GREEN BAY – The Packers offense is well heralded going into the season, but what defense will show up when the Packers start the season in Seattle on September 4th? While Mike McCarthy has had plenty to say about the defense in the off-season, it is now time to see if the Packers can raise their level, essential to bringing the defense back with the elite teams.
The question is, with apologies to Allen Iverson: Is Peppers the answer? When the Packers went out and signed Julius Peppers in the off-season (one of the few moves made by Ted Thompson in free agency this year) they did so with the hope of teaming him with Clay Matthews to create a tandem other teams will fear. However, at 34 years old, Peppers becomes the oldest player on the roster, an age when most players are losing at least one step, and often two. He is moving from his traditional defensive end spot to outside linebacker, so is also dealing with changing positions. The Packers are hoping these variables don’t catch up with Peppers in a hurry during his first Packers season.
If Peppers can indeed be what they are hoping for, it could be a huge improvement that could have ripple effects throughout the defense. If he can still get after the quarterback, the ball will come out quicker, giving cornerbacks the advantage of having a shorter cover time. If he can hold the edge, rushers will be forced into BJ Raji’s waiting arms to be nullified. If he can command a double team, that puts single coverage on guys like Mike Daniels, who will eat that up. If Peppers can be, well, Peppers from just a couple of years ago, this is a big win for the Packers.
However, if Peppers is not able to adjust to his new role and has lost some of his explosiveness, it’s a problem for the Packers. If Peppers is neutralized by a single blocker, teams will once again load up on Clay Matthews and have plenty of time to throw, and no one can cover forever. Those are the dice the Packers are rolling.
Though Peppers is the biggest acquisition this off-season, getting players back from the injury list will be just as important. Clay Matthews is coming back from two surgeries on a broken thumb, and is an obvious difference maker, but perhaps less obvious is the return of cornerback Casey Hayward. Hayward had a solid rookie campaign, and was poised to make that second year leap last year when his hamstring betrayed him. He has the potential to be a difference maker on the field, with what Mike McCarthy calls a great instinct for the ball. Hayward is disruptive and finds the football, something Packers corners and safeties aren’t doing with any kind of regularity.
When healthy, the defense should be better. It has to be better if the Packers hope to change the early exits that they have had the last three years in the playoffs.