Hello Packer Nation,
I have finally recuperated from the NFC Championship loss to the Bucs. My analytical background always points me in the direction of ways to improve when something tough happens - what does this team need to do to win big games? I am a sucker for self torture, so I have gone back and watched a lot of tough Packer losses on my NFL Game Pass subscription. Here is what I have come up with to get the Packers "over the hump."
Yes, their star players (Davante Adams, Aaron Jones, Aaron Rodgers, Za'Darius Smith and Kenny Clark to name a few) need to play better when the game is on the line. BUT...I firmly stand on two feet when saying this - until they strengthen this one position group, the rest of the team improvements do no matter unless new scheme implemented by DC Joe Barry overcompensates for the lack of talent in the trenches. Hint hint - I made references to this positional issue in previous blogs "Packer 2020 Off Season Recap" and "2020 Packer Predraft Analysis."
They need to improve "in the trenches." The offensive line, especially tackle, needs reinforcements this offseason. Fans should have no qualms if they draft an offensive lineman in the first round. But, I am going to highlight their most glaring need at the two DE positions and DT depth in their 3-4 base. The DE position is responsible for containing two gaps and our current DE room is not doing it well. In fact, they are failing miserably. That’s been a major issue for a couple of years now and exacerbates their problem at inside linebacker as well. They could feed two birds with one stone by nabbing a defensive lineman in the first round (such players will be mentioned below) and help their ILB’s in the process.
In 2019, the Pack's rush defense was a contributing factor in our loss to San Francisco. During the season the rush defense was in the bottom third in league. In 2020, the pass rush was a contributing factor in our loss to the Bucs (amongst other costly mistakes/issues, etc). During the season it was in the bottom third in pass rush efficiency. All of this with no production from their starting DL outside of Kenny Clark.
The Packers have made a concerted effort to improve their edge rushers with FA's Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith and drafting Rashan Gary, but have made little to no effort improving between them. They have signed multiple UDFA's and drafted Kingsley Keke, but those additions just aren't going to cut it. From an opponent scouting report, they can contain Kenny Clark because no one outside of him is good enough. The mounting evidence keeps piling up and teams that fortify their defensive/offensive fronts continue to advance farther in the playoffs.
What did Tampa Bay do so well to win the Super Bowl last year, and Kansas City the year before? Defensively, both teams have formidable pass and rush defense personnel. They can get to the QB from the edge and up the middle, and that last item is where the Packers sorely lacked consistent pressure to rattle Tom Brady and other top QB’s.
Offensively for the Pack, Tampa’s constant pressure kept Rodgers from letting the scheme open up receivers and find them because the pocket and edges were collapsing around him. It is an NFL trend that edge rushers are the staple, but if the defensive tackles do not collapse the pocket inside, any competent QB can step up past the edge rush and make any throw he wants. The pressure has to come from all fronts, and the Packer defensive line is sorely lacking difference makers to help establish a formidable presence, much less make a difference in games that matter. Tampa Bay made two of the greatest QB's in our generation look average in back to back games. Patrick Mahomes scrambled almost a mile getting away from the constant pressure brought by the Bucs defensive front. Pressure wins baby!
To be fair, previous DC Mike Pettine preferred a lighter personnel group on the defensive line and that was his prerogative. If we have learned anything the past few seasons, good teams have their way against the Pack in the trenches. This script has to be flipped and Gute's mindset needs to change. If the Pack only improves their secondary (cornerback), that blueprint hasn't worked for almost a decade for this team. They have always been pretty strong at cornerback, but even good corners cannot cover all day. Eventually, the cornerback breaks down in coverage and a receiver pops open.
People have consistently preached the Packers need to get better at the second level, and I cannot disagree. But, inside linebackers thrive in a 3-4 defense scheme (scheme the Packers employ) when they are kept clean and allowed to roam and make plays. That is the defensive line's job for the most part. Yes, the Packers could use improvements over Krys Barnes and Kamal Martin, but assemble a respectable defensive front and Barnes and Martin flashed enough as rookies to be productive.
Are the Packers safe with one or two new defensive linemen? I have always believed " the more the better" line applies in most scenarios. It does here as well. Dean Lowry is purely a rotational piece, not a starter. The same goes for Tyler Lancaster. Lowry and Lancaster have started 45 out of the available 64 games between the two in the past two seasons, and that isn't an ideal platform. Lowry has started 16 games in each of the past two seasons. Yes, he has been available but has he made a difference? They overvalued and overpaid Lowry's talent and it is killing them. It is as simple as that.
So...do the Packers have a chance to improve this position in the draft? Yes and no. Here is why.
YES: Any DL will be an improvement over Lowry and Lancaster. Alim McNeil, Christian Barmore, Daviyon Nixon, Levi Onwuzurike, Milton Williams, Tommy Togiai, Tyler Shelvin, Jay Tufele, and Marlon Tuipulotu bring talents currently not available to this team. This is where the draft depth ends and the rest of the DL prospects are truly that - prospects. It is a good assumption these guys will all go in rounds 1-4, if not higher. The Packers will need to invest either picks #29, #62, #92, #135 and #142 here. In most of my mock drafts, the Pack could draft at least two and still get an OT, CB and maybe an ILB or WR and help the team. But, the Packers have to believe this draft improves their DL. Otherwise, use the little cap room left over and sign some veterans like Kawaan Short, Abry Jones, DaQuan Jones, Jurrell Casey, Geno Atkins, or bring back Damon Harrison. The downside to picking up one of these veterans is they won't come cheap and they are all on the downside of their careers. Most have had injury issues that led to still being available. They are one year fill ins. Drafting DL will be the best approach.
NO: Do all of the draft available DL fit the Packers mold? McNeil, Barmore and Nixon are plug and play starters in my opinion. The rest of the list need some seasoning but would offer upgrades in areas where their strengths could be used right away, just not as a starter. The second tier guys would be rotational pieces and take snaps away from Lowry and Lancaster, which would be an improvement for all. The consensus is they will need to spend one or more of their first three picks on any of these guys to get them. If you spend a first rounder, that player is under team control for up to five years. That is a nice benefit and it helped them keep Kenny Clark. They cannot improve from within because the current talent is capped. They are not going to draw more juice out of Lowry, Lancaster and Clark. It has to come from the outside and if they don't get outside help this position will continue to let the defense down.
It is a struggle to watch this defense in short yardage situations and great QB's just shredding us into pieces when the pass rush doesn't get home. The Smith Brothers, Gary and Clark are their stars. They need at least one more star on the defensive line to really make opposing offense pay. If they get two, this defense will take off to new heights we haven't witnessed in a decade.
Make it happen Gute! Draft as many defensive lineman as you can!
Go Pack Go!