GREEN BAY—It wasn’t quite the “big letters” proclamation about the running game he made last year, but – intentionally or not – Mike McCarthy on Monday thrust the all-but-guaranteed improvement label on pressuring the quarterback in 2014.
“It looks good,” McCarthy said when asked about the defense’s pass-rush abilities heading into Thursday’s opener in Seattle. “We’re a better pass-rush team today than we’ve been in a long time.”
The Packers are banking on a healthy Clay Matthews, the addition of Julius Peppers and the continued development of players such as Mike Daniels, Mike Neal, Nick Perry and Datone Jones to make McCarthy’s words a reality.
Players have also talked about the tweaks Dom Capers has made to his scheme. Those adjustments have been under wraps and not on display through the preseason. Matthews talked about “unleashing” them in this first game with a more mature cast of characters.
“We feel good. We feel like we’ve got some talent out there,” said Matthews, who led the defense with 7 ½ sacks last season despite missing five games and playing hindered in several others.
“We feel like we’re physical, fast, aggressive, ready to make a statement and kind of get back to that defense we were accustomed to in 2009, 2010, early in my career.”
Back then, the Packers were among the league’s best at stopping the run, and they get a major test in that department immediately on Thursday in Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch.
A powerful, tackle-breaking workhorse of a back, Lynch has piled up more than 4,000 yards on the ground and rushed for 35 TDs over the last three regular seasons.
Up front, the Packers have replaced run stuffers Ryan Pickett, C.J. Wilson and Johnny Jolly with smaller but more active linemen such as Daniels and Jones, while Josh Boyd and Letroy Guion will fill the void in the middle created by B.J. Raji’s season-ending injury.
Even without the personnel turnover, though, the Packers knew when the schedule was released in April for whom to prepare in Week 1.
“They’re going to give the ball to Marshawn Lynch,” McCarthy said. “They’re going to run the football, their style, schematically how they run it. That’s a starting point, and I would think Percy Harvin is going to get his touches, too.”
Due to injuries, Harvin has played in just 10 games over the past two seasons, but the Packers are plenty familiar with the speedy, all-everything receiver from his early years with the Vikings. He returned five kickoffs for scores in 3 ½ seasons with the NFC North rival. Against the Packers, he had a 51-yard TD catch as a rookie in 2009 and a 17-yard TD run in 2010.
“The ol’ Minnesota days,” cornerback Tramon Williams said. “The guy’s one of the best football players out there. Anytime you have him on your team, it brings a whole ’nother dimension. He’s a guy you always have to keep your eyes on.”
But getting back to the pass rush, for the Packers defense all eyes will be on Matthews and Peppers as they work in tandem for the first time. Coming off the edge, they’ll have to strike the proper balance between getting after Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson while also containing him so he can’t extend plays with his feet.
Peppers had the transition to make, to a new team and a new outside linebacker position, and he talked in the preseason about it being a gradual process. A man of few words with the media, Peppers was asked again about that process.
“I’m fine,” he said. “I’m ready to go.”
He feels the same way about the defense as a whole, that it grew as he grew into his role. There’s plenty of anticipation surrounding just what Green Bay’s defense will look like with such a high-profile new addition.
“I think we’re ready to get out there,” veteran linebacker A.J. Hawk said. “We’ve been talking about it for so long, it’s crazy. It’s finally here.”
As for what would constitute success with whatever form this defensive debut takes on Thursday, Peppers had even fewer words.
“A win,” he said. “That’s it.”
ADDITIONAL COVERAGE - SEPT. 1