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A case for the defense

By JASON WILDE

GREEN BAY – It pains Dom Capers to admit it, because since he took the job as the Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator in January 2009, he’d always believed in his guys. He always felt that when it came right down to it, in a game when it was on him and his defense to win the game, they could do it.

But they couldn’t. Not last year.

“You know, last year, there weren’t many games where you’d say that,” Capers admitted in advance of Sunday night’s game between the Packers (7-3) and New York Giants (6-4) at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. “Of course, our offense was playing so well, it was such a different scenario.

“You know, our Super Bowl year, there were a lot. The first year, there were a lot. And now, I think we’ve got it turned back around to where …”

Capers voice trailed off. But there were plenty of people who could finish the sentence for him: The Packers defense is at a point where it can come through when the Aaron Rodgers-led juggernaut offense isn’t its previously unstoppable self.

“For our defense to play that way, it gives our offense a ton of confidence, knowing that we don’t have to press thinking that we got to score just about every possession in order to win the game,” Rodgers said earlier this week on his weekly radio show on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com. “They keep playing like this, we’re going to be tough to beat.”

There was a time earlier this year – heck, general manager Ted Thompson might still be saying it if he were to be asked – where there was a measure of denial about last year’s defense, which ranked dead last in the 32-team NFL in yards allowed, gave up more passing yards than any defense in NFL history and finished a less-than-acceptable 19th in scoring defense: That the unit’s struggles were rooted in the offense’s success, that shootouts and the defense’s inability to stop the pass were the result of teams having to play catch-up and feeling like they had nothing to lose in games against Rodgers & Co.

Poppycock.

It was nice of so many folks not to throw the defense under the proverbial bus – before coach Mike McCarthy started getting agitated at the mere mention of the phrase “last year” – and Thompson even went so far as to defend the defense while trying to make it sound like the team’s decision to use its first six draft picks on defensive players was simply a function of how the draft board fell.

But now, as the defense is currently 16th in yards allowed per game (343.9), 21st in passing yards allowed per game (244.4), 11th in rushing yards allowed per game (99.5), 10th in scoring defense (20.7 points per game) and second in sacks (33), even McCarthy acknowledges that things are different on that side of the ball. They’d better be, because the coach didn’t want a team predicated solely on a dominant offense.

“My whole goal this year was to be a better, more-rounded football team. I feel like we are headed in that direction, clearly,” McCarthy said. “Our special teams has graded out consistently as the best unit. The defense graded out this week (against Detroit) as the best unit. Offensively, we have to pick it up. We didn’t grade very well.

“But that’s how you win the hard games, that’s why you win the tough games, that’s what good teams do.”

And that’s why the Packers appear to be a legitimately good team this year, as opposed to last year, when it was easy to see despite the gaudy 15-1 regular-season record that they were a flawed, imbalanced football team.

“Last year, if the offense struggled, the team struggled,” sage veteran defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said. “Now this year, I think it's more of a team effort. I think we pick each other. We might not be playing our best on defense and the offense will pick us up, and vice versa.

“I think we're a more balanced team this year, much more balanced, and I think that's helping us a lot."

Never were the Packers’ issues more evident than in the two games they played against the Giants.

In the Dec. 4 regular-season meeting at MetLife Stadium, the Packers won a 38-35 shootout on Mason Crosby’s game-winning 31-yard field goal as time expired.

In the game, the Packers offense racked up 449 yards, the Giants had 447. The Packers offense scored touchdowns on four of its five trips into the red zone; the Giants scored on three of their four. The Packers’ 12 possessions ended in four touchdowns, five punts, one interception, one missed field goal and Crosby’s game-winner. The Giants’ 12 possessions ended in four touchdowns, four punts, two field goals, one interception and one fumble.

Then, in the Jan. 15 rematch in the NFC Divisional Playoffs at Lambeau Field, when the offense wasn’t up to the task of going touchdown-for-touchdown with the Giants, the Packers’ goose was cooked.

In a 37-20 loss that wasn’t that close, the Packers defense allowed quarterback Eli Manning to complete 21 of 33 passes for 330 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions (114.5 passer rating) while Rodgers was very un-Rodgers-like (26 of 46, 264 yards, two TDs, one INT, one lost fumble, 78.5 rating). The Giants racked up 420 total yards, the Packers managed only one sack and one takeaway, and the Giants converted half of their third-down situations (8 of 16). With the Packers offense turning the ball over four times, the defense couldn’t save the day with takeaways of its own.

This year’s defense is different, and that’s obvious to Giants coach Tom Coughlin, who had Capers as his defensive coordinator in Jacksonville for two seasons.

“The Packers’ defensive team last year, had a tremendous amount of takeaways,” Coughlin said Wednesday, referring to the Packers’ 31 interceptions as compared to the 12 the unit has this season.

“This year’s team has not as many takeaways, but they appear to be playing a much tighter, much better defense. The personnel combinations are really obvious, lots of young players contributing. So that’s what I see. There’s different names, but knowing Dom as I do and the way he prepares his team, why the structure appears the same and they’re playing with outstanding quality.”

Of course, truth be told, that’s been the standard for Capers’ defenses in Green Bay – just not last year.

“Obviously coming off a Super Bowl season, you get more scrutiny, but last year if anything was the anomaly, in my opinion,” said Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji, the team’s first pick in the 2009 draft. “Every year we’ve been here, it’s been a good season except (last year).”

Indeed, in 2009, the defense was No. 2 in scoring defense (18.6), No. 5 in yards allowed (284.4), No. 5 in pass defense (201.1) No. 1 in run defense (83.3) and tied for No. 11 in sacks (37)

In 2010, en route to the Super Bowl XLV title, the defense was No. 2 in scoring defense (15.0), No. 5 in total yardage (309.1), No. 5 in pass defense (194.2), No. 18 in run defense (114.9) and tied for No. 2 in sacks (47).

Last Sunday against the Lions, the offense managed only two touchdowns – Rodgers’ 20-yard first-quarter TD to Jermichael Finley and his go-ahead 22-yard TD to Randall Cobb in the fourth quarter – but the Packers won because of safety M.D. Jennings’ 72-yard interception return for a touchdown and the way the defense, trailing 17-14, held the Lions to a field goal late in the fourth quarter when a touchdown likely would have put the game out of reach. Instead, by forcing a Lions field goal and a 20-14 lead after facing first-and-10 from the Green Bay 10-yard line.

“Detroit had a chance to put that thing away with a touchdown late and make it a two-score game,” Rodgers said. “We actually brought it over on the sidelines (as an) offense and said, ‘If our defense stops them, we’ve got to go make this stand. We got to score points here and take the lead because they’ve played so well and they’ve had a couple of stops in the red zone to hold them to field goals. They forced four turnovers.’

“They gave us the opportunities, and we didn’t make the most of them on offense until the fourth quarter.”

And yet, they won.

“What you want is a confidence level with your team that there’s going to be days that one side of the ball’s not clicking. And you’re good enough that the other side picks up the slack,” said Capers, a former head coach with Carolina and Houston. “To me, that’s an indication of a good football team.

“That way, you don’t always have to depend on having to outscore people. And obviously being a defensive guy, I’ve always felt that if you have a good defense, it gives you a chance.”

Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.