oates photo for WEB 11-6

Saints wide receiver Brandon Coleman celebrates his TD reception against Packers free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix on Oct. 22 at Lambeau Field.

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Brett Hundley’s debut as a starting quarterback dominated the discussion after Green Bay’s loss to New Orleans two weeks ago, which gave the defense a free pass despite giving up 485 total yards to quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints.

Now, the days of the free passes are over.

When the Packers reconvene after their bye week to face Detroit tonight at Lambeau Field, they likely will have every starter on defense available to them for the first time since the opener. It won’t get any better than that for defensive coordinator Dom Capers, so if this unit truly has improved since it was run off the field by quarterback Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game, now would be a good time to show it.

After six-and-a-half seasons of aimless, inconsistent play, the defense is needed more than ever. Aaron Rodgers isn’t coming back anytime soon and Hundley needs help as he tries to keep Green Bay afloat in the NFC North Division. Moreover, the Packers will face another top quarterback tonight in Matthew Stafford, who torched them for 300-plus passing yards twice last season.

The Packers defense started strong but quickly fell apart against New Orleans. It couldn’t get off the field as a combination of little pass rush and poor pass coverage allowed the Saints to march at will. The worst part? Safety Morgan Burnett was Green Bay’s only missing starter.

The continuing failures of the Packers defense since they won the 2010 Super Bowl have led people to wonder where the real problem lies. Capers is highly respected in NFL circles, but has the game passed him by? Or is general manager Ted Thompson not supplying Capers with good enough players?

Most likely, it is a combination of the two. Thompson’s recent drafts have failed to produce the big-time playmakers that his early drafts did. And Capers hasn’t done an effective job of coaching the talent he has at his disposal, especially once injuries hit, as they inevitably do.

Thompson’s early drafts weren’t perfect (See: Harrell, Justin) but they were productive. He added Nick Collins on the second round in 2005 and first-round picks B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews in 2009. Throw in some shrewd free-agent signings (Charles Woodson and Ryan Pickett) and solid finds with undrafted free agents (Tramon Williams and Sam Shields) and the Packers had playmakers on all three levels of defense in 2009 and 2010.

As that core group dissipated, however, Thompson couldn’t resupply the defense because many of his draft picks didn’t pan out and his forays into free agency were few and far between.

Thompson used his first six picks on defenders in 2012 and hit on first-rounder Nick Perry, second-rounder Casey Hayward and fourth-rounder Mike Daniels, though the Packers somehow let Hayward leave in free agency. The next three first-round picks were Datone Jones in 2013, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in 2014 and Damarious Randall in 2015. Jones was a bust, Clinton-Dix has regressed after coming on strong last season and Randall has flashed big-play ability but has been held back by injuries and a questionable attitude.

Other than Daniels, about the only consistent playmakers Thompson added from 2011 through 2015 were free agent Julius Peppers and 2015 fifth-round pick Micah Hyde. They, too, were allowed to leave in free agency.

The good news is Kenny Clark, Blake Martinez, Kevin King and Josh Jones, who were drafted the past two years, are showing great promise. However, their play hasn’t translated into overall improvement by the defense, which ranks in the bottom half of the NFL in most statistical categories.

That has to be troubling for coach Mike McCarthy, who has steadfastly stood by Capers. But a coach’s job is to find a way to win with the talent he has and Capers hasn’t done that in recent years, especially against elite quarterbacks.

Is he being too dogmatic and refusing to change his defense to fit his personnel? The scheme employed by Capers since his Pittsburgh days has survived the test of time. But while Capers had top-five defenses when he had all that talent in 2009 and 2010, he hasn’t been able to field a consistent or highly ranked defense since.

In coaching, if the players don’t fit the scheme, the scheme needs to be changed to fit the players. Allowing Hayward and Hyde to depart indicates an unwillingness to do that since neither one has great speed. Yet, playing for other teams, Hayward led the NFL in interceptions last year and Hyde is leading it this year.

Is Capers being overly complicated on defense, especially in this era of ever-changing personnel groups? That would seem to be the case because every time the defense plays poorly, the list of excuses usually starts with communication breakdowns.

If repeated communication issues are the reason receivers keep running through the middle of the defense unchecked and the Packers have only 10 men on the field in critical situations, then maybe Capers does need to simplify things.

Again, the measure of a coach is what he does with what he has. No one should give Thompson a free pass, but at this point the onus is squarely on Capers to take this group of players and mold them into a defense that can help the Packers win. The season depends on it.

Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com.

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Tom Oates has been part of the Wisconsin State Journal sports department since 1980 and became its editorial voice in 1996, traversing the state and country to bring readers a Madison perspective on the biggest sports stories of the day.