When the Green Bay Packers fired defensive coordinator Bob Sanders in January, coach Mike McCarthy interviewed Gregg Williams, then the former Jacksonville Jaguars defensive coordinator, and Mike Nolan, then the former San Francisco 49ers coach.
Williams’ story is well documented. He had interviewed with New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton prior to visiting Green Bay. Payton felt the Packers would offer Williams more money and subsequently gave up $250,000 of his own salary so Saints general manager Mickey Loomis could increase his offer to Williams.
Williams addition to the Saints has transformed an offensive juggernaut with a suspect defense into a truly balanced team, and that has led to an 8-0 record.
Nolan, meanwhile, left Green Bay and signed on as defensive coordinator of the Denver Broncos. The Broncos have the third-ranked defense in the league, after fielding the 29th-ranked unit last season. The defense has been the driving force behind Denver’s 6-2 start.
The Packers, of course, hired Dom Capers after offering the job to then St. Louis Rams interim coach Jim Haslett. Haslett was given a timetable to make a decision, but was still in the running for the Rams head coaching position and chose to pursue that.
On paper, Capers’ defense looks pretty solid – fourth-ranked unit in the league, giving up a meager 283 yards per game to opponents. That’s a big improvement over last season’s 20th ranked unit that gave up 334 yards per game.
The Saints defense isn’t nearly as impressive looking on paper. They rank 17th in the league, giving up 331 yards per game. Of course, the Saints defense doesn’t need to be a top-ranked unit because their offense is.
While they may be fairly average-looking overall, where the Saints defense is great is in disrupting opposing offenses.
The Saints lead the league in interceptions and passes defended with 16 and 67, respectively, but what’s more impressive is they also lead the league in defensive touchdowns, with seven. Pittsburgh, Buffalo, San Francisco and Tampa Bay are the only other teams with more than one defensive touchdown – Pittsburgh has three and the others have two.
The Packers are no slouch when it comes to interceptions, ranking fourth with 12, but in the other categories, they don’t come close to New Orleans. The Packers have 46 passes defended and one defensive touchdown.
The secret to the Broncos success is also apparent – they get to the quarterback.
The Broncos are third in the league in sacks with 26, and they haven’t even played the Packers. They’re also fifth with 11 forced fumbles.
If you’ve watched the Green Bay Packers play, you know they don’t sniff the opposing team’s quarterback most of the time. The team ranks 29th in the league with 13 sacks.
None of this is to say the Packers have a bad defense. The defense certainly has talent and has often been put in a bad position by special teams failures.
However, no one will tell you the transition to the 3-4 has gone smoothly. Defensive end Cullen Jenkins openly complained about players being handcuffed after the Packers second loss to the Vikings. Cornerback Charles Woodson complained about the defensive game plan after the first Vikings loss. Defensive end turned outside linebacker Aaron Kampman had little to say about the defense during training camp, and for good reason – Kampman’s sack numbers are down, and he looks like a fish out of water when he drops into coverage.
These are signs that the very defenders being asked to play the defense don’t believe in it, or in the guy leading the unit. Clearly, a number of players feel they’re not being put in a position to make plays.
It’s hard to argue with the fourth overall ranking. The Packers defense is clearly better than last year and the team’s failures can hardly be pinned on Capers’ unit.
Still, this is hardly the disruptive unit that was envisioned before the season began, and you have to wonder if the defense and the team wouldn’t be better off with Williams, Nolan or even Haslett at the helm.