Dom Capers lets the Packers loose
November, 15, 2011
By Kevin Seifert | ESPN.com
AP Photo/Jeffrey PhelpsClay Matthews had two sacks as the Packers held the Vikings to just 266 yards of offense.GREEN BAY, Wis. -- This is what happens when grown men come together for a common good, exercising maturity and minimizing ego to address a problem that has proved vexing to all parties.
As you probably know, Green Bay Packers cornerback Charles Woodson offered a blunt assessment of his team's defensive scheme and performance last week. Standing in the bowels of Qualcomm Stadium, Woodson called the defense a "liability" and implored defensive coordinator Dom Capers to find different ways to rush the passer.
Woodson and Capers quietly met last week to talk through the situation, emerging with an approach Monday night that overwhelmed the Minnesota Vikings in a 45-7 victory at Lambeau Field. The Packers held the admittedly outmanned Vikings to the lowest yardage total (266) and second-lowest number of first downs (14) of their opponents this season, missing a shutout only because of a special teams fumble in the red zone.
"I think tonight we got a little bit more of what we like as a defense," Woodson said, "with the guys that we have. Just getting after an opposing offense. If you looked out there tonight, guys had fun. It's all determined on how the game is called. When Dom calls it that way, guys pin their ears back and go play football."
And how did Capers call it? Most notably, he blitzed on a whopping 74.4 percent of the Vikings' 39 dropbacks. It was by far his highest rate since joining the Packers in 2009, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Included in that total: Capers blitzed at least one defensive back on 19 dropbacks, also a high for Capers in Green Bay.
Woodson was all over the field, finishing with nine tackles, three defensed passes and one tackle for loss. Linebacker Clay Matthews, capitalizing on the resulting frenzy, recorded his first multiple-sack game of the season. Overall, Christian Ponder completed only 16 of 34 passes for 190 yards and finished with a 52.3 passer rating.
It's only fair to point out that the Vikings have one of the NFL's least explosive passing games. With a rookie quarterback and relatively few playmakers in their passing game, the Vikings aren't a risky team to blitz. But from a psychological perspective, the Packers were yearning for the kind of results that would quell their growing concern over recent weeks. It was important to remember what it's like to crush an offense's spirit.
"We finally feel like we played up to the level of which we're capable of and the level which we know how to play," Matthews said. "It feels good. Obviously, our offense is going to put up points. It was up to our defense to hold up their end of the bargain. And we were able to do that tonight. We feel real good about that. You can see how much drastically better it makes our team better when our offense and defense are on all cylinders."
Indeed, the final result was the second-worst loss in Vikings history, based on margin of defeat. (Hat tip to Judd Zulgad of 1500ESPN.com.) Woodson noted on several occasions how much fun players had executing Capers' full arsenal of blitzes. But for the Packers, nothing could have been more fun than seeing Matthews break out after managing three sacks over the first eight games of the season.
Matthews didn't leave his spot at left outside linebacker much, something we theorized might happen, but the blitzes helped limit how many players the Vikings could devote to blocking him. One of his sacks came after a one-on-one defeat of Vikings right tackle Phil Loadholt, and the other resulted when Matthews blew past fullback Ryan D'Imperio and tailback Adrian Peterson.
Those are matchups the Packers will take any day.
"We just understand that playmakers have to step up and make plays," Matthews said. "Tonight was no different than any other week. Everybody is accountable. That's a word that everyone on defense has to understand. That's exactly what happened. Everyone made their plays when they needed to."
It would be a bit premature to declare the Packers' defensive issues solved based on one dominating night against a 2-7 team. Woodson, in fact, made a point to note that they played well "in one game." Independent of Capers' playcalling, the Packers avoided the kind of communication breakdowns that had left receivers running open downfield in recent weeks.
But it should be encouraging for any Packers fan to see the pride that has bubbled to the surface in the past two weeks. The Packers started 8-0 without the help they expected from their defense. They could continue to ride the coattails of their presumptive MVP, quarterback Aaron Rodgers, or they could raise their standards to the point where "every game looks like this," as linebacker A.J. Hawk said.
"Last time I checked," said defensive lineman B.J. Raji, "we're a championship defense. We haven't really shown that with the numbers, but we know how to play football around here. We understand what it takes to win."
All it took was a healthy exchange of ideas. What a novel concept.