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Changes to Packers Defense Focus on Youth and Health, Call It "Dom Capers' Last Stand"

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Changes to Packers Defense Focus on Youth and Health, Call It "Dom Capers' Last Stand"

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 carriveau@uwalumni.com.

Photo: Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers by Jeff Hanisch—USA TODAY Sports.

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (15) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

RCPackerFan's picture

From what I have been hearing/reading it sounds like Capers is finally adapting his scheme to fit the players he has vs. forcing the players he has to play his scheme.

I do believe this could potentially be one of the better defenses the Packers have had since 2010. At the end of last season Williams finally was playing like he did in the 2010 season. We get Hayward back and if he plays like he did his rookie year he adds another playmaker to the DB's. They will be improved at Safety.
Also, they have brought in Peppers, Bradford and Thornton to help be rushers. We should expect to see guys like Datone Jones improve also.

I like the potential of our defense. Just have to see it on the field.

Tarynfor12's picture

So,if the scheme was found to be too complex for the players and the failings of that defense was blamed on Capers and now with the scheme being mostly tailored to the player(s),if the failings continue should the blame again be solely on Capers or do we now accept that the level of talent/ability in those we have as a group is the failing?

This is a huge year for the Packers but more so for the defense and not only whether Capers is gone or not.

Perry needs a complete year if a 5th year option is deemed worthy of picking up...and missing all of the off season isn't boding well for that.
Worthy though suffering a major injury and with no option year also needs to instill a decent return or he may be missing next season.
Burnett,contract cannot be a driving force to retain mediocrity or less.
Raji must prevail at NT to extremes to warrant a return,which I doubt he wants in GB regardless of play.
Peppers is the 'fix-a-flat' air can which allows time to get service....the doughnut tire only lasts so long safely.

The point is that this 'tailoring' of scheme to fit players has much riding on it other than simply making the playoff cut....a defensive implosion may lie ahead which will take away more premium years away from you know who and you know what.

Allan Murphy's picture

good point !

4thand1's picture

you suck

lucky953's picture

I agree that the only OLB with coverage skill is Mathews. However I think they will play a lot of nickel/dime in passing situations with Hyde and Hayward. I think they see their OLBs primarily as rush backers. Stopping the run was a big problem. Can these OLBs "flow to the ball" and stop the 4-5 yd runs? They've got the strength; do they have the lateral speed?

4thand1's picture

Did you happen to see the epidemic of hammies last year(around the league)............................you suck

4thand1's picture

So now you're calling down hockey players? I'd like to see you face to face with any one of them. Martin St.louis could mop up the floor with you. The Kings had 4 lines that averaged over 200 lbs per man.
you suck.

4thand1's picture

you suck

Allan Murphy's picture

they will reform capers this year because i think this def will be top 10 for sure (AND YOU CAN WRITE THAT DOWN ) TOP TEN BB !!!!!!!!!!!!

Otto's picture

I don't know who said it, but for a Capers defense to be successful it needs to have veteran players. I saw a statement by a former Steeler saying the difference between the Packers 3-4 and the Steelers is the Steelers would never let that many rookies start. The D is too complex.
I like the "dumbing down" plan. A defensive player is at his best when he can just react, he doesn't have to think.

Zola Davis's picture

Cue the soundtrack "Last dance with Mary Jane"! Picture MM dancing with a limp dummy looking like DC.

Seriously, are coaches contracts public? Has Dom lasted this long because of a payout provision?

Jordan's picture

Payout provision? Are you even aware that Mike McCarthy's offense didn't score enough points to win the game in Super Bowl XLV? It took Collins defensive touchdown to have enough points to win the game.

Are you even aware that in week 17 of 2010, mike McCarthy's offense only scored 10 points at home ? It took capers defense holding the bears to 3 points for the packers to even make the playoffs in 2010. In the playoffs, capers defense gave up an average of 19 points per game......obviously against playoff teams.

I doubt that you're aware that the packers defense only gave up 23 points to San Fran last year in the playoffs without shields, Matthews, and Hayward, and Jolly. ........while McCarthys offense could only come up with 20 at Lambeau Field.

Come on. At least use google or something.

4thand1's picture

Seaschickens proved last year that defense still wins championships. Jordan, did you forget who the SB MVP was?

zeke's picture

I think Jordan is arguing the same point, no?

4thand1's picture

I meant when the Packers won. He doesn't seem to give the offense any credit.

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