Packers put substance ahead of style on defense

Packers put substance ahead of style on defense

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) The Green Bay Packers could have filled an entire highlight reel with their interceptions last year.

Good thing, because the rest of their defense wasn't worth watching.

A year after finishing with the NFL's worst defense, the Packers have traded the excitement of those big turnovers for consistency. And the change could be the difference between another early exit from the playoffs and a deep run that could last all the way to the Super Bowl.

``I'd prefer our defense this year to last year's,'' defensive coordinator Dom Capers said.

The Packers (12-5) play at San Francisco (11-4-1) on Saturday night in an NFC divisional game.

Green Bay rolled through the regular season in 2011 with a defense every bit as explosive as its high-powered offense. The Packers led the league with 31 interceptions, and no quarterback - rookie or veteran - was safe from their sticky hands. Four of the picks were returned for touchdowns.

Even as the Packers cruised to a 15-1 record and the NFC's No. 1 seed, however, there were signs of trouble with the defense. Green Bay ranked dead last in the NFL in both yardage (almost 412 per game) and yards passing (almost 300). Their 6,585 yards allowed was the worst in team history, as were the pass attempts (637), completions (390) and yards passing (4,796).

And all those flaws were exposed when Green Bay played the New York Giants in the divisional round. Eli Manning threw for 330 yards and three touchdowns and Hakeem Nicks had seven catches for 165 yards as the Giants tossed the defending Super Bowl champions out of the playoffs with a 37-20 win.

The Packers don't have nearly as many takeaways this time - they finished the regular season with 18 - but they're no longer pushovers, either. They jumped to 11th in total defense, and their average of 337 yards allowed per game is a 75-yard improvement. Opponents passed for an average of 218 yards against Green Bay, also 11th best in the NFL.

They ranked in the top half of the NFC in every defensive category except run defense. And you can thank Adrian Peterson for that.

``I don't know what the answer is,'' B.J. Raji said. ``I just know we left last year in the past and took the approach that this is a different year and we wanted to improve our ranking.''

The Packers have done all this despite losing Charles Woodson for half the season with a broken right collarbone. Clay Matthews (hamstring) and C.J. Wilson (knee) also missed four games each.

But the injuries also forced Green Bay to play its young guys, and their speed and athleticism has turned out to be a boon for the Packers.

``We're just a more consistent, more multiple defense this year,'' Capers said. ``I think we can attack you in different ways. I think we've got more athletic ability on our defense this year than we had. I think these young guys have given us more athletic ability, more speed, more pass rush ability.

``You look at our sack numbers in terms of from last year to this year, there's a big difference,'' Capers added. ``And our style of play, we need to do that.''

Only Denver and St. Louis (52 each) and Cincinnati (51) had more sacks than Green Bay (47), and it's a good bet the Packers would have led the league had Matthews not been hurt.

Even with missing four games, Matthews finished with 13 sacks, a half-sack off his career high. Only the 49ers' Aldon Smith had more in the NFC.

``They're just playing good defense,'' San Francisco offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. ``Sound defense, good team defense, not allowing the big plays that showed up last year.''

Now, just because this Green Bay defense is sound doesn't mean it's stodgy or boring.

Quite the contrary.

Rookie Casey Hayward tied for fifth in the NFL with six interceptions. Jay Cutler is no doubt thrilled he's got at least seven months before he has to see a Packers defensive back.

But substance matters as much as style, and Green Bay has it this year.

``No doubt about it,'' cornerback Tramon Williams said. ``I'm pretty sure that's not hard to see that we're a better defense from last year.''

Notes: WR Randall Cobb returned to practice Thursday despite still feeling under the weather. ``He's going to go,'' coach Mike McCarthy said. ``I don't have any questions about that.'' ... McCarthy described the Packers' last practice before they leave for San Francisco as ``very spirited, to say the least. They have too much energy and I think that's common for this time of year,'' he said. ``I feel very good the way the last three days of practice have gone.'' ... The Packers aren't concerned with the state of Candlestick Park, where the field is dry and patchy in some spots, soggy in others. ``A lot of the grass fields are that way toward the end of the season. It'll be the same for everyone,'' Jordy Nelson said. ``You just have to feel it out. In pregame, make sure you have the right cleats on, what you feel comfortable in.'' ... WR Jarrett Boykin (ankle) is improving but won't be ready to play this week.


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John Wall goes through full practice for first time since left knee surgery

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John Wall goes through full practice for first time since left knee surgery

John Wall crossed one of the biggest hurdles of his months-long recovery from arthroscopic left knee surgery on Saturday by participating in his first full practice.

That means Wall went through 5-on-5 scrimmages with teammates that included contact. He is free of restrictions.

Now it is only a matter of days before Wall is ready to return to game action.

"John did everything, he did an entire practice which was great," head coach Scott Brooks said. "I thought he did a great job offensively and defensively."


Wall, who last played on Jan. 25 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, has missed the Wizards' last 24 games. He has been absent for 35 of their 72 total games this season.

In the months he has been out, Wall has slowly worked his way to this point. He still has to get a few more practices under his belt before the Wizards can outline a target date for his return.

Wall was aggressive in testing his knee by attacking the basket, according to Brooks. Wall was moving around well and even lost a few pounds during his time off.

"He looks great and that's not easy with time off," Brooks said. "He will be back in no time."


The Wizards have gone 14-10 since Wall went down, an impressive mark especially considering how tough their schedule shook out. Most of those games came against teams with winning records either holding playoff spots or fighting for them.

The shine, though, is wearing off. They have lost two straight games and seven of their last 11. Their offense has stalled in recent defeats and it's become more and more clear they could use Wall's presence.

"He gives us that edge," Wall said. "When you have him on the floor, you get a lot of easy shots. John creates a lot of attention when he drives to the basket... I think [his teammates] have always appreciated it, but when you don't have him around you definitely miss it."

While the Wizards continue to wait for Wall to return to games, just having him in practices helps. Brooks explained how guarding a player of Wall's caliber, a five-time All-Star, raises the intensity level of their scrimmages. If his teammates do not bring their best effort, Wall can very easily expose them.


There is also something intangible about Wall's presence. The media sees it once the doors open at practice. He is talkative and energetic on the court.

Some of his teammates even described him as "loud."

"Sometimes I tell him that he's a little too loud," guard Bradley Beal said. "But that's the energy that we've missed."

"He brings the juice. He brings the energy level up," Brooks said. "You miss his spirit. You miss the way he interacts with guys. He's fiery and competitive. He gets after guys. He cheers guys on. I like that. I like guys that show emotion and passion on the court."

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Wizards display lack of urgency in loss to Nuggets and Scott Brooks is frustrated

Wizards display lack of urgency in loss to Nuggets and Scott Brooks is frustrated

Following their seventh loss in 11 games and another lackluster performance in key areas, Wizards head coach Scott Brooks reverted back to a critique that characterized many defeats months ago. He called into question the effort of his team, more specifically their urgency. How they could overlook the stakes at this point of the season and with so much on the line had escaped him.

Brooks wasn't pleased following Washington's 108-100 loss to the Denver Nuggets on Friday night. He didn't like their three-point defense, their inability to force turnovers and their lack of zip on offense. But overall, it was the apparent lack of realization that time is running out in the regular season and off-nights cannot be afforded.

"We have to play with more spirit [and] we have to take some pride in our home court," Brooks said. "We’re building our habits going into the playoffs and these are moments where we need to take advantage because it’s playoff implications in every game."


Pride is something Brooks has referenced after the Wizards' worst defeats since he took over. This one didn't qualify, as they only lost by eight points and had opportunities late to write a different ending. But they were playing a team fighting for their own playoff position in the opposite conference and for the most part did not match their intensity.

The Nuggets, to put it plainly, are among the worst defensive teams in basketball. They were missing their leading scorer, Gary Harris. And they tightened their rotation to just eight players.

Yet the Wizards only managed 100 points, six below their season average, and committed 17 turnovers. Aside from their 33-point third quarter, the Wizards' offense was effectively stalled. 

"We can’t have guys that are not going to participate with hard cuts and hard setups and good screens. We need everybody. It’s not one person, it’s all," Brooks said.


The Wizards only forced 10 turnovers on the Nuggets and only three in the first half. That held back their offense in the sense they had few opportunities for fastbreak buckets.

"That’s where we get most of our offense from anyways, getting stops, getting out in transition," forward Otto Porter said.

The Wizards have lost two straight games. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers and Pacers both won on Friday night.

The Wizards are sixth place in the East and just 1 1/2 games out of fourth, but there is a huge difference in those spots. Sixth could mean meeting the Cavs in the first round and they have won three straight since Kevin Love returned from injury.


The Cavaliers could quickly become the most dangerous team in the Eastern Conference. Their record is deceiving due to Love's injury and they still boast LeBron James, the best player on the planet. No one can control a playoff series quite like he can.

An argument could be made the Wizards would be better off moving down than up, as the seventh spot would match them up with the injury-riddled Boston Celtics. The Wizards are just 1 1/2 games ahead of the seventh-seed Miami Heat.

The Wizards, though, would prefer to move up and they still have a chance to get into fourth, which would mean home court advantage.

John Wall will return at some point, likely soon. In the short-term, Brooks would like to some urgency and for his team to get back to the trademark ball movement that allowed them to go 10-3 in their first 13 games when Wall went down.

"We can get it back, but it’s not going to come back. We have to go get it. It’s time to do it; it’s time," Brooks said.

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