Young blood on 'D' should help Packers avoid last season's failings
GREEN BAY, Wisc. -- Despite appearances to the contrary, the Packers did not go into this year's draft doggedly determined to scream
"It's the way it worked out," general manager Ted Thompson said. "We had some guys we rated in places where it was our pick that we felt very comfortable taking. And in a couple of cases, we felt like it was worth the expense of trading up."
Green Bay selected a defensive player with the first six of its eight overall choices, utilizing something of a Noah's Ark approach: two linemen ... two linebackers ... two defensive backs. Thompson liked the defensive players on his board so much that he moved up to acquire three of those six defenders.
Whether by design or happenstance, the process had defensive coordinator Dom Capers doing a jig for three days in April because he added a half-dozen young pieces -- in addition to three veteran linemen the team acquired in free agency -- to a defense that lost some of its mojo last season.
Despite leading the league in interceptions and tying the 49ers for first place in takeaways, Capers admitted his corps didn't play up to the level it had in his previous two years as Green Bay's defensive guru.
"Hopefully with this infusion of young guys, we can find a way to climb back to where we were the last couple of years," Capers said recently as he sat on a table inside the Don Hutson Center before a morning training camp practice.
The Packers play a base 3-4 defense, but they play it probably less than any other team in the league. They use their nickel and dime alignments a greater percentage of the time. The flip side of playing from ahead so much because of a potent offense -- among the halftime leads Green Bay held last year were 28-17 vs. the Saints, 28-17 vs. the Broncos, 24-3 vs. the Rams, 28-17 vs. the Chargers, 17-0 vs. the Vikings, 21-10 vs. the Bucs, 31-0 vs. the Raiders and 14-3 vs. the Bears -- is that the defense faced a lot of offenses that played in the two-minute mode much of the second half.
That can lead to trouble if there's a lack of pass pressure and coverage (there was a lack of both), if the defense can't get off the field on third down (opponents converted 42.6 percent of their opportunities) and you give up too many big plays (teams gained 20 or more yards an alarming 80 times -- nine runs, 71 passes -- against Green Bay. As a result, the Packers allowed 4,796 passing yards, the most in a single season in NFL history, and 6,585 yards overall, the second-most in one season.
Not to pile it on, but coach Mike McCarthy was none too happy about the missed tackles and poor fundamentals. Thus the run on defense -- planned or not -- in the draft.
The Packers took USC outside linebacker Nick Perry (first round), Michigan State end Jerel Worthy (second), Vanderbilt cornerback Casey Hayward (second), Iowa tackle Mike Daniels (fourth), Maine safety Jerron McMillian (fourth) and North Carolina State outside linebacker Terrell Manning (fifth).
"I've seen all six of these guys do some positive things [in OTAs and the early days of training camp]," Capers said. "They've got some physical tools. Now it becomes a case of how fast they pick things up mentally and their capabilities to go out and play at the tempo you want to play at."
Capers wanted to reserve further judgment until he saw the players in game situations. But based on early returns, Perry, Worthy and Hayward appear primed to make immediate impacts. Perry was a 4-3 end in college who should be able to play outside linebacker because of his speed and explosive pass-rush ability. He should be a good complement to Clay Matthews, the other outside 'backer, who has been a Pro Bowl pick in each of his first three seasons. Linemen accounted for only six of Green Bay's 29 sacks last season, so Worthy could help pump up that number -- if he maintains a strong work ethic. Hayward had an All-Pro day in the Packers' first padded practice of training camp, making multiple interceptions.
"He's done a nice job," Capers said. "He still has a way to go in terms of the mental part. But I think you see he has some ball skills and seems to react well on the field in terms of pure football instincts. We like what we've seen at this point."
There's room for the young defensive players to step in and find roles. Former safeties Nick Collins (career-ending neck injury) and Charlie Peprah (recently waived) are gone. Several of last year's players who are still on the roster need to bounce back from poor performances in 2011. And the three veteran free agent additions -- ends Anthony Hargrove and Philip Merling, and tackle Daniel Muir -- also could be factors, although the availability of Hargrove, a former Saint, is in question because of his alleged role in the bounty scandal.
At 29, Hargrove is one of the older defensive players -- defensive back Charles Woodson, who will be 36 in October, and tackle Ryan Pickett, who will turn 33 in October are the only others older than 28 -- but he is a 6-foot-3, 287-pound bundle of energy and enthusiasm. Capers believes the infusion of youth has brought a lot of that to the defense.
"Your practice takes on a little bit more of a feeling of a college practice with the number of young guys out there," he said. "You realize they're sitting there wide-eyed and ready to go. It's just a matter of how much they can absorb and how much they can go out and execute."
The 2012 Packer defense will not just be the story of the young and the restless. Another plot line to watch will be the "transition" of Woodson, the NFL's defensive player of the year three years ago, from cornerback to safety.
It will be more of a nuance rather than a conspicuous position switch. Woodson, who has played some safety on specific downs in recent seasons, will line up there in the base 3-4. When the Packers evolve to their nickel and dime packages, Woodson most times will line up against the opponent's slot receiver.
"At times it will free me up to do some different things, give quarterbacks a different look being at safety," Woodson said. "Maybe play some games with those guys."
Woodson described what happened to the defense last season as "very frustrating," particularly its third-down performance. One moment that still festers came in the 37-20 loss to the Giants in the NFC divisional playoff game last January at Lambeau Field -- not Eli Manning's 33-yard, Hail Mary touchdown pass to Hakeem Nicks on the final play of the first half that gave New York a 20-10 lead, but the play just before it. With 15 seconds left, the Giants had a 3rd-and-1 at their own 40. Running back Ahmad Bradshaw swept left end for a 23-yard gain, extending the series and giving Manning time for his last-second pass into the end zone.
From Woodson's perspective, that play illustrated the flaw in Green Bay's defense.
"We had a stellar offense that moved the ball up and down the field," he said, "but then a lot of times we'd go out there and let the other team move up and down the field as well. It kind of washed out what our offense was doing. We want to pick up our end of the bargain and make this a complete team."
With a little help from its new young blood, the defense just might rediscover its mojo.