Mike McCarthy will argue with you until the cows come home if you try to tell him that his Green Bay Packers defense was bad last season.
But the Packers coach was more than willing to cop to the obvious on Wednesday morning: The defense was bad at the worst possible times: In showdowns with superstar running back Adrian Peterson and their NFC North rival Minnesota Vikings, and in the team’s season-ending 45-31 NFC Divisional Playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
Before you accuse McCarthy of having a Duh! moment at Wednesday morning’s NFC coaches breakfast during the final day of the annual NFL Meetings, understand this: McCarthy isn’t simply dismissing his defense’s struggles against the Vikings and 49ers as bad days. They are instead going to be offseason points of emphasis that players will hear about again and again.
“Adrian Peterson and the San Francisco game were our two black eyes,” McCarthy said. “And that’s where we’ve got to be better. Those are big games. We’ve got to play better defense in big games.”
In 2012, the Packers finished 11th in scoring defense (21.0 points per game), 11th in total defense (336.8 yards per game), fourth in sacks (47) and tied for 19th in takeaways (23). During defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ first three seasons in Green Bay, the Packers finished seventh in scoring defense in 2009 (18.6 points per game), second in 2010 (15.0) and 19th in 2011 (22.4); finished second in yardage allowed in 2009 (284.4 yards per game), fifth in 2010 (309.1) and 32nd (dead last) in 2011 (411.6); were tied for 11th in sacks in 2009 (37), tied for second in 2010 (47) and tied for 27th in 2011 (29); and led the NFL in takeaways in 2009 (40), were sixth in 2010 (32) and tied for first in 2011 (38).
Among the defensive starters or key reserves who missed games this season due to injury were inside linebacker Desmond Bishop (18, including playoffs); outside linebacker Clay Matthews (four); safety Charles Woodson (nine); first-round draft pick Nick Perry (12); defensive tackle B.J. Raji (two); cornerback Sam Shields (six); inside linebacker D.J. Smith (12); defensive end C.J. Wilson (four); cornerback Davon House (seven); and rookie defensive end Jerel Worthy (four).
Capers acknowledged after the season that the defensive performance against the 49ers deserved scrutiny and criticism and that the buck had to stop with him. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick rushed for an NFL single-game quarterback record 181 yards, including a pair of touchdowns, and the 49ers finished with the fourth-most total yards ever gained in an NFL postseason game in league history (579).
But Capers also believed that one game did not erase the improvement the defense had made during the season.
"(The 49ers are) a talented team but I feel good about our guys. I’ve seen us make great strides this year,” Capers said during the week after the final game. “It didn’t look that way the other night, but I’ve seen us make great strides, and I think with the number of young people we’ve got that we can move forward with this group. Obviously, you always want to add a few things here or there, but what I hope is that game’s not a total evaluation of what this group has done this year, because I think there were some very good things that were done."
In addition to Kaepernick’s record-setting performance, running back Frank Gore ran for another 119 yards on 23 carries. Kaepernick also threw for 263 yards and two more touchdowns after starting the game with a pick-six interception to Sam Shields on the opening series.
Afterward, veteran defensive back Charles Woodson said the Packers defensive caches “didn’t make any adjustments” after Kaepernick began having success and suggested the Packers weren’t prepared for the read-option.
“I just think when the game is going the way it is, you've got to try something different,” said Woodson, whom the Packers released in a cost-cutting move on Feb. 15. “It's hard to just continue to do the same thing over and over again and continue to get burned. That's what I was talking about going forward.”
In an effort to be more prepared for Kaepernick and the read option, McCarthy sent his coaching staff to Texas A&M earlier this month to learn more about the scheme from Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin and his staff. While multiple head coaches at the NFL Meetings dismissed the read-option attack as a fad – Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin called it “the flavor of the month” – McCarthy isn’t viewing it that way.
He acknowledged that the defense was ill-prepared for the read-option game against the 49ers, and said he fully expects 2013 opponents – and not just Philadelphia, Washington and San Francisco, who have it in their schemes already – to use it against them.
“I’m not a crystal ball, but I know we’re going to see it early and often. If I was playing against us, I’d make sure if we had that kind of quarterback that you would test the Green Bay Packers. Everybody’s going to watch the last game. Let’s not be naïve to that.
“It’s like any scheme. You have to stop it. If people didn’t stop the Wildcat, they’d still be running that, everybody would be running that right now. It’s another great example, it’s not about scheme, it’s about fundamentals. Fundamentals win, and that will never change in this league.”
As for the Packers’ preparation for the read-option and Kaepernick that week, McCarthy said the practice structure – influenced by injuries on that side of the ball – didn’t help during the final month of the season.
“We weren’t regimented enough, that’s definitely the case. And there’s other factors that were involved in that. (But) frankly, they’re just a bunch of excuses,” McCarthy said. “The way we practiced the last month of the season, frankly, wasn’t conducive for getting ready for a scheme that was definitely going to make you hunker down and play base defense and trust your fundamentals. … There’s other factors that put you in position to prepare a certain way, and it didn’t help us.”
But the Packers had all kinds of time to prepare for Peterson, and they never really had an answer for him, either. Unquestionably, Peterson had a phenomenal season, coming back a 2011 Christmas Eve knee injury and reconstructive surgery to win the NFL MVP and rush for 2,097 yards, nine shy of Eric Dickerson’s the NFL record.
Of Peterson’s 2,097 yards this season, a whopping 409 (19.5 percent) came in his two regular-season games against the Packers. He ran for 199 yards in the Vikings’ victory over the Packers at the Metrodome in the Dec. 30 regular-season finale and 210 yards on Dec. 2 at Lambeau Field. Although the Packers “held” him to 99 yards on 22 carries in their NFC Wild Card playoff victory over the Vikings on Jan. 6, they got an assist from inept backup quarterback Joe Webb, who started for an injured Christian Ponder and was horrible (11 of 30, 180 yards, 54.9 passer rating).
“You know, and it’s a two-way responsibility between the coaches and the players,” McCarthy said. “Dom’s very up front and disciplined in the fact that when you rep things during the week and they don’t turn out the way they’re supposed to, he’s not going to call them in the game. So it’s no different in the game. If people aren’t doing exactly what they’re supposed to be doing, then he’ll go away from it. It’s something we continue to work through.
“We were very young for a big part of the season last year on defense, but the thing that was exciting was we got better as the year went on. Our defense continued to improve throughout the whole year.”
Since those playoff games, the Packers have cut Woodson, allowed outside linebacker Erik Walden to walk as a free agent, brought veteran inside linebacker A.J. Hawk back at a reduced salary, re-signed backup inside linebacker Robert Francois, and passed on veteran defensive end Chris Canty after he visited and was put through a physical.
The Packers have yet to sign any free agents, although McCarthy suggested that it could happen, and hope that Bishop and others come back fully healthy. They’ll also look for their younger players – Shields, Casey Hayward, House, Perry, Dezman Moses and others – to take big steps forward and add again through the draft.
“I feel our defense is going to be better just through the growth internally,” McCarthy said. “We had a number of rookies that made an impact last year; I’m confident in the way our offseason program is structured that we will improve with our players from Year 1 to Year 2. And, we have a number of Year 2 players going into Year 3. So I have great confidence that we’re going to improve with the players that we have.
“You still have free agency, and there might be some things that happen there, and we’ll add another draft class and there’ll be some guys that come out of there that will help us. But I feel good about the defensive players on our board. Very confident. I feel better today than I have a number of times at this time in my coaching career.”
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.