GREEN BAY—Mike McCarthy wants to “operate at a lower volume of scheme.” His defensive coordinator, Dom Capers, says “we’ve got as many packages as anybody in the league.” Somewhere within those two statements lies the schematic fate of the Packers defense this season, and it’ll likely be determined by its personnel.
“You can be vanilla if you’re better than the people you’re playing against,” Capers said on Thursday.
Are the Packers’ defensive players better than the offensive players they’ll face in 2014? That’s the question that must be answered, especially considering this team has spent the better part of it last three draft classes on improving the talent level on the defensive side of the ball.
All three first-round picks are defensive players. Young defensive talent abounds: Nick Perry, Jerel Worthy, Casey Hayward, Mike Daniels, Datone Jones, Micah Hyde, Josh Boyd, Nate Palmer and Sam Barrington, all from the 2012 and ’13 draft classes, are joined by Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Khyri Thornton, Carl Bradford and Demetri Goodson from this year’s crop.
Sam Shields got a big contract, Mike Neal and B.J. Raji were retained and Julius Peppers is the big-splash, free-agent signing this team had resisted in recent years.
That’s a lot of accumulated talent and now fans want to know, is this the year the defense goes to the level expected of a championship contender?
“I hope we can do our part as far as contributing to winning week in and week out,” Capers said when asked to provide his expectation for his defense this year.
Schemes, or a lack of them, was the big story on Thursday, after McCarthy made this remark: “We’ve learned the harsh lesson (in recent years) about playing players that weren’t ready in terms of scheme.”
So if the Packers have as many packages as any team in the league, but the coach is ordering a reduction in schemes, where does that leave Capers? Reading between the lines, it would seem the Packers’ young talent will be asked to fully establish its ability to do a minimum, while Capers will plan for veteran Clay Matthews and Peppers to do the maximum.
“He’ll be used a lot of different ways. He can rush. He can drop. He can do a lot of different things for you,” Capers said of Peppers, 12 years a hand-on-the-ground defensive end but now an outside linebacker in Capers’ 3-4.
Twelve years ago, Capers was the head coach of the expansion Texans and Peppers was the second pick of the draft. The Texans picked quarterback David Carr No. 1 overall. It was a grave mistake.
“That was our first draft. It didn’t work out. I told (Peppers) it took 12 years but I finally got you,” Capers said.
Do you get the sense Capers might’ve preferred that his first pick be a mouth-watering prospect that seemed to be born to play in Capers’ zone-blitz scheme? Me, too.
If Peppers still has some of that 2002 gas in his tank, Capers will get his chance to use Peppers as he dreamed of using him with the Texans, but the degree to which Capers can use those schemes will likely depend on the young talent’s grasp of McCarthy’s ordered reduction.
“We’ve got all the packages. It’s just going to be which ones work. I think you make a mistake if you take your guys and fit them into a defense. I think you have to take your defense and fit it around your guys,” Capers said.
So, can Datone Jones blossom as an Okie end? Can Casey Hayward make a full recovery from the hamstring injury that derailed his sophomore season, and return to his playmaking ways of 2012? Can Nick Perry stay healthy for a full season? Will either Hyde or Clinton-Dix be the answer at safety?
The answers to those and other questions involving young talent that’s being counted on to blossom in 2014 will determine the degree to which Capers can empty his bag on Peppers and Matthews, veterans capable of doing much more than the minimum. They need support around them.
“You try to do a thorough job of self-analysis … and how the scheme fits the personnel. You have to find out who your playmakers are and fit your scheme around those people. It doesn’t matter how much defense you have in, it’s who’s out there,” Capers said.
How much defense the Packers have in will almost certainly depend on how much the Packers’ young talent can provide support.