So in looking at some different things going on in the first two days of training camp, it’s clear the Packers are placing an emphasis on certain aspects of their game in an effort to get better at them.
Take tackling as an example. Through these early days of camp, the Packers have had multiple practice periods devoted to basic tackling drills on defense. The linemen and linebackers take turns lining up across from one another and exploding up through the pads of the ball-carrier, knocking him back onto a big foam pad similar to a track-and-field high-jump pit.
Meanwhile, the defensive backs do their own tackling drill by backpedaling and then changing direction to pursue the ball-carrier and make initial contact at the proper angle.
It all sounds pretty basic, but it’s a concerted effort to see those basics carry over from practice to the games, when a key tackle, or a missed one, can play a huge role in any given contest.
“Problem solving is clearly about staying focused and applying solutions and time and commitment to that,” McCarthy said. “We do not feel that we were a good tackling football team all the way through last year, so we are going to spend more time tackling. We have done tackling drills in the past, but we’re doing them every single day.”
If it sounds silly, or like overkill for professional players, keep in mind that McCarthy instituted a ball-security period in every practice in his first season at the helm, 2006. In the drill, defensive players try to rip the ball away from the offensive players, while the offensive players fight to hang on. Linemen also work on a specific technique for diving to recover a loose ball.
The year before McCarthy’s arrival, the Packers finished tied for last in the NFL with a minus-24 turnover ratio. In 2006, the Packers improved to even in turnover margin, then to plus-4 in 2007, plus-7 in 2008 and a league-best plus-24 last year.
Tackling isn’t as quantifiable, obviously, but the goal of seeing results both now and down the road remains.
“It’s an emphasis, no different than some of the fundamental work that we felt attributed to the number of penalties that we had,” McCarthy said. “All of the things that we feel we can correct on moving forward from last year, you still have to build the foundation of doing everything else, but we are emphasizing the things that we feel we need to work on.”
Another area would be punting. McCarthy has decided that the special-teams periods each practice will be devoted to one or at most two specific areas of special teams, allowing for more concentrated, comprehensive work.
So far in the first two days of camp, punters Tim Masthay and Chris Bryan have given their legs a workout, both on full swings and pooch punts, and their competition has been front and center. It’s way too early to give either punter any edge in the battle, but it’s clear by the amount of work the punters have put in thus far that it’s an area being targeted for a major upgrade.
“We know it’s an opportunity for us and we know it’s been a focal point this offseason, so we’re just going out there trying to do the best we can do,” Masthay said.
Added Bryan, comparing the spring work to now: “It’s stepped up again. It’s business time.”
Less obvious but also getting an early emphasis is the defense’s pass rush. Already a few of the team (11-on-11) periods in camp have been devoted to blitzes, which normally aren’t a focal point this early.
But with the lack of a pass rush in the playoff loss at Arizona last January still fresh in many minds, there’s been no delay in getting going on it. In addition, the defensive players are more comfortable now than at this point last year in defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ 3-4 scheme, so the new wrinkles are emerging from the playbook as we speak.
“The more pressure you can get, it’s better for us on the back end,” cornerback Charles Woodson said. “You’ve seen last year, we have some ball hawks back there, guys that know how to get after it and turn it into scores if they have to. So the more pressure, the better for us in the back end, and we feel like we’ll get it.”
One player taking nothing for granted when it comes to the pass rush is outside linebacker Clay Matthews. The team leader with 10 sacks as a rookie Pro Bowler, Matthews remembers the barrage of chips and double-teams he faced in the playoffs in Arizona, when he had one sack and forced fumble but little pass-rush impact otherwise.
Matthews said he added five to seven pounds of muscle through his offseason workouts and he’s preparing to get that added attention from offenses on a regular basis in his second season.
“It’s definitely frustrating when you start getting double-teamed, but that’s the natural progression of a good pass rusher in this league,” Matthews said. “You start off going against tackles, then you’re getting chipped, then you’re getting double-teamed. All the great pass rushers have to go against it and I hope to be in the same category as them.
“It’s nothing that I’m not going to be used to. I’ve been talking to a few of the guys, a few of the running backs, about how I’d like for them to chip on me, so I can get used it, guards (helping) on me. Just so I can get ready for it. So it’s not frustrating, it’s just part of the game.”
That said, Matthews also knows that he can’t be the team’s only pass-rush threat, and others will need to emerge during camp and the preseason. Fellow outside linebacker Brad Jones already is sidelined with a bruised back (he’s day to day), elevating Brady Poppinga to the No. 1 unit with a handful of untested young players behind them at the position.
But it’s just as incumbent on the defensive linemen to provide pressure, and that’s partly why the Packers drafted ends Mike Neal and C.J. Wilson this past April, to join players like Cullen Jenkins and B.J. Raji as inside rushers in this scheme.
“If you only have rush from one edge, the quarterback is just going to scramble out the other way,” Matthews said. “You need to collapse the pocket. That’s what we talk about the whole time. That comes from not only the two edges but up the middle too. Because you can have two edges pinching down on the quarterback, but if can step up and throw the ball, that’s where he’s dangerous. It’s an all-around effort.”
Putting forth that effort in specific areas has been the theme early in this training camp. Other aspects are sure to get their due, too, as this hard-working month progresses.
“We’ve got some good pieces to a puzzle and we’re looking forward to building upon last year and really just getting after it,” Matthews said. “We’re having fun already. It’s early in the season, so we’ll just continue to grind and see where it takes us.”