More impact players needed on defense

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Dom Capers’ defensive formula did not change this past season.

It was the same as in 2009, when the Green Bay Packers ranked second in the NFL in total defense. It was the same as in 2010, when it ranked fifth in the NFL in total defense on the way to winning Super Bowl XLV.

For that matter, it was the same as in his days as the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator in the early 1990s.

There have been tweaks from season to season depending on personnel and from week to week depending on the opponent, but the basics of it remain the same.

“Really, the basis of our philosophy is being able to stop the run, make the game one-dimensional [and] try to create situations where we can take the ball away,” Capers said Wednesday while wrapping up his 28th NFL season.

Translation: He needs playmakers.

Now that it appears Capers will return for a sixth season with the Packers, the task will be to figure out why this year’s group didn’t turn into the big-play defense that Capers expected.

In his first four seasons, Capers' defenses combined to rank third in the NFL in takeaways (133) and first in interceptions (103). In 2013, only six teams forced fewer turnovers than the Packers' 22.

Capers got almost nothing out of his defensive front in terms of big plays. Defensive tackle B.J. Raji, once viewed as a major playmaker, had a pedestrian season. First-round pick Datone Jones barely cracked the defensive line rotation except in certain sub packages.

Outside linebacker Clay Matthews, a Pro Bowl selection in his each of his first four seasons, twice broke his thumb and missed five games plus the playoffs in his fifth year. Cornerback Casey Hayward, who led all rookies in 2012 with six interceptions, never got going because of a hamstring injury.

The safety position, once responsible for big plays from Nick Collins and Charles Woodson, offered next to nothing. Morgan Burnett flopped after signing a four-year, $24.75 million deal in July.

If not for cornerbacks Sam Shields and Tramon Williams – who combined for nine of the Packers’ 22 takeaways – the lack of big plays would have been even more startling.

“I've always believed this -- to be a real top-notch defense, you have to have two or three guys that basically are what I consider difference makers where some time within a 60 play game you're going to see two or three plays that really have an impact and influence the game,” Capers said. “You've seen that happen with us here when we've been a top-five defense. The first two years we were No. 2 and No. 5, and we had guys like Woodson, who was defensive player of the year, and Clay Matthews, who came out of being a rookie to having a great year his rookie year. The next year we won the super bowl we had guys that impacted the game.”

Thus, the onus is on general manager Ted Thompson to figure out how to infuse this defense with additional talent while trying to decide whether free agents like Raji, Shields, Johnny Jolly, Mike Neal and Ryan Pickett are worth re-signing.

Meanwhile, it will be up to Capers and his staff to develop the returning players.

“We need more impact players, we need more players making plays on defense,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said in his season-ending news conference. “I think that’s stating the obvious. I feel that those guys are here, but do we have more coming in? That’s really what the offseason’s for.”