GREEN BAY – When Mike McCarthy looks at his Packers defense heading into Week 1, he sees a more mature, experienced group than a year ago, and he’s counting on that to make a difference in 2016.
Now, McCarthy is not naïve to the fact that he’s starting a rookie at inside linebacker in Blake Martinez who will be wearing the communication helmet and calling the signals. Nor is McCarthy discounting the need for another rookie in defensive lineman Kenny Clark to jump in right from the get-go.
But everywhere else he looks, he sees notable growth from a 2015 defense that was solid but then broke down in the most untimely fashion last January in Arizona.
“I think our understanding on defense is higher this year than it’s been the past two years,” McCarthy said in a wide-ranging Q&A session with Green Bay beat writers on Thursday.
“We’ve been relatively young throughout our defense, and now you’re seeing the maturity of these guys.”
While Julius Peppers, Clay Matthews, Letroy Guion, Sam Shields and Morgan Burnett are the long-established elders on the unit, the maturing veterans to whom McCarthy is referring are front seven players like Mike Daniels, Nick Perry, Datone Jones and Jake Ryan, plus back-end standouts Micah Hyde, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins.
All eight of them have been drafted in the last five years and will figure prominently into defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ plans. Health will always factor into any level of success, but McCarthy believes the combination of talent and experience on the 2016 unit sets up well.
“I think this defense has a chance to be really good,” McCarthy said.
It’ll need to start, as always, with stopping the run, and the group will face two serious tests to start the season in Jacksonville’s dual-back power running game (Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon) and Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson.
After that, to play at a championship-caliber level, the defense will have to revolve around the pass rush. McCarthy and Capers are returning to the original idea two years ago upon the Peppers signing, which is to feature Matthews and Peppers as bookend rushers coming from opposite sides.
That only lasted half a season in 2014 before Matthews had to move inside to save the run defense, and Sam Barrington’s injury in Week 1 last year forced Matthews to stay inside.
All spring and summer, Matthews has referred to the outside as his most “natural and impactful” position, and he’s taking the field with “renewed energy.”
“He’s been eager to get back on the outside where he can do what he does best,” said Peppers, who has matched Matthews over the last two regular seasons with 17½ sacks. “I think we’re all eager to see how he does. I know he’s going to do well, and he’s excited about it, so we all are.”
With additional options off the edge in Perry and Jones, Capers will move his pass-rush pieces around to keep offenses guessing and adjusting. That’s where the maturity McCarthy is talking about comes into play, as players have a deeper grasp of each scheme wrinkle.
“We have a lot of guys that rush now, and we’re interchangeable inside and outside, so we’re all in different spots,” Peppers said. “But the chemistry that we have with each other does allow us to rush a little more freely and have an understanding where our mates are going to be.”
It nearly got the Packers to the NFC title game last season, as the defense racked up nine sacks from five different players over two playoff games. But the pass rush dried up, failing to get a sack in the second half or overtime of the Arizona loss.
The NFL is still about peaking at the right time, which makes Week 1 the beginning of a long journey.
While Daniels talks physicality up front, as he always does – “We have to hit them in the mouth,” he said – Burnett sees a secondary that can change games in the turnover department and be part of the defense’s identity, too. A year ago, five different defensive backs had at least two interceptions for Green Bay, but no one had more than three until Randall got a fourth in the postseason.
“The sky’s the limit,” the veteran safety said. “We can talk all day about what we can be, but now we have to go out there and prove it. We know what each other is capable of.”
Meanwhile, the eldest veteran of them all in Peppers focuses on the process. Lay the groundwork now, and get on the right track for the long haul ahead.
“The first week, we just want to see our style of play show up – our pursuit, our cover and our finish,” he said. “That’s what we’ve been preaching this whole offseason since we got back. That’s really what we want to see in the first game. We want our style of play to show up and set the tone for the season.”
From there, who knows.
“It almost seems like an eternity ago,” Matthews said of the Super Bowl XLV title. “We’re hungry, and it’s about winning the games when it counts.
“We know we’ll have success this year. It’s just about winning when it matters, and I think we’ve got the guys to do that.”
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