GREEN BAY – Mike McCarthy has been reluctant to publicly divulge any specifics about his plans for changes to the Green Bay Packers defense this offseason. And you can’t really blame him – he says he simply wants to tell his players about them first.
And since offseason rules ban the Packers coach from talking football with his players – even the ones who pass through 1265 Lombardi Ave. during the offseason for workouts – the coaching staff hasn’t clued them in on the alterations, either.
"I'm not sure [what they have planned],” starting inside linebacker Brad Jones said as the annual Tailgate Tour kicked off earlier this week. “I think it will be some good stuff, honestly. I think some new wrinkles and some good changes will come. I don't know the exact changes, but I'm excited. I'm definitely excited."
From his post-season wrap-up press conference in January, to when he introduced his new or reassigned coaches in early February, to the NFL Scouting Combine in late February, to the NFL Meetings in March, McCarthy has been asked repeatedly what would be different about the defense.
“I’ll set the vision for the defense; Dom Capers and the defensive staff will carry it out,” he said in early February. “There will be some adjustments.”
At the NFL Meetings, the closest McCarthy would get to specifics was to say. “We want to do more things with different personnel groups. We want to be more personnel groups, less volume schematically. We have a lot of creativity in our scheme that we really didn’t get to last year because of injuries, so with that, just a common approach and our evaluation defensively is to make sure we have multiple personnel groups with the right amount of volume schematically.”
The Packers’ defense finished tied for 24th in scoring defense (26.8 points per game) in 2013, 25th in yards allowed (372.3), 25th in rushing yards allowed (125.0), 24th in passing yards allowed (247.3), tied for eighth in sacks (44) and tied for 20th in takeaways (22).
Players return to work next Tuesday for the opening of the club’s offseason program, and at some point the returning players will meet the biggest personnel change of the offseason: Defensive end/outside linebacker Julius Peppers, whom the Packers signed in March after he was released by the rival Chicago Bears. At this point, that’s the one change the players know about – and it’s a big one, they say.
“I'm excited about it,” Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews said in an interview with USA Today Sports. “Most people are curious as to how they're going to use him in a 3-4 scheme, but I don't think it matters. I think you line him up on the field in a zero-, one-, three-, five-, seven-, nine-technique — he's going to get attention, and he's going to get double teams. It's going to create opportunities for one of us on the field to have our one-on-one matchups, and that's where that person needs to win.
“If you look at two guys on the field, you've got 52 (Matthews' jersey number) and 56, (which) is (Peppers’) new number. ... Then you add Mike Daniels, (who) came off a very good second year. I think he had 6.5 sacks and another one in the playoffs. Nick Perry was doing well (until) he had a freak accident where someone landed on his ankle and broke his heel bone. Mike Neal — I know we just re-upped him for another two years — he had a pretty good year. B.J. (Raji) coming back. He's got a one-year (contract) to showcase his talents again.
“So, I think we have a lot of pieces. It's about putting it together now. We'll see, but I'm excited about it, because it provides kind of a new spark and a new energy.”
Cornerback Jarrett Bush, who spent the summer of 2006 in the Carolina Panthers’ training camp with Peppers, said he expects Peppers’ impact to be greatest in what it allows others on defense to do.
“I think he's going to give teams a lot of trouble, especially with Clay, Nick Perry, Mike Neal, Mike Daniels,” Bush said. “They can't just double Clay anymore, so he's going to wreak havoc over there. I played with him in Carolina before I came here to the Packers, so I got to see his ability over there in Carolina. He's definitely a force to be reckoned with. I think with Clay and the whole gang, I think we'll be a championship caliber team."
In order to be that kind of team again, the Packers must find a way to be better defensively. When they won the Super Bowl XLV title following the 2010 season, the Packers finished second in scoring defense (15.0 points per game), fifth in yardage allowed (309.1 yards per game), tied for second in sacks (47), and sixth in takeaways (32).
“Everybody's excited about our defense and what we're capable of,” Matthews told USA Today. “The injuries and some shortcomings here and there — it's been our Achilles' heel for a few years now. We'll lead the league in sacks but give up the most yards. We'll have the most turnovers, but have the most (of something else). We need to operate on all cylinders.
“When you have an offense with Aaron Rodgers and those guys over on that side who are going to score at minimum, at least 24 points a game — I'm being (conservative) — you expect your defense to take care of their end of the bargain.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.