By Tom Pollin
The Cold, Hard Football Facts Man in Dairyland

No one knows for certain who first said, “The best defense is a good offense.” If the saying didn’t already exist it could have been introduced by Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers to describe their formula for winning in 2011.

From their opening game on the Thursday night national stage against the Saints through the season finale when they denied the Detroit Lions the NFC's No. 5 five seed, the Packers steamrolled opponents with a league- and franchise-best 15-1 record and the top spot in the NFC playoffs.

The Packers uneashed a football version of blitzkrieg against the NFL in 2011, they rolled out to a 13-0 record, overpowering opponents by 14.4 points per game. A Week 15 loss at Kansas City was the only speed bump that tripped up Aaron Rodgers and company on their way to the playoffs. The Chiefs won 19-14 in Romeo Crennel’s first game as interim head coach.

In Green Bay's final game of the season, with the No. 1 seed clinched, Mike McCarthy pulled a “Dungy” and rested most of his starters. The Packers won a shootout in the season finale at Lambeau Field against the Lions behind Matt Flynn at QB. But Rodgers and the team showed the layoff effects two weeks later. The entire team was out of sync, turning the ball over four times.

Rodgers played his worst game in over a year, throwing for 264 yards, a 5.2 Real Passing Yards per Attempt average and a 78.5 passer rating. His normally sure-handed receivers dropped six passes and the Packers’ season came crashing to a halt in a 37-20 loss in the Divisional Round of the playoffs to the Giants.

The Packers two losses, to the Chiefs in week 15 and the Giants in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, came with the Packers trailing in both games as they started the fourth quarter. Aaron Rodgers has shown many things in his short career. But he has rarely shown an ability to bring the Pack back from the bring of defeat.

Starting week 16 of 2010, the Packers ran off 19 straight victories without ever trailing at the start of the fourth quarter (only twice were they tied). It looked like the Packers were unstoppable until Kansas  City found a way to hang tough into the fourth quarter. The Packers trailed only 9-7 at the end of three quarters but could not mount a comeback, losing the game and their shot at perfection, 19-14.
Against the Giants, as rough as they looked all game, the Packers trailed only 20-13 going into the fourth. Just as iin Kansas City, though, they couldn’t get any closer. Their inability to come back in both of these games is not surprising when you take into account that Aaron Rodgers has mounted only three fourth-quarter comebacks in his career (72 games) since taking over as Green Bay's starter in 2008.

But don't fret yet, Cheeseheads. Our Naughty Nurse is on the job. And a quick whiff of smelling salts and her famous elixir Eau d'Ho has the Pack back up off the mat and looking like contenders again in 2012.

2011 Storyline: The Cold, Hard Football Facts have shown that weak links almost always snap in the playoffs, no matter how strong a team may be in other areas, and Packers fants witnessed that phenomenon first hand with a defenseless effort against the Giants during a one-and-done postseason ride. The Packers in 2011 surrendered 4,988 gross passing yards (most in NFL history) and a brutal 7.20 Real Passing Yards Per Attempt (30th in 2011). That defense was helpless in the playoff loss to the Giants, allowing Eli Manning & Co. to shred it for 9.56 Real Passing YPA.

The Vital Signs

Coach (record): Mike McCarthy (63-33 with Green Bay; 63-33 overall)
2011 Record: 15-1 (35.0 PPG – 22.4 PPG)
Record against the spread: 11-5
Record vs. Quality Opponents: 5-0 (35.4 PPG – 27.8 PPG)
Record last five seasons: 55-25 (.688)
Best Quality Stat in 2011: Quality Standings, Scoreability, Real Passing Yards per Attempt, Real QB Rating, Offensive Passer Rating, Passer Rating Differential (No. 1)
Worst Quality Stat in 2011: Defensive Real Passing Yards per Attempt (No. 30)
4 1 1 4 1 30 1 18 1 9 1 11 26 2
Overall =Overall position in Quality Stats Power Rankings; QS= Quality Standings; SCOR = Scorability; Bend = Bendability; RPYPA = Real Passing Yards Per Attempt; DRPYPA = Defensive Real Passing; QBR = Real Quarterback Rating; DQBR = Defensive Real Quarterback Rating; OPR = Offensive Passer Rating; DPR = Defensive Passer Rating; PRD = Passer Rating Differential; OHI = Offensive Hog Index; DHI = Defensive Hog Index; REL = Relativity Index.

Statistical curiosity of 2011: The one surprise that really leaps out, other than how the Packers could put together such a dominant season and a 15-1 record with so many defensive statistics ranking in the bottom half of the league, is that they managed to win those 15 games by an average of 12.6 points per game. Then again, maybe it isn’t so surprising since they led the league in so many of the offensive statistics. It shows how dominant the offense they put on the field really was.

Best Game of 2011: 42–34 win at home vs. New Orleans (Week 1). The Packers were the Super Bowl Champions after finally returning to health late in the 2010 season, making the playoffs as the sixth seed on the final week of the season, then sweeping through the playoffs and the Super Bowl. The Saints had been the defending Super Bowl winners but were eliminated from the 2010 playoffs by the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks so both had something to prove as the 2011 season kicked off.
The Packers jumped to a 14-0 lead and kept their foot on the throttle as New Orleans’ offense kicked into high gear to keep the Saints within striking distance throughout a game that came down to the final play.

The Saints were 1 yard away from a touchdown and 2-point conversion to tie the game but the Packers stuffed rookie running back Mark Ingram at the line of scrimmage to hold on to a 42-34 victory. Rodgers completed 27 passes in 35 attempts for 312 yards, three touchdowns and a passer rating of 132.1. Drew Brees completed 32 passes in 49 attempts for 419 yards, three touchdowns and a passer rating of 112.5.

The game and the performance of both quarterbacks, not to mention the struggles of the Green Bay defense, set the tone for their 2011 seasons.

Worst Game of 2011: 19–14 loss at Kansas City (Week 15). Most would say that it would be the divisional-round loss to the Giants should be in this spot. But the loss to sub-par Kansas City stripped the Packers of their aura of invincibility that they had maintained all season.

The Chiefs took the opening kickoff down to Green Bay's 1-yard line in 14 plays before kicking a field goal for a 3-0 lead. On the Packers’ first drive Mason Crosby missed a 59-yard field goal, got another chance when the Chiefs were penalized for having 12 men on the field and then missed the 54-yard attempt. The Chiefs never relinquished the lead the entire game while holding Rodgers to 235 yards passing and sacking him four times. It was the same formula the Giants used later to knock the Packers out of the playoffs.

Strength: Passing Game. During their 19-game streak of never trailing in the fourth quarter, the Packers scored early to get on top of teams and kept the pressure on offensively, making it difficult for opponents to catch up.

With Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and a still effective Donald Driver as receivers plus Jermichael Finley at tight end, Aaron Rodgers has plenty of options available to move the ball downfield. Rodgers set the single-season record with a 122.5 passer rating in 2011 and threw 45 touchdown passes, one behind Drew Brees. Jordy Nelson caught 15 of those passes to finish third in the league.

Weakness: Overall Defense. Green Bay's defense was much more effective in the team's Super Bow-winning season of 2010 than it was during the 15-1 season of 2011. The decline from 2010 to 2011 was dramatic in many of our defensive Quality Stats.  

Packers 2010 vs. 2011 Defensive Quality Stats (league rank)
Category 2010 2011
Def. Real Passing Yards per Attempt 4th 30th
Defensive Real Quarterback Rating 2nd 18th
Defensive Passer Rating 1st 9th
Defensive Hog Index 10th 26th
Scoring defense 2nd 19th

Overall, it’s easy to see they were much more effective stopping opponents when the need arose in their Super Bowl season, when they finished with a 10-6 record, than they were in 2011.
In 2010, the Packers recorded 47 sacks in 2010 against a 2011 total 29. The number of sacks themselves doesn’t mean as much but it does reflect that the Packers were much less effective in pressuring opposing quarterbacks in 2011.
It all comes down to points on the board and no statistic tells the story of the decline of Green Bay's defense better than scoring. Even with all the injuries the Packers had to overcome in 2010, they still finished the season No. 2 league-wide in scoring defense (15.0 PPG) on their way to a victory in Super Bowl XLV. The Packers tumbled to 19th in scoring defense in 2011 (22.4 PPG), more than a full touchdown per game worse than in their championship season.

General off-season strategy/overview: So far, a week into the 2012 free agency period, Ted Thompson has kept a low profile. His only moves as of this writing have been to re-sign defensive back Brandian Ross and lock in Jermichael Finley to a two-year contract. They still have quite a bit of work to do to make a run at the Super Bowl in 2012.
One unforeseen consequence at the time of sitting Aaron Rodgers in favor of Matt Flynn for the final game of the 2011 season was that Flynn turned in the game of his life. He completed 31 of 44 attempts for franchise records of 480 yards and 6 TDs, with a 136.4 passer rating. Because of that performance, he was going to command a lot of interest in free agency and the Packers couldn’t afford to put a franchise tag on a second-string quarterback to keep him. Flynn ended up signing a contract with the Seahawks and will compete with Tavaris Jackson for their No. 1 quarterback job next season. The Packers will need to find someone to replace him. But can they find the heir apparent, which is who they usually like to have at No. 2 on the depth chart?
To get back to their 2010 level on defense the Packers will need to upgrade their defensive line and linebackers. Ryan Pickett will be starting his 11th season in 2012, A.J. Hawk’s production was down in 2011 and Clay Matthews had 7.5 fewer sacks in 2011 than he did in 2010. Another issue to deal with will be the suspension of defensive end Mike Neal for the first four games of the season for violating the NFL's performance-enhancing drug policy.

It's important in the first round of the draft that the team pick up someone who can help take some of the pass-rush pressure off Matthews. Fortunately for the Pack, there are quality defensive linemen available in this draft and one will certainly fall to them at No. 28 without the need to trade up.

Totally premature 2012 diagnosis: Ted Thompson making a big splash in the free agent market would be news. His activity to this point has been to sign two of his own players, which can be chalked up to business as usual. A majority of the players on the Packers since Thompson has been in charge are draft picks or undrafted free agents that the team has scouted and developed.
Just because they took a knockout punch from the Giants in the playoffs doesn’t mean they won’t be back in the ring as a team to beat next season. The Packers will be one of a handful of teams that will be favored to play in Super Bowl XLVII when the season kicks off.

They’re not losing anyone from their group of receivers so they’ll still be explosive offensively; perhaps not 15-1 explosive, but dangerous just the same. The Lions have continued to improve since Martin Mayhew took over in Detroit and the Bears have spent the free-agent period adding some explosiveness of their own. The road to the playoffs and a run at the Super Bowl could be a lot tougher for the Packers next season but they should also be a better team because of the increased competition and potential improvements on defense.