This past weekend during an annual ice fishing trip, the conversation naturally came to the Packers. I made a statement that made us all laugh and want to cry at the same time, with that statement being, “The Packers are SO close to a Super Bowl…All they’re missing is a defense.”
When you have an ailment, sometimes you need a prescription to help you get better. People with ADD need Ritalin. Insomniacs need Ambien. Christopher Walken needs more cowbell. And the Packers defense? They need more speed. One line that frequently played from Madden video games long ago was John Madden saying, “You know how they say speed kills? Well, speed just killed them on that one!” As annoying as it was to hear that line oft-repeated while playing the game, it always rings true. Football is best known as a game of power, a game of brute strength. While power is critical, speed has always been a killer. It will always be a killer. At the NFL level, speed is much more uniform across rosters compared to college. With the 2016 Packers defense, however, the lack of speed was noticeable; and it was brutal.
Green Bay was without their fastest asset virtually all of 2016: Sam Shields. He started his career as a raw, undrafted talent in 2010, but he always had his speed to help bail him out. Tramon Williams was speedy. Charles Woodson was speedy. Damarious Randall had a frustrating 2016 to say the least, but he is speedy. That trait is why the Packers are still keeping him around. A player with speed is always given more chances than one without. Even Cordarrelle Patterson, who can’t run a solid route or comprehend a playbook (or possibly any book) contributed to the Vikings on special teams and some trick plays solely because of speed.
This is certainly not a pitch that speed solves everything. The point here is that speed doesn’t guarantee success, but it certainly helps give success a better chance. Sam Shields always had speed, built off of that and developed his game to become the best cornerback of this decade for Green Bay.
We certainly have seen lightning-fast players who didn’t work out (see: numerous draft picks by Al Davis.) One of the notoriously worst Packers of all-time, Ahmad Carroll, had great speed. The only time his speed came in handy was with how fast he was run out of town, though.
In 2016, the player who had the least enviable job was LaDarius Gunter. Since he didn’t get injured along with regressing significantly like Randall and Quinten Rollins, he was thrust into the role of covering every team’s top wideout. In the playoffs, he faced off against a murderer’s row of top WR talent: Odell Beckham Jr., Dez Bryant, and Julio Jones. Gunter fared admirably against Beckham, but certainly got exposed by Bryant and Jones. Little help was provided for him from Dom Capers’s play-calling, partly because of the other liabilities in the defense and partly because he doesn’t believe in play-calling that covers the middle of the field. But how was Gunter exposed the most? Speed. Bryant almost always beats single coverage. Jones has cemented himself as the best receiver in the universe right now, and that’s not even debatable. If there’s no speed against these guys, nothing else matters. Gunter has decent speed, but that doesn’t work when alone against the top dogs. The postseason proved this.
Now to the linebackers, who need speed even more than the secondary. Clay Matthews circa 2010 supplied plenty of high-flying plays all over the field. Clay Matthews circa signing his big contract and reaping in the endorsement dollars has not fit the same mold. The only good performance he has had in recent memory was against a Menard’s turnstile called T.J. Clemmings from the Vikings. Maybe Clay can regain his old form. Let’s pray he does. He has become a total liability against the run and has been ineffective as a pass rusher. If things don’t turn around for him in 2017, he could become a serious candidate for the waiver wire.
As for the other OLB, Nick Perry had a career year in 2016, but struggled to avoid the injury bug, which has been the case most of his career. If he can be re-signed at a moderate salary, then it could be a good investment. He’s a power rusher with average speed that can make plays in the right situation. More playmakers are needed around him to maximize his impact. If he is re-signed, then he either needs to consistently perform at 2016 levels or needs more inside LB playmaking that take attention away from him.
With the inside linebacking corps, Ted Thompson has seemed determined to fill those with every A.J. Hawk clone that’s out there, or closest to it. The ILBs have proven solid against the run, but a liability in coverage and spanning the field effectively. Look no further than the Steelers for how to build a good group of linebackers. They have run the 3-4 defense for decades. No other franchise has had such continuity of success on defense. Their inside LBs are always physical specimens (Lawrence Timmons, Larry Foote, Ryan Shazier, James Farrior,) punish running backs, and cover the sideline close to the line of scrimmage effectively. Their outside LBs fly to the ball, hit hard, and are even crazier physical specimens (James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Joey Porter, Jarvis Jones.) The Steelers are Linebacker U of the NFL. A bunch of A.J. Hawk clones do not compare.
Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez can be solid, but they just don’t fit the mold of those Steelers studs. The Packers need more speed across the board at linebacker, period. Ultimately, the call is up to the front office. Either way, they need to break character by bringing in proven talent or drafting players that can fly around the field and add to their foundation of great speed. Otherwise, the Lombardi trophy is bound to elude another year of Rodgers’s prime.
________________John Piotrowski is a UW-Eau Claire alum, spending most of his life in western WI. He makes the trek east to Lambeau whenever possible. Follow him on twitter at @piosGBP.