Heading into the 2010 season, the Packers' trouble with "veteran quarterbacks" was well documented. Fans and media alike kept rehashing the performances of the Packers defense against Brett Favre, Ben Roethlisberger and Kurt Warner. Free agency and the draft came and went and the Packers did seemingly nothing to bolster their secondary outside of signing undrafted free agent Sam Shields out of Miami who had played all of one season at cornerback.
Where was the improvement going to come from? Why was Ted Thompson so blind to the problems his defense was facing? These were constant refrains all summer long.
Well, it would seem that, once again, Thompson knew what the hell he was doing. Rather than over-react, he trusted in his system of drafting (or signing) and developing young players. He let the talent that was already on the roster mature along with the defensive scheme they were playing in.
And he trusted in the man who was in charge of designing that scheme.
Much has been made of Dom Capers' work in the face of the slew of injuries the Packers have sustained, but not much has been said about the job he has done fixing what ailed the Packers during the 2009 season.
Sure, the secondary staying relatively healthy has helped. They have not been forced to go to Jarrett Bush or a rookie Brandon Underwood to play key roles. But more interestingly, Capers has done a lot of the patch-work with his linebacking group rather than his corners. Time and again we have seen teams bring out their multi-receiver sets and rather than counter with his dime package, Capers has been staying in his 2-4-5 nickel.
Take a look at the play below. This is the kind of formation that was giving the Packers nightmares over the course of the second half of the 2009 season. When you saw bunches or stacks of receivers before the snap of the ball, you could be sure that one or more of those receivers would break into a wide open area and take a short pass and turn it into a huge gain. Not so this season:
The bottom of the screen is a beautiful example of the Packers "man-match" scheme on defense actually working the way it is intended to. Too many times last season you saw huge defensive breakdowns on plays like this. And while Sam Shields is getting some much deserved recognition, some recognition should be given to both Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk for how much they have improved in this area of the game. Both of them have been huge liabilities in the past when it came to defending the pass. How can one forget Hawk getting all of three snaps in favor of Brandon Chillar when the pass-happy Colts came to town two years ago? And it's hard to erase the memory of the Vikings and Texans making Bishop look silly several times.
Yet both linebackers are playing worlds better than they ever have in pass coverage, so much so in fact that they have made a case for keeping Brandon Chillar on the bench. (Chillar, while he made an excellent play against the Jets when he overpowered Ladanian Tomlinson's blitz pick-up for a sack, has been nothing short of pedestrian in coverage.) It will be interesting to see how Capers divides up the snaps on Sunday.
One of the reasons Capers has been reticent to blitz Favre is the veteran's ability to find the mismatches that can result from a blitz not getting home. Look at this play from the Jets game for a perfect example of Capers dialing up a pressure, only for the quarterback to find a receiver matched up on Hawk in a vertical route. Unless the blitz gets home in two or three seconds, this will almost always be a "win" for the offense.
The key on Sunday will be for Capers to pick his spots and to keep the exposure of guys like Hawk and Bishop to a minimum. Some might wonder why he doesn't simply counter with an extra defensive back, but the problem there comes in the form of Adrian Peterson in the backfield. For all that has been made out of Favre supposedly changing plays at the line of scrimmage, he's no fool. He'll know if his personnel has a power advantage over the defense and won't hesitate to call Peterson's number to take advantage of it. The linebackers playing as well as they are in the passing game allows Capers to keep a little more heft on the field in case Peterson's number is called.
Whatever the outcome on Sunday, Capers has done an excellent job up to this point in the season of fixing one of the biggest problems the Packers had last year. No, they have not faced a murderers-row of quarterbacks - but Capers doesn't set the schedule. He simply prepares his guys to face whoever the NFL says they play next week, and week in and week out Capers has been getting the job done.
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