GREEN BAY – Mike McCarthy not only issued the proclamation, he told everyone how they should write it, too.
“We’re going to be a better defense this year,” the Green Bay Packers coach announced Saturday evening after the NFL Draft had ended. “You can write that in big letters.”
Well, if you insist.
THE PACKERS ARE GOING TO BE A BETTER DEFENSE THIS YEAR.
This was more than just bluster the head coach. If the Packers are going to return to the Super Bowl after winning three straight division titles – but managing just one playoff victory – in the three years since they won Super Bowl XLV after the 2010 season, McCarthy knows it’s imperative that their defense, which ranked 24th in scoring (26.8 points per game) and 25th in yards allowed (372.3), must improve.
While he kept veteran defensive coordinator Dom Capers, McCarthy said in February he would be more involved in the defense, “setting the vision” while Capers and the defensive staff would carry it out. While he hasn’t divulged many details about how he’s altering the defensive approach, he has said that he was scaling back the playbook, trying to use more personnel groupings and players but fewer schemes.
“Our defensive staff has been very diligent in preparing the personnel groups, the expectations and how we’re going to package these guys,” McCarthy said. “I feel with that going into the offseason program, we have an opportunity to be better.”
The effect of those changes won’t be measured until after the games begin and McCarthy shows those changes on film. The question now, though, is whether the team has done enough on the personnel side to effect actual changes in the defense’s quality of play.
So far this offseason, the Packers have added veteran defensive end Julius Peppers and defensive tackle Letroy Guion. Released by Chicago in a cost-cutting move, the 34-year-old Peppers signed for three years and $26 million – in actuality, it’s a one-year, $8.5 million deal – and will play a hybrid end/outside linebacker position.
After Peppers played 855 snaps for the Bears last season, McCarthy indicated the team will play him considerably less than that in hopes of making him more productive after notching only seven sacks last year. Guion, meanwhile, signed a one-year deal and should help the run defense.
The club also re-signed three key defensive free agents of their own (No. 1 cornerback Sam Shields, pass rusher Mike Neal and nose tackle B.J. Raji) and picked four defensive players in the draft: first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, a safety from Alabama, at No. 21; third-round pick Khyri Thornton, a defensive lineman from Southern Mississippi, at No. 85; fourth-round pick Carl Bradford, an outside linebacker from Arizona State, at No. 121; and sixth-round pick Demetri Goodson, a cornerback from Baylor, at No. 197.
While Clinton-Dix should be an immediate starter and Thornton could be part of the defensive line rotation right away, it’s hard to predict what impact Bradford could have, and Goodson – a former basketball player at Gonzaga who once hit a game-winning shot to send the Bulldogs to the Sweet Sixteen – is a project.
The last time McCarthy pulled out the “in big letters” line was nearly a year ago, when he used the same phrase – about the running game.
“We’ll be better, I promise you that,” McCarthy said after the team’s final organized team activity practice of the offseason. “You can write that down. In big letters.”
As with the defensive changes, McCarthy had tweaked the scheme of the running game at the time of his pronouncement. He’s also shuffled the offensive line, flip-flopping guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang, and moving Bryan Bulaga to left tackle. While Bulaga’s season-ending knee injury scuttled that change, it was clear that McCarthy knew more had to be done.
In the end, though, it was the selection of running back Eddie Lacy in the second round of the draft – roughly a month before his coach’s proclamation – that had the greatest impact. As he ran for a franchise rookie record 1,178 yards in essentially only 14 games, it was obvious that Lacy was unlike any other back the Packers had had since Ahman Green was in his prime. He ran violently, seldom went down at first contact and managed to be productive even when facing crowded boxes while quarterback Aaron Rodgers was sidelined with his broken collarbone.
For McCarthy to deliver on his latest big-letters promise, he’ll need players who have a similar impact on the defense as Lacy had on the run game, whether that’s Peppers, Clinton-Dix or players already on the roster raising their levels of play (Datone Jones, Nick Perry, Morgan Burnett, Brad Jones).
“I’ve always felt that it’s really important to make sure you’re dialed into the people that are here and you know they’re going to be here,” McCarthy said. “We just want to draft good football players. It sounds simple, it sounds basic. But that’s really the thought process. So when you draft a good defensive player, I always view it as the responsibility of the coordinators to make sure we have room for that guy, within our scheme packages.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.