While Ted Thompson could certainly still sign or trade for an outside linebacker, some secondary help, or a return man, the 53 men who will be representing the Green Bay Packers in 2010 have been assembled and are ready to begin practicing on Monday morning for their opening game against the Eagles. Looking down the roster I still feel, even stronger now that I know what the general makeup of the personnel is going to be, that what I wrote back in April was correct. To summarize, I believe the Packers are counting on Dom Capers to make the necessary adjustments in lieu of what can only be considered a paucity of options when it comes to rushing the passer.
In my mind, this is the key line from that post:
...when Mike McCarthy and Dom Capers sat down and went over the cut-ups on the defensive side of the ball, they saw a lot that Capers could do to improve with what they have on hand personnel wise.
I have no doubt we'll see a bunch of non-scouted stuff a week from today in Philadelphia. And I have no doubt the defense will look better than most fans expect. That's not to say there are not legitimate concerns: Brad Jones, who will be counted on opposite Clay Matthews, hardly played this preseason. Neither did Matthews, for that matter, though at least he has a track record of success when it comes to rushing the passer. The secondary is still young and actually got younger with the release of Will Blackmon and the addition of Sam Shields who, along with Brandon Underwood and Pat Lee, have got to be the biggest question marks on this team.
However, Capers is not completely bereft of talent on the defensive side of the ball. I know all the gnashing of teeth over the outside linebacker spot and the nickel and dime corners tends to obscure the fact that this is still a defense which features the reigning Defensive Player of the Year along with a two-time Pro Bowler in Nick Collins. And there is young talent emerging up front. If you haven't figured it out yet - Mike Neal is a player, and will be a big part of the expected improvement on the defensive side of the ball. I completely agree with what Greg Bedard had to say about Neal when Greg appeared on Packer Transplants last week - Neal should replace B.J. Raji in the Nickel. Like, yesterday. The guy is already the second best pass rushing defensive linemen on the squad, after Cullen Jenkins, and he hasn't even played his first regular season game yet.
Regardless of the positives or the negatives, Capers will be judged by one thing: results.
And those results will determine how real the Packers' Super Bowl chances are.
"The offense will be fine", while it sounds lazy, is actually correct. The offense WILL be fine. Aaron Rodgers and company will have their ups and downs as any NFL team does throughout the course of a 16 game season. But for the most part they will be able to score on anyone, anywhere, at anytime.
Which brings us back to the defense. If there is going to be any marked improvement in the pass rush, it will come from an increase in the multiple places the blitz comes from and when it comes. I got rapped on the knuckles for daring to write "Capers needs to blitz more" - which isn't actually what I wrote, but Donald's Designated Driver makes the right point: It's not as simple as that. It's not a question of sending more guys more often. It's a question of sending different guys at different times. Too often the Packers relied on one of three versions of pressure - the cross-dog from their middle linebackers, the slot blitz by Woodson, or the straight-up four man rush from the Nickel with two defensive linemen and two outside linebackers. By the end of the year even my oldest daughter could tell when the cross-dog was coming.
That isn't to say Capers never got creative. He designed and called some creative stuff, especially against younger quarterbacks like Jay Cutler and Tony Romo. But, and stop me if you've heard this one before, the veteran QBs the Packers faced rarely saw much beyond the three types of pressure I just listed above. One trap I think Capers fell into last season was being so dedicated to stopping the run that he constantly put himself in bad positions when he came up against guys like Favre or Warner, quarterbacks who could easily recognize what the defense was trying to do on early downs. The veteran quarterbacks easily made the necessary adjustments.
Now, fans would no doubt welcome more pressure looks and calls from Capers, but they have to take the good with the bad. As DDD indicates in his post, the drunk at the bar is always calling for his team to "blitz more" - only to curse the team when it allows a big pass play. Bill Johnson is spot on when he says, as he has several times on Green and Gold Today, that fans would have to live with the occasional big play if they want to reap the benefits of some extra pressure.
The company line from the Packers has been that Capers has been playing "vanilla" this preseason, but if you take a closer look, I think we actually saw a small sneak peak during the Colts game of the small shift Capers will be making this year. After watching Manning move the ball pretty well for a few series, Capers started to dial up some pressure. Nothing exotic, but it was interesting to see him sending Nick Collins and Charles Woodson. Now, Woodson was a regular on the pass rush rotation last year, but we rarely saw Collins coming on a blitz. In fact, just three weeks ago Leroy Butler was talking on Packer Transplants about how the team would probably prefer to keep Collins back to play center-field. Yet there Collins was against the Colts, dropping down into the box:
Now, he doesn't get to the passer, but notice how he occupies the running back who would have been there to help against Mike Neal had Collins not come flying in. The play encapsulates exactly what I feel the Packers need to do this season. Bring different guys from different places and let guys like Mike Neal, Cullen Jenkins and Clay Matthews take advantage of the confusion and the one-on-ones that are produced as a result.
Fans tend to overreact to the final roster as it is and this year, with expectations sky high, the rehtoric is especially ridiculous. We tend to latch on to the images from the playoff game and the games against the Vikings and Steelers and think that the league is set to roll over the Packers. In actuality, football games are won and lost by two things: Star players and one or two plays a game. The Packers have the star players in Rodgers, Woodson, Finley and Matthews. Now they need to stop the 3rd and 17 conversion by Favre. They need to stop letting down their guard on a Steelers pass play where Hines Ward gets behind Bush for a big gain after it looks like the defense has come up with a big 3rd down stop. The list goes on and on. Each game the Packers lost against "veteran quarterbacks" could have easily gone the other way had the defense come up with one play it didn't, usually a 3rd down where the likes of Jarrett Bush or Brandon Underwood were caught looking in the backfield or where the pass rush was non-existent.
Look no further than the current Super Bowl champions. They didn't have a lights-out defense. No one would confuse them with the 2008 Steelers. And they had their own issues in the secondary throughout last season. But they made the one or two plays necessary when they needed to be made, came up with one or two stops that helped swing games toward their direction. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' heavy pressure scheme, with multiple personnel blitz packages, played a big part in that. Sense a theme here? There's no reason the Packers can't take the step the Saints took last year. Football Outsiders' founder Aaron Schatz is fond of noting that offense tends to be much more consistent from year to year and that teams like the Colts and Saints simply keep trying to match a defense that will do just enough with an already potent offense. I think this is the path the Packers have set themselves on.
The Packers have all the tools they need to get to the Super Bowl. We know the offense is up to the challenge. The hopes and dreams of Packer fans everywhere rests with Dom Capers and the defense.
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