The Green Bay Packers learned some difficult lessons on defense last season, indeed, the last couple of seasons.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers' unit struggled for a variety of reasons, most of them related to A) injuries and B) the team's relative youth.
"We have two really big strong, outlining issues: We're always going to be young—a lot of issues, challenges—and our availability hasn't been what it needs to be the last two years," explained head coach Mike McCarthy at Packers minicamp this week.
The two issues go hand in hand. Take last year's playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers for example.
In that game, Clay Matthews was out with a broken thumb, Nick Perry was hobbled by a broken foot and Mike Neal sustained a knee injury mid-game. As a result, the Packers were forced to rely upon undrafted rookie Andy Mulumba.
While Mulumba might have a bright future in the NFL, he wasn't the type of player you wanted to rely upon in the playoffs against the defending NFC champions, at least not in January of 2014.
The situation was so dire, even Datone Jones had to line up out of position at outside linebacker for a handful of snaps in that game against the 49ers.
These issues the Packers have encountered with youth and health, sometimes they're a victim of circumstance and sometimes it's their own fault.
Under the Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy regime that's nine years in the making, the Packers have been consistently—and voluntarily—one of the youngest teams in the NFL.
It's a philosophy they adhere to, parting ways with veterans before they're past their prime and replacing them with young players—mostly rookies—that tend to be faster, quicker, stronger, more spry.
The philosophy worked in 2010. Despite 16 players placed on injured reserve, the Packers still found a way to reach the pinnacle of professional football and win Super Bowl XLV.
And even though they haven't been able to match that achievement since, the Packers have won three straight division titles and have qualified for the playoffs five straight seasons, tied for the longest streak in the NFL. The bottom line is they're winning far more than they're losing.
As for the injuries, it's debateable how many can be prevented. Arguably, the Packers couldn't avoid the broken bones suffered by Perry last season, but perhaps better training techniques could help prevent the numerous hamstring issues by the likes of Casey Hayward, Clay Matthews and more.
In any case, the Packers are finally responding to their problems pertaining to youth and health on defense in a "better late than never" sort of way.
"You can't keep sitting here talking about 'Well hey, shoot, we had injuries again. It just didn't quite work out,'" said McCarthy. "Not that I'm saying we're preparing that way, we're preparing if we have 26 defensive players, then all 26 need to be prepared to contribute, and we can tailor it better to their abilities.
"Now, there's a lot of projection that goes into that, and frankly, I think the coaching staff has done a phenomenal job. There's been a lot of long nights back in February and March that put us in a position to teach this offensive scheme, defensive scheme and special teams from Day 1 so our players are able to get through all the installation."
McCarthy has described the changes taking place on defense as "less scheme, more personnel." Maybe it should be remembered as "Dom Capers' last stand." One more year like 2013 and Capers' career with the Packers will come to an end, either by being fired or forced into retirement.
There's no excuses this year. For one, the Packers went out and got active in free agency this season for the first time in a long time. The youth issue has been addressed.
In addition to the high-profile signing of Julius Peppers, the Packers also went out and acquired defensive lineman Letroy Guion to boot.
While the Packers will still have a young team, they probably won't be near the very bottom. The core of the defense—Matthews, Sam Shields, Tramon Williams, B.J. Raji—are all another year older and at 34, Peppers will only raise the average age of the team.
Then there's the injuries, and the Packers have responded by trying to become more flexible, and it's happening at all levels of the defense.
In the trenches, players like Pepers, Neal and Perry are all filling the role of the newly created "Elephant" position, a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end.
At the second level, It's been debated whether newly drafted linebacker Carl Bradford will fill an inside or outside role.
And in the secondary, Micah Hyde has been switched to safety while keeping open the possibility of playing a slot cornerback spot.
And so, the Packers' offseason program, which wraps up with a final minicamp practice on Thursday, has been focused on implementing Capers' new schemes and systems. The goal is to put the mistakes of yesteryear behind them and get back to the playmaking mode Capers' defense has been in the past.
"You spend time trying to do things exactly right and the way it's supposed to go," said Williams. "In reality, this game is not going to be perfect. You're playing against another group of guys that at some point, they're going to get the best of you. You have to be willing to stay mentally in the game, stay focused and be able to make that play when the time comes. That's what makes a team great.
"You can cover up for those things when you're making plays out there, and that's what we're going to get back to. We've been doing this for years since I've been here. We've been at the top, making plays, kind of came on more toward the end of last year, making plays-wise. But we're going to start it up again, and I can guarantee that, like Mike (McCarthy) said."
The jury's still out whether the changes the Packers have been implementing will work. It's not even training camp, let alone the regular season.
But things are looking up for the Packers defense. The additions of Peppers, Guion and first round draft choice Ha Ha Clinton-Dix point toward better things to come.
As far as the month of June goes, so far, good.
"We're where we need to be right now. I feel very good about our defense," said McCarthy. "I talked about it today in a team meeting. We have never been this far, as far as the mental consistency—and it has a lot to do with what we've been able to get done in Phase 2—and I think the volume helped.
"But our defense, as far as the communication and the clearness of getting in and out of these personnel groups, this is as good as its been in my memory."
Brian Carriveau is the author of the book "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor of Cheesehead TV's "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email [email protected].
Photo: Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers by Jeff Hanisch—USA TODAY Sports.
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