Green Bay Packers defensive end Mike Daniels (76) celebrates his sack of the Minnesota Vikings quarterback in the second quarter at Mall of America Field at H.H.H. Metrodome. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Green Bay Packers bright spots on defense

The Green Bay Packers 2013 season is at the crossroads, and I can’t help but feel that the  best course of action for this team is to give up, retool, and shut down Aaron Rodgers. They aren’t eliminated from playoff contention, though, and you’d hate to give up on an entire season, but the Packers just don’t look like a good enough team right now. They have huge holes on defense. They still have some inconsistencies to fix on the offensive line. But when Rodgers is healthy, this team is indeed a playoff team, and the chance of Rodgers coming back next week- even if Ian Rapoport reported that it’s a longshot- gives the Packers hope. The Packers reported plan is to rest Rodgers another week, then go for the playoffs if they are still in it. If they lose to the Atlanta Falcons, then they are indeed eliminated and deserve to be, since no playoff team should lose to the Falcons at this point in the regular season.

So that was the cynicism from me, I guess. The Packers are a very flawed team, the greatest quarterback in the game is so dominant that he covers up most of those flaws, and the Packers need to rest Rodgers due to the high chance of a very severe aggravation of the injury if not full healed. Rodgers obviously wants to go since, well, he’s friggin’ Aaron Rodgers and he wants to win, but the Packers doctors are wise for wanting to play it cautious. And aggravations? As we saw with Rob Gronkowski last season, they are all too real and all too terrible.

But what about the bright stuff? I mean, the entire Packers roster doesn’t stink, even if it feels that way due to this team’s struggles. That Thanksgiving loss was an embarrassing one, especially for the defense. But there’s always positives to be found, even if the narrative and perception is rightfully skewed into the negative. This defense is bad, but there are still bright spots worth highlighting. This piece is about taking a look at the good, because I think just about every negative regarding the Green Bay Packers has been extrapolated, analyzed, and then harped on (you know, just for good measure).

1. Mike Daniels is one of those players in the league who doesn’t get enough attention nationally, except when he’s talking about choking people and punching people in the throat. All hyperbole aside, Daniels has been an exceptional player for the Packers this season, and I think he’s broken out in a big way. B.J. Raji is, as my poor spanish would say, “loco” (or “tonto”) for rejecting the Packers $8 million-a-year offer, though the Packers are even crazier for offering that sum of money to an under-performing player solely based upon his scheme fit. I mean, I thought Ted Thompson hated spending money.

Back to the task at hand. Daniels has done an exceptional job of consistently pressuring the quarterback, which simply isn’t an easy task as  3-4 defensive end. He’s also repeatedly made solid plays in the running game by plugging up holes. Daniels has 5.5 sacks this season, and the fact that only Clay Matthews has more should tell you all you need to know about how good Daniels has been. 5.5 sacks is not an easy total for a 3-4 DE, so that shouldn’t be dismissed.

2. Only Philadelphia Eagles underperforming duo Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie were more disappointing CBs in the 2011 and 2012 seasons than Tramon Williams, who clearly digressed following his breakout 2010 campaign. In 2010, Williams was one of the NFL’s top cornerbacks, as he made play after play and shut down WRs as a key member of the Packers Super Bowl-winning squad. But his play slowly deteriorated to the point where he was a horrendous liability in coverage in 2011 and 2012.

So why in the heck is Tramon Williams a bright spot? Well, he’s turned things around this season. He’s not playing great and is by no means back to his 2010 self, but I think it’s safe to say that Williams is no longer a liability. He has put together a string of solid performances, and I think he had a “he’s back” moment against the New York Giants earlier this year.

3. Ryan Pickett is the epitome of what it means to be a solid veteran, and I can’t remember the last time I turned on a Packers game and said, “Boy, Pickett stinks today.” Pickett is consistent, he does his job, he carries his lunch pail, he leads the team, and boy does he stuff the run. You can say what you want about the Packers run defense- it’s been bad this year- but that’s not on Pickett at all, as he’s been as solid as usual. As a matter of fact, you should really blame bigger names (not that Pickett is a “small” name, of course) like A.J. Hawk and Raji for the Packers issues against the run.

4. I could just write the name “Clay Matthews” and all would be understood. But instead, I’m going to elaborate a tad (not a whole lot, since that would be redundant when it comes to a player who has earned most superlatives out there). Matthews has played through pain this year, and he’s never quit on this team. That’s obvious and probably sounds like some stupid thing you read out of kid books or pseudo-columns, but I think it’s important under certain scopes. To me, it is important under this scope, because Matthews always takes the opportunity to assert himself as a leader- not just a star. He has six sacks this season, and his forced fumble on Reggie Bush on Thanksgiving was an example of the type of impact he can bring. And with Nick Perry showing (sneaking in a bright spot here) plenty of flashes as a capable wonder, I think the best is yet to come. And like other star pass rushing OLBs like James Harrison and Terrell Suggs, Matthews’s run defense is getting overlooked.

5. This final bright spot is dedicated to smaller bright spots like nickel corner Casey Hayward, who is out for the season and just didn’t have luck on his side this year on the injury front. But Hayward will be back for a vengeance next year, and his impact as one of the league’s best nickel corners cannot be underrated. I honestly think Sam Shields is a “minus” (as opposed to a “plus”) player at corner right now, but he definitely has potential and, even more so, definitely has great ball skills. I mean, did you see his two big plays on Calvin Johnson in the end zone of the team’s last game? He has big issues he needs to work on in coverage, but he can flash. Boy, he can flash talent.

Safety Morgan Burnett has had a down year this season, and his awful miscommunication on the touchdown Megatron scored on Thanksgiving was a reminder. Yet, he’s still a bright spot because he’s a leader and is usually a solid player.

So why has the Green Bay Packers defense been so awful despite these bright spots? Injuries have certainly played a role, but there are plenty of holes. Firstly, the Packers could do with Williams, Shields, or someone else playing like a true No. 1 CB. Secondly, the safety play has been a mess, since blown assignments have dragged the D down. Thirdly, the linebackers have some kinks to work out in coverage. A fourth reason is the poor play from big names like Raji and Hawk, and a fifth is the disappointing play of key backups like UCLA rookie Datone Jones. There are plenty of bright spots, but there are plenty of black holes that will need to be eviscerated in order for this unit (and team, since we know the offense will hold up its end so long as Aaron Rodgers- and Eddie Lacy, too- is healthy) to succeed. Remember, though, there are always some things to hang your hat on even when it seems like a lot is going wrong. After all, the Packers are still technically in playoff contention, so it’s certainly not like we’re talking about the 2008 Detroit Lions or anything.

Tags: A.J. Hawk Aaron Rodgers B.J. Raji Casey Hayward Clay Matthews Green Bay Packers Mike Daniels Morgan Burnett Nick Perry Notes And Analysis Ryan Pickett Sam Shields Tramon Williams

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