Is the Green Bay Packers' Defense as Good as It Seems?

Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews lead one of the NFL's best pass-rushes; is this enough for the Packers' defense to thrive?

As a dyed-in-the-wool Midwesterner, I can safely tell you that every stereotype about folks from my region being simultaneously extremely helpful and highly passive-aggressive is 100 percent true. We will go out of our way to hold a door, pick up a dropped pen, give you directions -- and then as soon as that door closes, back turns, or car drives off, we will scowl at you and mutter about making us waste our time. Chances are, you didn’t even say thank you or “Have a nice day, now!”

But we sure as heck did. Ingrates.

Still, for all of our niceness and joviality, there is one person that we gosh-darn loyal citizens of Wisconsin despise more than anyone: Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers. Seriously, former Chicago Bears head coach Mike Ditka is more appreciated in the Packer Nation than the man whose lack of creativity and play-calling stubbornness led to our team’s early exit from the playoffs each of the last four years. We could’a had a dynasty on our hands, don’cha know.

Yet, in 2015, this Packers’ defense has looked absolutely incredible, ravaging teams for a fifth-ranked turnover differential and a third-ranked scoring defense. We’re not complainin’, but what in the world happened to the Green Bay defense and can it sustain?

Is the Packers’ defense really as good as it seems?

Dem Guys Up Nort’

The Packers of 2015 look like they reincarnated Ray Nitschke and Willie Davis up front, and carbon-copied Herb Adderley and Willie Wood in the defensive backfield. From top to bottom, this defensive unit just appears to be in sync.

But are the cheeseheads of today performing as well in the box score as they should be? The table below shows the Packers’ production and ranks in a couple of key defensive statistics over the past five seasons, including points per game allowed, yards per game allowed, sacks, and defensive takeaways. It compares these to their projections from production so far. How have they performed?

Year PPG YPG Sacks TA
2010 15.0 (2nd) 309.1 (5th) 47 (t-2nd) 32 (2nd)
2011 22.4 (19th) 411.6 (32nd) 29 (t-27th) 38 (t-1st)
2012 21 (11th) 336.8 (11th) 47 (4th) 23 (t-18th)
2013 26.8 (24th) 372.3 (25th) 44 (t-8th) 22 (t-21st)
2014 21.8 (t-13th) 346.4 (15th) 41 (t-9th) 27 (t-8th)
2015 16.8 (3rd) 355.0 (13th) 61* (2nd) 27* (t-6th)

Sure enough, the Green Bay defense hasn’t ranked this well in the league since its 2010 Super Bowl XLV run. That year, all four of its box score measures ranked in the top-five. This year, their scoring defense, sack production, and takeaway efficiency are in the top 10; only the yardage allowed is more middle-of-the-road. Still, it’s incredible that they are on pace to generate almost 15 sacks more than their best seasons since 2010, and have a scoring defense limiting teams to just over two touchdowns. With that kind of strong base, some reduction in yards allowed will push this defensive unit from very good to elite.

On the surface, this merry band of playmaking ballhawks has become a lockdown juggernaut, but this isn’t enough investigation for us. Is this kind of domination sustainable for Green Bay?

Ya Der Hey

We’re excellent hosts in the Midwest, except when you come to Lambeau: the Packers are 6-0 so far this year, and are the most dominant that they have been in years. One does have to acknowledge, however, that when we look over the Packers’ schedule so far, the offenses they’ve had to stymie so far are not highly intimidating. The combined record of the Packers’ opponents so far this year is 11-24, and they have won their games by an average of 10.5 points.

This begs the question: is the Packers’ supremacy on the field backed up by their value production?

We can divine how disputable their defensive dominance is with numberFire’s signature metric: Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and assign them contextual value so they relate even closer to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The table below shows Green Bay’s defensive production via the per-play, schedule-adjusted Defensive NEP metric, as well as showing the distinction between Defensive Passing NEP and Defensive Rushing NEP. How well have they done this year, compared to recent times?

Year Adj. Def. NEP Adj. Def. PNEP Adj. Def. RNEP
2010 -0.07 (t-2nd) -0.09 (t-1st) 0.00 (t-17th)
2011 0.06 (t-23rd) 0.09 (t-24th) 0.10 (32nd)
2012 0.03 (t-16th) 0.03 (t-13th) 0.03 (t-26th)
2013 0.09 (t-26th) 0.13 (27th) 0.06 (t-26th)
2014 0.03 (t-13th) 0.07 (t-15th) 0.02 (22nd)
2015 0.06 (t-12th) 0.05 (8th) 0.06 (t-25th)

The numbers we see here match our box score production pretty well. The Packers’ defense was dominant in NEP production in 2010, struggled in 2011 and 2013, and now has rebounded somewhat in 2015.

We know that emphasis on great passing defense is what has buoyed their ranks in the years that they’ve been very good on the defensive side of the ball -- 2010 saw cornerback Tramon Williams bring in six interceptions and safety Nick Collins an additional four. Passing NEP also has a greater impact on team Total NEP than Rushing NEP does, so this makes sense why the two are so closely linked.

Still, I don’t think anyone realized how mediocre to bad the Packers’ rushing defense has been in recent years. Despite seemingly incredible showings on the ground in 2015, too, this production ranks just 25th in the league.

Were Ya Born in a Barn?

Finally, we want to know: is the Packers’ defensive production sustainable? Are they as good as they’ve seemed to be? The table below shows the 2015 ranks in NEP compared to their ranks in passing and rushing yardage allowed.

Category Total Passing Rushing
Yards 16th 11th 24th
NEP t-12th 8th t-25th

While the yardage ranks tell a more sobering tale than the Packers’ gaudy sack and scoring defense ranks, this is perhaps a more fair and metered approach to analyzing their success. The team’s yardage allowed does seem to be fairly in line with their NEP production, however, and when one considers the ridiculous sack pace the team is on as a factor in raising their passing marks, the two even seem to match.

So, while the Packers’ defense is making highlight reel takeaways, going off for a sack pace nearing the “Monsters of the Midway” Chicago Bears era, they’re allowing a lot of yards and that could eventually come back to haunt them. For now, they’re more middle-of-the-road than elite, but it’s sustainable and they can do even better once they close the barn door of yardage.

And that’s sure a pleasant way to look at it, ya know?