The playbook of the NFL’s wizard of defense was emptied on Wednesday night. “Today was our last install,” Packers Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers said.
By all indications, the Packers defense is headed toward another dominant season. Put it this way, through three practices this week, the same offense that had its way with the league’s No. 2 defense in the Super Bowl, has not had its way with Capers’ defense in this training camp.
“You can really tell the veteran guys that have been in the system. We just have to increase the consistency of our young players,” Capers said in capsule evaluation of what he’s seen to date.
It was a good time for Capers to give a state-of-the-defense address. The Packers are closing on their preseason opener in Cleveland on Saturday, and the focus will soon begin shifting from evaluation of young players to preparation for the regular-season opener against the New Orleans Saints, which is now less than a month away.
Will the Packers defense be ready for the test one of the NFL’s premier offenses will pose? Based on this week’s work, the answer must be a resounding yes.
“We have a lot of defense in right now,” Capers said.
If possible, Capers’ defense became even more multiple during the offseason. The playbook, which includes three decades of blitz design, has grown.
There is talk of using star nose tackle B.J. Raji at end. Capers will almost certainly employ the two-lineman look he showed when the Packers were in “nickel” last season. Clay Matthews will, no doubt, be used in even more creative ways. “Psycho” is still a work in progress.
The engine that is driving all of this innovation, of course, is one of the NFL’s deepest collections of defensive backs. Hey, Charles Woodson has barely practiced. How much better will he make the Packers defense when he steps onto the field?
If there’s an area of concern, it’s at defensive end, where Capers must replace the departed Cullen Jenkins. The heir apparent is Mike Neal, a second-round pick in 2010 who blew out his shoulder early and missed the rest of the season.
A three-technique tackle at Purdue, Neal is trying to make the transition to 3-4 plug. He is a key man in Capers’ scheme for, if Neal can adapt, Capers defense will then be without concern.
“You see the things that excite us about Mike. The key for Mike is to stay on the field and keep working. I don’t think there’s any question he can do those things,” Capers said, referring to the hold-the-point, run-stuffing demands being placed on a player whose natural talent is for penetrating into the backfield and chasing the ball. That was at Purdue, not in Capers’ 3-4.
“We just have to get him comfortable with our technique,” Capers added.
To protect against that happening more slowly than expected, Capers is experimenting with Raji at end, which was the case on Wednesday.
“You don’t want to experiment in the game. Odds work against you if you haven’t seen it work out here,” Capers said. “B.J. is still our nose tackle and ‘Pick’ (Ryan Pickett) is still an end, but you’re going to see guys line up at a lot of different spots. We believe it gives us flexibility.”
Flexibility, in this case, is another word for camouflage or intrigue. The playbook Capers finished installing on Wednesday is mostly meant to confuse one man on the field, he being the opposing quarterback. Sometimes that might even mean dropping Raji into pass-coverage.
“You’re seeing a different style of offense now than you did then,” Capers said, referring to his first season as a defensive coordinator, in 1992, when he began a career that has made him one of the most famous names in defensive football history. The zone-blitz that brought him to prominence then is now child’s play compared to all of the pages that have been added to his playbook.
“We saw more two-back power then. We’re seeing more spread now. I think the quarterback play now is as good as it’s been. If those guys have a pre-snap advantage and know what you’re in, they’re pretty efficient,” Capers said.
His playbook is in. Quarterbacks beware.