Packers 17, Minnesota 31. Not quite as humiliating as the 2002 home playoff loss against Atlanta but it was still a big hurt. With the defense struggling as bad as it was, QB Brett Favre had to have a perfect game and he was off. Favre struggled in his previous cold Lambeau game against Jacksonville when he threw 3 interceptions and he struggled again against Minnesota in the cold (4 more INTs). It didn't help that the wide receivers appeared to run poor routes on three of the interceptions while the fourth pick was a deflection. No matter how disappointing the outcome, the Packers came into this game as a below average team due to their poor defense and Minnesota played better during the regular season. Minnesota managed to score exactly 31 points in each meeting vs. the Packers and this time the Packers couldn't manage their usual 34 points to get the win. Favre is now considering his future (please come back in 2005!) and the Packers have to figure out where to go from here.
How did they do in 2004? The offense improved! No really. Footballoutsiders.com offensive DVOA rating was 13.3% in 2004, up from 8.1% in 2003. The Packers total offense rating slipped from 8th to 9th, but 2004 was a big season for offense. The offense had more yards per game, fewer sacks, and fewer turnovers. The Packers defense had outplayed the Packers offense from 2001 through 2003 (no really; go to footballoutsiders.com or see below for the shorthand breakdown) but the defense collapsed in 2004. Only the bay area duo of San Francisco and Oakland had worse pass defenses.
So what is wrong with the pass defense?
Interceptions are probably the first answer. The Packers had 24 INTs in 2002 and 21 in 2003, but slipped to 8 in 2004. By the way, Ed Donatell's improved Atlanta pass defense increased their interception to total to 19 in 2004, up from 15 in 2003.
The second answer is pass defenses (PDs). The Packers fell off the cliff, going from 95 PDs in 2002 and 92 PDs in 2003, falling to 68 PDs in 2004. CB Al Harris actually improved his number from 14 PDs in 2003 to 20 PDs in 2004. The Packers lost CB Mike McKenzie's 18 PDs (replacing them with CB Ahmad Carroll's 8) and FS Darren Sharper fell from 13 to 7 PDs. The biggest offenders were the starting linebackers; although LB Nick Barnett had 6 PDs in 2003 and 2004, LB Na'il Diggs and Hannibal Navies fell from a combined 8 PDs in 2003 to 0 (yes zero) PDs in 2004. Ed Donatell's biggest improvement in Atlanta was raising the team's PDs up from a lowly 56 in 2003 to 80 in 2004. The best pass defense in the NFL in 2004, Buffalo, was led in PDs by their outside LB Takeo Spikes's 17, and as a team recorded 83 PDs. The secondary and linebackers inability to get into position to either break up a pass or intercept it was the number one defensive problem in 2004.
It wasn't the lack of a pass rush that led to a poor pass defense either. DE KGB had 13.5 sacks and his stats were nearly identical to his 2001-2003 seasons. The Packers actually had more sacks, up from 34 in 2003 to 40 in 2004, and got into the backfield as much as they ever have with 49 tackles for a loss, down from 57 in 2003 but way up from 36 in 2002.
The run defense slipped in 2004, but the loss of NTs Grady Jackson, James Lee, and Donnell Washington to injuries was as much of the problem as anything else.
So who takes the fall for the awful pass defense that sank the season? Maybe no one; CB Joey Thomas and Carroll had to take on far too much responsiblities far too early in their rookie seasons due to McKenzie's decision to abandon the Packers. Maybe the players; Sharper clearly looked a step slower while playing injured much of the season and SS Mark Roman failed to impress in his first Packer season. Diggs and Navies might both need to be replaced after they failed to have any impact in pass defense. However, most of the blame should fall on the new defensive coaches; coordinator Bob Slovik and secondary coach Kurt Shottenheimer. Players often looked lost in coverage, the rookie cornerbacks didn't develop much during the season, and the defense looked outcoached on too many occasions. Shottenheimer looked like a good hire at the start of the season, but the Packers fell from 92 pass defenses in 2003 to 56 in 2004, while his former team, Detroit, greatly improved from 66 in 2003 to 80 in 2004.
So how to fix the Packers this offseason? Mike Sherman deserves to be back as coach and GM in 2005, but he does need to replace personnel director Mark Hatley, who passed away last summer, and find a good player personnel man to assist him in the future. The Packers need a change at defensive coordinator and secondary coach. It was no slam dunk decision to fire Donatell last season, but Slovik and Shottenheimer need to move on. The Packers might want to consider moving Sharper to strong safety and finding a quicker cornerback-type player to play at free safety. Most important is finding a linebacker who is good in coverage, preferable a veteran player, to replace Navies. Diggs was probably held back due to injury and poor coaching and shouldn't take the blame this season. It won't be easy to juggle salary cap concerns and free agent re-signings so that a veteran linebacker can come to Green Bay and a defensive coaching change is rarely a cure-all, but both need to happen this offseason.
2004 -5% 21; O 13.3% 9 (P 26% 8, R 9.4% 7 ); D 20% 29 (P 32.3% 30, R 4.9% 23); ST -2.8% 24
2003 18.9% 5; O 8.1% 8 (P 11.8% 8, R 4.8% 8); D -9.4% 9 (P -10% 8, R -8.7% 10)
2002 13.2% 8; O 2.8% 19 (P 7.1% 15, R -2.6% 20); D -12.8% 4 (P -32.4% 2, R 10.7% 29)
2001 13.8% 8; O 2.1% 15 (P 12.8% 6, R -11.3% 22); D -11% 11 (P -21.6% 7, R 3.5% 23)