Packers postseason games as teams tended to shy away from throwing Woodson’s way in the playoffs. In 2010, he had 18 tackles and a sack en route to that title before breaking his collarbone in the first half of the Big Game.
“Z” is off to a fantastic start to his Green Bay postseason career with two sacks and four quarterback hits in his first two playoff starts. At the age of 22 “Ja” made his postseason debut with 12 tackles and a pass defended in his first two playoff games last year.
If these two guys can add onto their postseason success in 2020, they’ll further add to their resume as a duo joining the mythical names that came before them. We think they’ll need a Super Bowl title to be officially included with these greats. We should mention that Za’Darius is one of the two “Smith Bros.” along with Preston Smith. But it’s quite clear that “Z” is the leader and the elite force of the two.
The Packers went 13-3 with Favre and the White-Butler duo. The Packers went 15-1 with Rodgers and the Matthews-Woodson duo. Last year Green Bay put up a 13-3 record with Rodgers and the current Smith-Alexander duo. Looking back to the 1960’s, the Packers went 13-1 with Bart Starr and the Davis-Adderley duo.
Those are the best regular season records for these specific edge-rusher and defensive back duos. We just like adding a little context to how these defensive duos can profoundly impact a team, when paired with an elite quarterback.
Simply put, great things happen in Green Bay when they have this specific combination of elite players.
Alexander is the first player in Green Bay to make certain plays, with a certain confidence since Woodson. Smith is the first pass rusher in Green Bay to intimidate opposing offenses since prime Matthews.
If you want to look to the future, just look to the past. This is especially true in Green Bay.
Every GM has their duo:
History repeats again.
Matthews and Woodson both were stars that really had a knack for taking over games. The bigger the stage, the bigger the results. However both were huge gambles for then General Manager Ted Thompson. Woodson was seen as “selfish” and “overhyped” as a free agent by many when he left Oakland, but that didn’t deter Thompson. He gave Woodson an unexpected seven-year $52 million contract. It worked out better, for both sides, than anyone could have imagined. The former Heisman Trophy winner became the Packers’ vocal leader as they closed in on a championship.
However Matthews was a risk, too, as Thompson traded back into the First Round of the 2009 NFL Draft to get him. Had he not worked out, people would have endlessly ripped Thompson for reaching.
But Thompson had the confidence to take chances on these guys because of what Ron Wolf did before him. The Packers’ consistency in management, specifically General Manager, has been huge for this franchise.
Ron Wolf hung his hat on White and Butler as far as the defense was concerned. He set the example for the modern Packers when it comes to chasing a title. Since, free agency has remained sacred in Green Bay. It’s seldom used, but when it is used, they often strike gold.
In reality, Reggie and Butler were THE defense when they were at their best. Everything was designed around them. Does any other member of that defense come to mind? I mean, other than the cult-hero “Gravedigger” that is.
Opposing Offensive Coordinators always knew where Reggie would be and they still couldn’t handle him. However they never knew where Butler would be and because of that they couldn’t handle him either. Both were trend setters. Reggie made free agency a big deal and Butler, often playing near the line of scrimmage, changed the safety position.
Current General Manager Brian Gutekunst has followed his predecessors, just as he did with the quarterback position, when it comes to establishing an elite defensive duo. Did “Gute” get lucky? Perhaps, but maybe he was rewarded for following the plan.
His guys, Smith and Alexander, compliment each other greatly. Both stepped into this locker room as new leaders without skipping a beat. At 28 and 23 they’re not the oldest guys on the teams, but they are two of the players everyone else on the defense looks to in big moments.
That was certainly true of White, Butler, Woodson and Matthews, too.
Alexander has a little bit of that ‘can make a play anywhere on the field’ style of play that Woodson made famous. Smith has been spotted wearing a No. 92 jersey getting off the bus before games. Like the guys that came before them, they exude confidence. The similarities are incredible and to think that these guys understand their place in history in real time? It’s awesome to see.
The Packers’ proven secret ingredient for a Championship run is undoubtably in place.
Your 2020 Packers are 1-0 and are led by the two right defenders at the right time. Lets see how much damage they can cause this year. We’ll see if they can take this team as far as the other elite EDGE-DB duos have taken Green Bay.
We sure as hell hope they do. Maybe it won’t be a secret anymore.