Packers' defensive changes coming to light

May, 30, 2014
May 30
7:00
AM ET
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Perhaps you've heard this before about the Green Bay Packers' defense: Everything will be fine as long as they're healthy.

The problem is – or has been – that they have not stayed healthy.

Last year, playmakers like Clay Matthews and Casey Hayward missed significant time because of injuries.

[+] EnlargeJamari Lattimore
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY SportsThe ability to fill various roles will likely earn LB Jamari Lattimore additional playing time in 2014.
The year before, it was Desmond Bishop, Nick Perry and Charles Woodson.

In the Super Bowl season of 2010, it was Nick Barnett and Morgan Burnett, among others.

Coach Mike McCarthy has apparently grown tired of watching his defense struggle when players go down. Simply plugging in replacement players and asking them to do the same jobs has not always worked.

To combat that, he and defensive coordinator Dom Capers have agreed on some changes.

At the root of those changes isn't necessarily Capers' scheme or whether it will continue to be his traditional 3-4 alignment in his base package, or a regular nickel or dime in sub packages. But rather, it is a plan to develop players who can play multiple positions in different defensive looks in order to better combat issues that could arise during the season.

The buzzwords appear to be these: More personnel, less scheme.

To be sure, there will be changes in scheme – some of which McCarthy does not want to discuss before he unveils it in the regular season. Some of them might even be a drastic departure from what Capers has done since he arrived in Green Bay in 2009 and throughout his career.

"We've learned some hard lessons here of late, the last couple years of maybe playing some players that probably weren't quite ready and because of a scheme [that] we were playing," McCarthy said after the Packers' first open OTA practice on Thursday.

The addition of veteran pass-rusher Julius Peppers by way of free agency provides a window to the changes. Peppers, who has been a traditional defensive end in a 4-3 scheme for most of his career, will play multiple positions for the Packers. During Thursday's OTA, he lined up almost exclusively as an outside linebacker in a two-point stance, but don't be surprised if he moves inside and rushes from a three-point stance as well. The same could be said for Perry and Mike Neal.

Likewise, there could be additional roles for the inside linebackers. While Brad Jones and A.J. Hawk do not appear to be in danger of losing their spots, Jamari Lattimore could see the field more, too. He was featured prominently during Thursday's practice in a variety of roles.

All of that could free up the cornerstone of the defense, Matthews, to move around more, too.

"It just seems like a lot of the linebackers have taken on roles that require them not only to be the traditional 3-4 linebacker or 4-3 [linebacker] but to do both," Matthews said. "Whether that's one minute rushing against a tackle or playing out on the slot receiver. Really, I think it just provides a lot of versatility for the guys we have here.

"I think rather than making players fit into certain schemes, we're making those schemes fit around players now. I think it's great for the personnel that we have and what we’re trying to accomplish moving forward."

It's an effort to reverse a trend that has seen the Packers finish in the bottom third of the defensive rankings in two of the past three seasons and struggle in a pair of playoff losses to the San Francisco 49ers to end the past two seasons.

"I think we have to change something," Hawk said. "Not change, but we have to evolve and hone in on who knows what our plan is going in once the season comes, but we need to find a way to play better. We need to find a way to get off the field. I don't think you have to make any crazy, drastic changes. I don't think that's what we're going to do. But you have to find a way to evaluate what we did wrong and find a way to get better at that."

Capers did something similar earlier in his career. When he took over as the Jacksonville Jaguars' defensive coordinator in 1999, he inherited a roster filled with players who better fit the 4-3 scheme they had run previously.

So instead of trying to force feed players a defense that did not suit their skills, he adjusted.

That season, the Jaguars gave up the fewest points in the NFL and the fourth-fewest yards.

"I hope it works as well as it did that year," Capers said. "We've done that, really, since we've been here. The first year we came in, there's a reason why Charles Woodson was the Defensive Player of the Year. He's a good player, and you do a lot of good things to feature your best players."

Rob Demovsky

ESPN Green Bay Packers reporter

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