GREEN BAY—The last time the Packers had a bye week, two months ago, they returned with a different-looking defense.
Clay Matthews was playing inside linebacker on run downs, Micah Hyde was manning the slot as the nickel corner more often, and rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix became a full-time starter at safety.
Don’t expect changes on that level next week when the Packers come off their playoff bye, but there could be a few new looks or packages in store for the postseason. Head Coach Mike McCarthy even suggested as much.
“Our defense has played excellent football since the bye week,” McCarthy said this past Monday. “The second half in Atlanta I look at more as a blip on the screen. I’m excited about some new wrinkles we may move forward with and what we can do in the playoffs.”
Therein lies the balance McCarthy and his defensive coordinator, Dom Capers, must find. The extra preparation time allows them to devise a new call or two that their next playoff opponent won’t have seen, but any adjustments can’t derail the steady growth shown by a unit that has climbed 10 spots in total yards allowed (from 25th to 15th) and nine spots in rushing yards allowed (from 32nd to 23rd) over its last eight games.
“I certainly like the progress we’ve made since the bye week, the second half of the season,” Capers said. “I like the chemistry I see with our defense right now.”
That chemistry has developed, in part, by the utilization of so many different players, which McCarthy has talked about all season. He went into the year “not relying on 11 players to play 1,100 snaps” and has held to that.
Among the more recent changes, Sam Barrington has been incorporated as an inside linebacker in the nickel since the New England game, and cornerback Casey Hayward has seen the field a bit more. Also, Julius Peppers has played fewer snaps of late to keep him fresher for key moments, and he’s been a significant factor in the pass rush the last two weeks.
What Capers might concoct for the playoffs is anyone’s guess, but the Packers have seen first-hand how a team might use a postseason bye to its schematic fullest.
Two years ago, the San Francisco 49ers kept the read-option with quarterback Colin Kaepernick mostly under wraps until hosting the Packers in the divisional round. They had run it as a change-up here and there in the regular season but made it a much bigger part of their postseason offensive arsenal during the bye and nearly won the Super Bowl.
“They certainly did a number of things they hadn’t put on tape,” Capers said. “It worked well for them.”
Added McCarthy: “As far as the volume of scheme that was different than what we prepared for, that was a pretty good example of what you can get done in the bye week, but that won’t be our approach.”
It won’t be because McCarthy is a firm believer in team identity and “playing your best football being who you are” at playoff time.
On a smaller scale, though, tweaks aren’t out of the question. With such a healthy and plentiful defensive roster – cornerback Davon House (shoulder) is the only regular to miss time in recent weeks – Capers has his choice of players who have seen the field enough this season to provide a schematic twist if he so chooses.
It just won’t be so drastic as to potentially jeopardize what he’s spent the last two months building on defense.
“When you get to this point, the margin of error becomes less and less, so you want to make sure you’re as precise as you can be and the guys understand what you want to do,” Capers said.
“Hopefully we can utilize this time where we can go in healthy and prepared for whoever we’re going to play.”