GREEN BAY – Nick Collins laughed at the image, but with his season over, the comparison was apt.
With his Green Bay Packers defensive teammates struggling through communication breakdowns, the injured Pro Bowl safety plans on taking on the role of Paul Marcarelli.
Who? you may ask. Marcarelli is the actor who played the role of the Verizon maintenance guy charged with the responsibility of constantly checking the network. Yes, the Can you hear me now? guy.
“That’s pretty much me,” Collins said with a laugh Tuesday. “That’s all I can do.”
While there are theories galore about what ails the 8-0 Packers’ defense – coordinator Dom Capers’ unit ranks a troubling 30th in the 32-team NFL in yards allowed per game (399.6) but a middling 17th in the league in points allowed (22.4) and an impressive first in the NFL in interceptions (16) – the coaches cited communication issues as the biggest culprit in Sunday’s 45-38 victory at San Diego. And if there’s anything Collins, who suffered a season-ending neck injury Sept. 18 at Carolina and faces an uncertain future in the game, can do to help this team this year, it’s working to resolve those communication issues.
“I’m going to try to. This week, we have a Monday night game, I think I’m going to attend a couple more meetings and see if I can help,” Collins said. “Safeties, corners, I’m going to go to the team meeting, just see what these guys are really looking at and try to get a better picture. Last week, I was trying to coach the game as if I was out there playing it.
“It’s tough. It is. You’re like, ‘If I was out there, I could alert this or do that.’ But I think I do a nice job once they get to the sideline letting them know what’s going on, and at the same time, I don’t want to be jumping in the coaches’ way while they’re trying to teach. With my experience, though, I feel like guys will listen to what I have to say and want to know how I recognize things. I just try to approach it to those guys.”
When coach Mike McCarthy addressed the players Tuesday after giving them Monday off, one of the plays he cited was the Chargers’ first play from scrimmage, a 23-yard Philip Rivers-to-Vincent Jackson pass against No. 3 cornerback Sam Shields. On the play, an adjustment was made to what the Packers call a “tube” call, but not everyone got it, resulting in one of the seven plays the Chargers had of 20 yards or longer.
“If it’s a ‘tube’ call and everyone knows when ‘tube’ is called what you play, but if the message isn’t relayed, then obviously the guy doesn’t know that he has the call,” defensive lineman B.J. Raji said. “That’s kind of more of a concentration (issue) or having an open ear.”
According to Raji, the Packers had a season-high 14 missed assignments against the Chargers, an indicator of just how many mental errors the unit made.
“I think we’re a very complex defense, and we do a lot of things. Our philosophy here is, this day and time with defense, you have to be more complex. You see those defenses that are running one, two, three calls the whole game aren’t really having much success,” Raji said. “Dom, he’s always fearful of putting too much pressure on us. We had a season-high 14 MAs this game, and as a coach he starts to second-guess whether he’s putting too much on us. I don’t think it is, but it’s our job to communicate because we’re the ones out on the field.”
The communication issues are at every level of the defense – “It’s a defense as a whole, from the D-line to the linebackers to the secondary,” safety Morgan Burnett said, “so everyone has to talk out there” – but they’re not the only problem at the moment. Both Raji and Collins said things Tuesday that seemed to echo what veteran cornerback Charles Woodson said after the game, that Capers should consider being more aggressive. Woodson also questioned the use of outside linebacker Clay Matthews, the team’s best pass rusher who has only three sacks this year after registering 23.5 over his first two NFL seasons.
“We can turn this around if everyone just does their job,” Collins said. “Charles is a veteran guy who’s played the game for a long time and sees the game from so many different ways. He’s wondering why we’re not doing some of the things that we put in that can help us. And Dom’s a great D-coordinator. We have to play what’s called, no matter how we feel. We have to go out and attack it. If he calls it, play it, and play it to the best our ability. I do feel we can help ourselves out a little more, doing some different things. But I’m on the outside looking in.”
The defensive linemen, for instance, can play a “shade” technique, which has them shaded to one side or the other of an offensive lineman and is for stopping the run, or a “jet” technique, which allows them to rush upfield aggressively without being concerned about controlling a gap. According to Raji, who has only two sacks this season after registering 6.5 last year, he’s not getting nearly as many “jet” opportunities as last season.
“No one is. Clay’s not either. Our best pass-rusher isn’t really getting the best opportunities, either. But he’s just playing and trying to do what he can for the defense, and that’s what I’m trying to do,” Raji said. “If I’m playing shade 95 percent of the time and I do get one or two jets, I have to win those.”
For Capers, who blitzed 54.2 percent of the time Sunday according to ESPN Stats & Information, the problems aren’t enough to make him want to alter his scheme. At the same time, he acknowledged the communication problems can’t continue.
“We knew going in that they were going to be a challenge. They give you a lot of different personnel variations – a lot of different formations, shifting, motion, that type of thing which requires a lot of communication. I think we can do a better job in that area,” Capers said. “And obviously the big plays in the passing game, we’ve got to work to eliminate those.
“When you’ve got receivers with (tight end Antonio) Gates and Jackson, you’re trying to match people up. Then you’ve got multiple formations and variations, and that puts more variables in your communication. Many times off of receiver splits, we’ve got communication calls we have to make. Those have to be relayed from one, two, three people might be involved in the call.
“We’ve got to go to work. We’ve got plenty of things to work on.”
If they do, Raji said he believes the defense will return to form in time for a strong finish and successful playoff run.
“I just think if our standard wasn’t at this level … let’s face it, some teams, they don’t have the capability of playing better than they’re playing,” Raji said. “I think the frustration sets in because generally, this is the same team we had last year, same scheme as last year – so it’s not like there’s a bunch of new guys, a bunch of new terminology.
“When you do it for a consistent basis and then for this stretch you don’t see it, it’s hard not to get frustrated as players. But it falls back to Football 101. My job is to stop the run, and at times when I’m called upon, get pressure on the quarterback. And guys who are supposed to cover, cover.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.