‘Fire Dom Capers!’ has been an annual tradition for the last few years following the season’s end. Now, that jeer has been hushed thanks to a surprisingly stellar year by Capers’ unit who were largely responsible for the Packers’ success. A great defensive game against Arizona in the playoffs is discredited by the blown coverage and missed tackles on Larry Fitzgerald’s 75 yard catch-and-run in overtime. They allowed only 30+ points once (not including the week 16 Arizona game) to Carolina, who finished as the #1 scoring offense. Regardless, the defense had a terrific year and were playing their best ball at the end of the season.

On special teams, first-year coordinator Ron Zook knew his unit would be on close watch following a Bostick blunder of epic proportions. There were no such disasters as special teams held up their end of the bargain, but a contrasting philosophy in both returns and coverages shows there is still plenty of room for improvement.

Offense grades were given out yesterday, meaning it’s time to give the defense and special teams their report card.

Defense

Defensive Line

Mike Daniels: 49 combined tackles, 4 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 INT, 2 passes defended

Much of the defense’s success was predicated by the play of the defensive line. When this group won up front, the rest of the defense followed suit. Big bodies up front opened plenty of opportunities for Clay Matthews and his linebacking core to get after the quarterback. The defense ranked 7th in the league in sacks as a result.

Mike Daniels, who rightfully earned a 4-year contract extension during the season, was the lead headhunter. A force to be reckoned with in the trenches, Daniels made it a personal mission to win his matchup on every single play. His energy, passion, and ferocity set a never-back-down standard that was infectious across the roster.

B.J. Raji returned after missing all of last year with torn biceps. He played well early on but eased into a role as second-fiddle to Daniels. Raji only recorded 0.5 sacks, but his presence was felt and made plays up front that contained the likes of Marshawn Lynch and Adrian Peterson. Mike Pennel made his name familiar with fans and earned a shot at more snaps next season, potentially as Raji’s replacement if Green Bay let’s the Freezer walk after this year.

Datone Jones took a big step up in production this year, including a big game against Minnesota in week 11 totaling 2 sacks, 5 QB hurries and a pass deflection. Jones also blocked a kick and forced an interception against the Rams. Overall, the defensive line was the forefront to an improved defense, winning battles at the line of scrimmage that set up the rest of the defense behind them.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

Julius Peppers: 37 combined tackles, 10.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles

Clay Matthews: 66 combined tackles, 6.5 sacks, 1 INT, 3 passes defended

At 36 years old, Julius Peppers continues to be an ageless wonder. He led the team in sacks and showed he still has some gas left in the tank as a dangerous edge-rusher. Peppers was a culprit of leaving Fitzgerald open when his pass-rush instinct kicked in and left his assignment to close on Palmer. Still, it shouldn’t knock his tremendous season and Green Bay would likely welcome him back with open arms if he so chooses.

Clay Matthews earned a Pro Bowl bid after his first full year at inside linebacker. His numbers, understandably, have gone down; but, his importance to the defense has only increased. McCarthy wants to move Clay back to outside backer, meaning moves should be made to solidify the middle with true inside linebackers and let Clay run wild back in his natural position.

Sam Barrington’s season-ending injury gave Nate Palmer and rookie Jake Ryan a chance to prove their worth. Palmer ended the season with 68 tackles, tied for second on the team. Palmer, however, had his struggles which gave Jake Ryan some snaps. Ryan finished with 50 tackles without seeing the field for the better part of the season, and looked more comfortable the more he played, earning a starting spot over Palmer.

Mike Neal finished third on the team in sacks with four and Nick Perry fell right behind him with 3.5. Perry had his best game in the playoffs, racking up 2.5 sacks against Washington. Jayrone Elliott also made a name for himself this season, including an interception and game-sealing forced fumble against Seattle.

The cohesion between the defensive line and linebackers led the 8th-best defense in first downs allowed and 9th-best in third down conversions. The strength in this group lies in their ability to rush the passer, yet they struggle in coverage when not in zone. A true inside linebacker, preferably one who can cover, is a need that must be addressed which would allow Clay to move back outside.

Grade: B+

Defensive Backs

Sam Shields: 39 combined tackles, 3 INT, 1 fumble recovery, 16 passes defended

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix: 100 combined tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT, 1 fumble recovery, 3 passes defended

Another particularly solid group throughout the year resides in the secondary which included three rookie cornerbacks finished 6th in passing yards/game, 9th in interceptions and 4th in opponent completion percentage.

The two names listed above, Shields and Clinton-Dix, had their best years as pros this season. Ha Ha took that next step in his second-year, a stride that McCarthy challenges each of his young players to take. He finished first on the team in tackles and showed great improvement in pass coverage, making smarter reads as he bounced around playing deep and up front near the line of scrimmage. Sam Shields struggled inWweek 1 against Chicago, but played at a high level the rest of the way even while being responsible for the team’s opposing #1 wide receiver. A concussion against the Dallas Cowboys held him out of four straight games before returning to the field against Arizona in the playoffs. Everyone will remember Shields dropping a couple potential interceptions in the Arizona game that probably advance Green Bay to the next round, but his play this season shouldn’t be undermined by missed opportunities.

Morgan Burnett was another player who had a strong showing year-round. Burnett played in Week 2, but his absence in Week 1 and the weeks after wWek 2 showed how valuable he was to the defense. Matt Forte ran for 141 yards in Week 1 and Todd Gurley shredded the defense for 159 yards when he was gone. Burnett’s presence at the line solidified the run defense in Week 2 when Marshawn Lynch gained just 41 yards.

Rookie Damarious Randall was a standout player on the roster all season. Right off the bat he showed he was ready to play, defending a pass in 13 of the 17 games he played in. Randall held Dez Bryant, an elite receiver, to one catch for 9 yards on six targets after Shields went down with his concussion. His ball skills earned him three interceptions, one of which he took to the house to match fellow rookie Quinten Rollins’ pick-six against the Rams. Randall showed struggles that are expected of rookies but also made plays expected of veterans, totaling 58 tackles on the year.

Micah Hyde, often, was assigned to the opposing team’s tight end and had his struggles in those matchups. Hyde filled in for Burnett at safety early in the year and still finished with three picks and six passes defended, making a miraculous one-handed snag in Week 17. The secondary fought through injuries, excelling due to the improved play of several returning players and rookies stepping up to make impact plays

Grade: B+

Special Teams

Kicker

Mason Crosby: 24/28 FGs, 36/36 XPs, 41 touchbacks, 1 forced fumble

Crosby continues to show his worth as one of the premier kickers in the league, proving his dismal 2012 season where he converted 63.6% of his kicks was a fluke. He was one of six kickers to make every extra point he attempted, which is equivalent to a 32-yard field goal on every attempt. This makes sense since he has a career 88% conversion rate from the 30-39 yard range, including 4/4 from that range on field goal attempts in 2015. The biggest letdown of Crosby’s season was his knuckleball miss at home against Detroit, a kick that would have won the game and preserved a 24-year win streak in Lambeau against the Lions. His biggest struggle was from 40-49 yards, where he went 8/11 on field goal attempts. His other miss came from 50+ yards, where he went 4/5. Crosby was a Vikings killer this year, going 5-for-5 on the road to beat Minnesota and then stripping Cordarrelle Patterson in Week 17 on a long kickoff return. The consistency from Crosby gives himself and the team the utmost confidence in his booming leg.

Grade: A

Punter

Tim Masthay: 81 punts, 43.9 yards avg, 40.3 net avg, 18 inside the 20, 6 touchbacks

After a career-low 49 punts last season, Masthay punted a career-high 81 times due to the offense’s inability to convert third downs all season. A career-high in net average overshadows a very disappointing year by the punter, who had his second-lowest average of 43.9 yards per punt. Prior to the season, he pinned opposing teams inside the 20 yard line on 114 of his 309 total punts (good for 36.9%). This season, he did it on just 18 of his 81 punts (a meager 22.2%). A normally reliable punter now has his work cut out for him in the offseason if he wants to hold his place on the team.

Grade: D

Kickoff & Punt Coverage

On kickoffs, Green Bay finished 29th in opponent return average allowing 26.7 yards. On punts, Green Bay finished first in opponent return average allowing 4.2 yards. The substantial difference between the coverage teams tells there is still more work to be done. Both coverage teams, on the bright side, kept the opposition out of the end zone. An improved special teams from last year still left holes on kickoff returns, allowing a season-long 104 yard return to Ameer Abdullah. The punt coverage, however, was exceptional. Jeff Janis flew down the sideline on multiple occasions, perfectly timing the tackle with the ball landing in the returner’s arms.  A fix to kickoff coverage and a repeat of the success Ron Zook found on punt coverage would further solidify a unit that seeks to make an atrocious 2014 season vanish from memory.

Grade: C+

Kickoff & Punt Returns

Here, again, another striking divergence in punt and kickoff units displays the inconsistencies of the special teams. On kickoff returns, Green Bay ranked 11th with an average of 24.5 yards per return. On punt returns, Green Bay ranked 30th with an average of 5.4 yards per return. Jeff Janis showed good vision and explosiveness on kickoffs, including a long of 70 yards. Micah Hyde, on the other hand, fell far short of expectations especially considering his fantastic 2014 campaign as a punt returner. Hyde entered the season with a 13.6 average and two touchdowns on punt returns in his career. A woeful 5.8 average and a long of 16 yards this year made punt returns a non-factor for Green Bay, an area they could have desperately used explosive plays to offset a dreary offensive performance. Look for Ty Montgomery to bring a spark to this unit next season.

Grade: C-