GREEN BAY – More personnel. Less scheme.
“Is that the motto that was given?” A.J. Hawk asked with a smirk Thursday.
As a matter of fact, yes. It’s how Mike McCarthy has been describing all offseason how the Green Bay Packers will be approaching things on defense this year, the “vision” – to use the head coach’s word – that defensive coordinator Dom Capers and his staff have begun carrying out at McCarthy’s behest.
And while it’s not exactly the Steel Curtain, the Doomsday Defense or the Legion of Boom, the not-so-sexy slogan just might be what fixes the Packers’ problems on that side of the ball.
The Packers’ defense finished tied for 24th in scoring defense (26.8 points per game) in 2013, 25th in yards allowed (372.3), tied for eighth in sacks (44) and tied for 20th in takeaways (22). For comparison, when the Packers won the Super Bowl XLV title, the defense ranked second in scoring defense (15.0), fifth in yards allowed (309.1), tied for second in sacks (47), and were sixth in takeaways (32).
“I think we have to change something – not change, but we have to evolve,” said Hawk, the defense’s elder statesman, having been a starter since 2006. “We need to find a way to play better. We need to find a way to get off the field. I don’t think you have to make any crazy, drastic changes, I don’t think that’s what we’re going to do. But you have to find a way to evaluate what we did wrong and find a way to get better at that. … It’s not rocket science.
“I think any defensive guy will tell you, it’s not about the defense Coach Capers calls, it’s about how we execute it and how we do. We’re always trying to simplify things and put guys in positions to make plays. It’s up to us as players to make those plays. They’re just constantly evolving and doing that I think.”
That evolution will lead to different personnel groupings being used, but fewer defenses being called for each of those packages.
“So in this package, you might have five or six different things as opposed to having 15,” Capers explained. “The deal is, we’ve got the different personnel groups, which ones can we put together that feature our best personnel and that are the most successful for us?”
The personnel options certainly are intriguing. With the signing of ex-Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers, who’ll play a hybrid end/outside linebacker role, the Packers actually have a host of versatile bodies who can – they hope – create mismatches. Their pass-rushing options include Peppers; four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who isn’t practicing as he comes back from a twice-broken right thumb; defensive end-turned-outside linebacker Mike Neal; 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry; interior rusher Mike Daniels, who led linemen with 6.5 sacks last season; 2013 first-round pick Datone Jones; and reserve inside linebacker Jamari Lattimore, who flashed while filling in for an injured Brad Jones last season.
“I think it’s great, the changes that we’re putting in,” said Matthews, who said he expects to be full-go for training camp when it opens July 26. “I think it’s a shot in the arm and will provide kind of a little rejuvenation to this team, especially to the defensive side of this locker room. I’m really looking forward to it and hopefully it will present some problems for opponents.”
Certainly the combination of Matthews and Peppers – neither of whom has ever had a big-name pass-rusher on the opposite side to complement them – has that kind of problem-presenting potential.
“I haven’t really played with a guy like Clay, really my whole career,” Peppers said in his first conversation with reporters since his signing in March. “Early in my career (in Carolina), I played with a guy, Mike Rucker, who was a threat on the other side. But like a really dominant player on the outside? I really haven’t had that – ever. I’m excited to get out there with him and see what he can do.”
Asked about the process of learning Capers’ defense, Peppers replied, “It’s been pretty smooth, actually. From what I heard, they scaled things back, made it a little bit simpler. That’s good for me coming in, I don’t have to learn as much.”
And that’s the hope the Packers have for all their defensive players. Because of their draft-and-develop approach to roster-building, they will always have young players in key roles, or at the very least young players waiting in the wings if injury strikes. Getting more players involved while simplifying the scheme should benefit those players, who won’t need to possess and encyclopedic knowledge of Capers’ roughly 150 different defenses to be able to contribute.
“We’ve learned some hard lessons here of late, the last couple years of maybe playing some players that probably weren’t quite ready because of the scheme,” McCarthy said. “[You want to be] utilizing your best players, and that’s a trap you just don’t want to fall into as a coach. Everybody prepares this way. We’re just tilting a little more that way than we have in the past.
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.