The Green Bay Packers have reached the halfway mark of the 2019 season and Matt LaFleur’s team is a surprising 7-1 at the midterm. Today we will analyze the performance of each unit of the defense and special teams so far this year.
The defense is much faster and more talented than it was a season ago. The team is also better able to play Mike Pettine’s system which utilizes formations that make it difficult for opposing teams to determine which players are blitzing and which players are dropping back in coverage.
The Packers presently rank 22nd in the league in total yards allowed per game. They are 24th against the run and 19th against the pass.
While the Packers are giving up a lot of yards, they are practicing the bend but don’t break philosophy of defense. As a result of good play in the red zone and a steady number of takeaways, the Packers are tied for 11th in the league allowing 20.4 points per game.
The defense is also opportunistic and forces a lot of turnovers. The Packers are tied for second in the NFL with a plus-seven turnover differential and are sixth overall in forcing turnovers. This has helped the team win football games despite giving up a lot of yardage.
The defense is clearly better than they were a year ago, but they can still improve as the year progresses.
Grades are a combination of expectations and performance. The grade is for the unit with each player’s performance discussed within the unit’s analysis.
The Packers have struggled to stop the run this season and are allowing 123.8 yards per game although Pettine prefers to sacrifice run defense to concentrate more on slowing down the passing attack.
Kenny Clark remains the team’s best lineman, but he has not been a dominant this season as he was the previous two campaigns. Clark leads all defensive linemen with 26 total tackles. The last two seasons, Clark went over 70 total tackles, so he is far off last year’s pace. He also has 1.5 sacks on the season, but he isn’t getting as much penetration into opposing backfields as he has in the past. The Packers will look for a stronger second half from the former UCLA star.
Dean Lowry is a solid run defender who works hard and is a good team player. He has 25 total tackles and one pass deflection this season. Lowry isn’t going to get a lot of pressure on the quarterback, but he is positionally sound and consistent.
Tyler Lancaster is seeing more playing time as of late. He came up with a key forced fumble and fumble recovery against the Chiefs. He has 15 total tackles but has yet to register a sack. Lancaster’s strength is playing the run.
Montravius Adams has missed two games due to injury. He has four total tackles in six contests in limited action and has deflected two passes. The Packers clearly expected more from the former third-round pick who had a strong training camp before injuries slowed him down this season.
The biggest change has been at the OLB or edge position where free agent pickups Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith have helped change the team’s performance on the field and the culture in the locker room.
Za’Darius Smith leads the team with eight sacks in eight games and has been in on 25 total tackles. His versatility allows him to lineup on the edge or inside or to drop back in coverage on occasion which helps Pettine disguise his coverages.
Preston Smith has seven sacks and 28 total tackles. He has also intercepted one pass and broken up three pass attempts.
The Smiths have been a huge pickup for the Packers and their enthusiasm has helped the defense and the entire team have fun again. They have provided steady pressure on opposing signal callers even when they don’t record sacks.
Blake Martinez again leads the team in tackles by a wide margin with 83 and has one sack. The ILB is in his contract year so he has a lot to play for. Martinez is a leader on the defense and calls the plays for the unit. Too many of his tackles still come too far down the field and he struggles to cover running backs and tight ends in pass coverage. Martinez is a good but not great ILB who is a big part of the team’s defense and GM Brian Gutekunst will have a tough decision to make this offseason about Martinez’s future.
B.J. Goodson filled in at the other ILB position after Oren Burks was injured in preseason. Goodson is a better run stopper than pass defender and has been in on 21 tackles thus far this season. His performance has been inconsistent. The highlight of his season so far was a big tackle on the goal line against Oakland to prevent a touchdown and stop the Raiders on a fourth-and-goal play.
First round draft pick Rashan Gary has showed flashes of the talent that helped make him the 12th pick in this year’s draft but is also still adjusting to the NFL game. Gary has 10 total tackles and one sack. At times, he comes close to the quarterback, but he also seems invisible during long stretches of games. The Packers hope Gary shows improvement in the second half of the season as he gets more comfortable at the pro level.
Kyler Fackrell has seen his role diminish with the acquisition of the Smiths. He has nine tackles and a half sack on the season. Fackrell’s strength is rushing the passer but he isn’t getting as many opportunities as he’d like this season but remains a steady team player.
Oren Burks has been a disappointment. The former third-round pick out of Vanderbilt was injured in the preseason for the second year in a row and has had trouble earning playing time on defense since his return to active duty. Burks has five total tackles in four games but needs to step up and take over the hybrid ILB/S role.
Jaire Alexander is quickly developing into a very good cover corner. He leads the team with 11 passes defensed and has 27 tackles and one interception thus far on the season. Alexander is confident and doesn’t let the occasional big play hurt his confidence. His attitude helps set the tone for the defense. If Alexander needs to improve in one area, it’s holding on to potential interceptions. The Packers are excited about his potential and there is still room for him to get better.
Having Kevin King in the lineup for all eight games has been a big advantage for the secondary. Last year, he played in only six games and the Packers missed him. King’s size and length make him a solid cover corner. He has 36 total tackles, one sack and leads the team with three interceptions. His pick against the Vikings helped seal a key division win for the Packers in Week 2.
Adrian Amos has been a great addition to the secondary. The former Bears star is smart, positionally sound and a good leader in the locker room. He leads all DBs with 40 total tackles and his interception in the end zone in the season opener in Chicago helped clinch a win against his former team.
Rookie Darnell Savage missed two games due to injury, but he’s shown a lot of promise. Savage is a hitter and loves to play this game. He has 25 tackles in six games to go with three passes defended and his first NFL interception. When he was out of the lineup, the drop off in play was noticeable.
Will Redmond has gotten a lot of reps at the hybrid ILB/S position after Raven Greene went down with an injury in Week 2. Greene was off to a great start to the season before he was injured. Redmond has played well overall while making 26 total tackles and breaking up one pass, but he has been burned in coverage on several plays.
Tramon Williams has played a lot in the slot and remains a steady veteran presence both on the field and in the locker room. There is nothing Williams hasn’t seen on the football field and he has been a great role model for the younger members of the secondary. Williams has 16 tackles this season while breaking up three passes.
Chandon Sullivan has seen increased playing time in nickel and dime defenses. He has come up with some very big plays highlighted by an acrobatic interception against Dallas. Sullivan is a valuable player because of his versatility. He has made eight tackles and broken up one pass thus far this year.
Tony Brown and Josh Jackson have played mostly on special teams. Brown is good on kick and punt coverage but needs to watch his temper at times. Jackson is a former second-round pick who has fallen down the team’s depth chart and isn’t seeing the field much on defense.
Mason Crosby remains consistent. The Packers all-time leading scorer has made 11-of-12 field goals including a clutch game winner against Detroit on the game’s final play. He also has been perfect on 26 extra point tries. Crosby’s kickoffs have been good for the most part, but this is the least consistent part of his game.
Punter JK Scott has been a key part of the team’s success. When the offense was struggling early in the season, Scott helped pin opponents deep in their own territory. He is averaging 48.1 yards per kick and 15 of his 38 punts have been placed inside the opponent’s 20. Scott has only two touchbacks on the season. The challenge for the former Alabama star will be kicking in the cold weather in November and December.
The return game remains a problem for the Packers. The Packers traded Trevor Davis to Oakland and cut Tremon Smith. Darrius Shepherd seemed to lose his confidence after fumbling a punt return and has been tentative since. Chandon Sullivan returned kicks last Sunday but the results were not spectacular with a 16-yard average. This area needs to be improved in the second half of the season. Don’t be surprised if the Packers re-activate Smith from the practice squad or add a new return man shortly.
Kick and punt coverage remain areas of concern. The team hasn’t allowed as many big returns as last season and aren’t taking as many foolish penalties, but Green Bay’s coverage teams remain in the bottom half of the league this season.
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