NFC North: Dom Capers

videoTAMPA, Fla. -- If Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson allowed himself a minute or two to daydream back in March after he signed pass-rusher Julius Peppers, he surely envisioned the kind of thing he saw play out for real on Sunday.

From one side of the defensive formation, Peppers registered two sacks.

From the other, Clay Matthews got 2.5.

It was part of a season-high, seven-sack performance by the Packers in Sunday's 20-3 victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They have not had more sacks in a game since Week 17 of the 2004 season, when they recorded nine against the Chicago Bears.

To cornerback Tramon Williams, it felt like even more.

"I thought they had about 15, actually," Williams said. "That's the type of pressure that I felt they were getting. That's a good sign when feel that defensively. It was big and it was fun."

It was a performance that ranks among the most complete in Dom Capers' tenure as defensive coordinator, which dates to 2009, unless you're willing to discount it because it came against a Buccaneers offense that has not totaled more than 263 yards since Nov. 23.

Either way, the Packers held the Bucs to just 109 yards of total offense, the fewest a Green Bay defense has yielded since Dec. 21, 2006, when the Vikings managed just 104. The Packers haven't allowed a defensive touchdown in eight-plus quarters, dating to the Dec. 8 game against the Atlanta Falcons.

For Matthews, who ran his season sack total to 10, he reached double digits in sacks for the fourth time in his six NFL seasons.

For Peppers, who now has seven sacks, it ended a five-game sackless streak that made some wonder whether the 34-year-old had run out of gas.

"It's more than just me and Clay," Peppers said. "We have other guys who are capable pass rushers. As long as we have everybody ready to go healthy and performing well, I think we could be taking this thing far."

Six different players shared in the sack party. In addition to Matthews and Peppers, Mike Neal had one, while Morgan Burnett, Mike Daniels and Datone Jones each shared in a sack. Outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott also had a pressure that led to Jones' fourth-quarter interception.

The Bucs went three-and-out on their first five drives and at that point, the Packers held a yardage advantage of 185 to zero.

Burnett, fresh off being named one of the defensive captains last week, played most of the game near the line of scrimmage and was a run-stopping machine. He was credited with a team-high 10 tackles, including nine solo stops. The Bucs managed just 16 yards rushing on 14 attempts.

"Really, it started and ended with defense today, just the constant pressure, the seven sacks," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "Really, they controlled the game for us today."
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Back in 2011, when the Green Bay Packers were unbeatable – 13-0 unbeatable – they mowed down an impressive list of quarterbacks: Drew Brees, Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers, Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning and Carson Palmer among them.

Then came Kyle Orton.

Actually, they beat him once, too. In Week 4 of that season, he quarterbacked the Denver Broncos in a 49-23 loss at Lambeau Field.

[+] EnlargeKyle Orton
Bill Wippert/Associated PressKyle Orton has had success against the Packers in his career, going 4-2 against Green Bay.
Nearly two months later, though, it was Orton -- this time at the helm of the Kansas City Chiefs after the Broncos went with Tim Tebow -- who became the only quarterback to beat the Packers in their 15-1 regular season.

If for no other reason than that long December day three years ago, the Packers know they must be cognizant of what the journeyman quarterback can do when they play him and the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. Orton will make his seventh start against the Packers for his fourth different team, and it might come as a surprise that this largely unheralded veteran has quite the record against Green Bay. He went 3-1 against them as an on-and-off starter with the Chicago Bears from 2005 to 2008 and then split those 2011 games for a 4-2 career mark as a starter.

The 32-year-old, who walked away from a backup job with Dallas Cowboys last summer and was seemingly retired, took over the Bills after four games this season and has led them to a 5-4 record since then. At 7-6, the Bills are still fighting for their playoff lives.

"He knows what he's doing," Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "He manages the game extremely well. We played against him twice that year against Denver and Kansas City, and he was the one guy who beat us."

In six career starts against the Packers, Orton has never had a 300-yard game. If fact, he's only had two 200-yard passing games against them. One came with the Chiefs in 2011, when he completed 23-of-31 passes for 299 yards but didn't throw a touchdown. He has only one other game with more than 142 yards against the Packers and has more interceptions (six) than touchdown passes (five) against them.

Orton once led the Bears to a 19-7 victory over the Packers by completing just six passes for 68 yards with no touchdowns and an interception in 2005. And yes, he played the full game. He also has beaten the Packers with passing yardage totals of 104 and 142 yards, both with the Bears.

Orton's numbers aren't gaudy this season, either. He ranks 30th in Total QBR (42.1), 30th in yards per attempt (6.77) and 17th in passer rating (89.2). The Bills rank 17th in passing yards per game (230.9) and 20th in offensive points scored per game (20.0), although that includes the first four games with EJ Manuel at quarterback.

"I've always thought he's been very productive," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "We've obviously played against him in Chicago, Denver, Kansas City. Played very well against us in Kansas City down there in 2011. He has complete understanding of the offense. He can make all the throws. He can still sling it. I think he does a very good job with their offense."

Orton and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers actually have a long-standing friendship that began in 2004, when both attended the Elite 11 quarterback camp as counselors during their college days.

"I've had some great battles against [Orton] over the years," Rodgers said on his ESPN Milwaukee radio show this week.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- If you were in search of a detailed explanation for why the Green Bay Packers' defense unraveled in Monday night's 43-37 win over the Atlanta Falcons, then coach Mike McCarthy's news conference on Tuesday was the wrong place to look.

"I'll tell you what, I'm not going to sit here and talk about defense all day," McCarthy said Tuesday. "We're on to Buffalo. That's where we are. We'll have time to correct our things tomorrow with our players, and we'll learn from it. And, obviously, you always want to make corrections after a win."

[+] EnlargeJulio Jones
AP Photo/Tom LynnThe Packers' Sam Shields mostly struggled in trying to cover Atlanta's Julio Jones on Monday night.
That's not to say McCarthy is burying his head instead of taking a long, critical look at the film after Atlanta's Julio Jones had the best game ever by a receiver against a Packers defense with 259 yards and a touchdown on 11 catches.

He just had no interest in rehashing it.

And because of the short turnaround following the Monday night game, the man in charge of the defense, Dom Capers, and the other Packers coordinators did not hold their usual day-after-game sessions with reporters. That will have to wait until Thursday.

The only detail McCarthy provided was that he believes they did change coverages in response to a question about why they did not commit more defenders to stopping Jones.

"It isn't like we played one coverage," McCarthy said. "Hey, they had a big day. Julio had a huge night. They got hot in the second half. I think you first have to give the Falcons credit. They're a very good offense. Winning in December is important, and winning in December is difficult."

And for that, McCarthy saw no need to apologize.

But in their film sessions and game-planning meetings in advance of this Sunday's game at the Buffalo Bills, the coaches will have to find answers for where things went wrong.

Things went downhill for Capers' unit from the outset of the second half, when Jones caught a 79-yard pass on the Falcons' first play from scrimmage of the third quarter.

Cornerback Sam Shields, who practiced only one day last week after sustaining a concussion against the New England Patriots, spent most of his time trying to cover Jones until the Packers finally pulled him after 45 snaps in favor of Davon House, who fared much better while playing the final 22 snaps.

McCarthy said Shields did not have another injury and that the change was part of a predetermined rotation, but Shields never played another snap after he gave way to House, who was credited with two pass breakups against Jones (who couldn't finish the game because of a hip injury).

Maybe the Packers should have yanked Shields earlier, when it became evident he was not on top of his game.

"I thought he obviously wanted to be out there Monday night [and] appreciate him being there," McCarthy said of Shields. "He's a young player, and he's our guy."
video
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It was supposed to be a building block, that defensive stand the Green Bay Packers made at Lambeau Field only eight days earlier against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots to preserve their best win of the season. Surely, it was going to be what helped defensive coordinator Dom Capers' unit flourish down the stretch.

"And now, it's doomsday," linebacker Clay Matthews said, anticipating the line of questions that was coming after the Packers' 43-37 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Monday night. "Write it. Put it in there so we have something to talk about, so that way we can overcome it and be like, 'I told you so.' Write it."

This story wrote itself.

Just when the Packers thought -- or at least hoped -- their defense had moved past the kind of slapdash performances that have come back to bite them in postseasons past, in walked Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and star receiver Julio Jones.

Yes, the Packers got another stellar performance from quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who threw three touchdowns without an interception in his 100th career start, and a strong, two-headed rushing attack from Eddie Lacy and James Starks, who combined to help the Packers to a season-best 179 yards rushing. And at 10-3, they kept their lead in the NFC North and remained tied for the best record in the NFC.

But it was no thanks to a defense that allowed Ryan to throw for 375 yards, most of them to Jones, who caught 11 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown despite being unable to finish the game because of a hip injury.

Never before had the Packers allowed a receiver to pile up that many yards against them. Jones bettered Calvin Johnson's 244-yard performance against the Packers in the regular-season finale of 2011. Guess who comes back to Green Bay in three weeks for another Week 17 game? Johnson and the Detroit Lions.

Between now and then, the Packers' defense best figure out what went wrong against the Falcons.

"Coming off the field, I think that it's definitely a bitter taste," said Packers safety Micah Hyde, who allowed one of Ryan's four touchdown passes. "We definitely don't want to finish like that, but at the same time, those good teams win ugly games. You get a win in the NFL, especially the 10th one, you've got to be happy about that."

Capers relied heavily on zone coverages, and Jones easily found the soft spots. Of his 259 yards, 212 came on throws that traveled more than 10 yards downfield, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"I just think we did everything on the back end wrong," Hyde said. "We're going to have to watch film to know exactly what they were doing, but they were scheming our zones, scheming our man calls. They were just getting him the ball, and I don't think that we did anything right in the second half."

Jones opened the second half with a 79-yard catch on the first play from scrimmage, wiping out all the positive vibes the Packers had from their 31-7 halftime lead. The Packers knew then this was not going to be another one of those Lambeau Field blowouts.

"We've got to play the whole game," Packers linebacker Julius Peppers said. "We can't play one half or three quarters or anything like that. We have to play the whole game out regardless of how big of a lead we have. We've got to finish games."

The defense did just that against the Patriots one game ago, when it sacked Brady on his final third-down play and handed the game over to Rodgers, who secured a victory that made the Packers the popular Super Bowl pick.

And yet now, there are once again questions about whether the Packers have a championship defense to go along with their MVP-caliber quarterback and his array of offensive playmakers.

"We made Matt Ryan look like Matty Ice again out there," Matthews said. "He was fantastic tonight. More power to him, but a lot of that was our doing. We've got to get better, and we will."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- You might have heard this before: The phasing out of A.J. Hawk from the Green Bay Packers defense has begun.

It happened in 2010, when the inside linebacker did not play a single snap on defense in the season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles. Days later, his agent went so far as to say Hawk would be open to a trade if the Packers weren't going to play him.

Hawk
A week later, Hawk was back in the lineup, had perhaps his best season and was the starter in Super Bowl XLV.

The former first-round pick finds himself in a similar spot.

His role in Sunday's 26-21 victory over the New England Patriots was greatly reduced. He played only in defensive coordinator Dom Capers' base package, which meant just 26 out of a possible 56 defensive snaps. Sam Barrington replaced him in the nickel package, playing next to Clay Matthews, who also played as the lone inside linebacker in the dime package (a role Hawk has played for most of his career).

"I thought our defense played great, so me personally, whenever I'm in, I'm going to play hard," Hawk said after the game. "It was awesome, the whole defensive effort."

With the Packers preparing for Monday night's game against the Atlanta Falcons, there's no telling what Hawk's role will be going forward.

"I would say it would vary from week to week," Capers said. "You saw him play every snap of our [base] defense. And you saw two weeks ago against Minnesota, we used Brad Jones inside in our dime defense. You saw Clay Matthews in there [Sunday]. Again, based off what our opponent is doing, you'll see different personnel groups and different people involved in those, and it could change from one week to the next based on your injury situation [and] who's available."

That would indicate Hawk remains in the Packers' plans. However, this isn't the 26-year-old Hawk of 2010. Four years later, Hawk might not be the player he was then. Although he insisted last week that he is healthy, Hawk looked like he was struggling in coverage against Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph, who on the first play of the Nov. 23 game caught a pass 2 yards from the line of scrimmage and ran away from Hawk for a 23-yard gain.

Perhaps with that play in his mind and with Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski coming up next, Capers went with Matthews in the middle in the dime, a role he had never played before Sunday.

"The purpose is to try to get your best 11 people against who they put out there and the matchups," Capers said. "[Sunday] was going to be a big matchup game and if they got the matchup they wanted, I mean, you've seen them take Gronkowski and just wear people out on Gronkowski. That's why we were willing to have a number of different ways to cover him."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Mike McCarthy's quarterback has played better than perhaps anyone in the NFL. His defense, after some early season struggles, has rounded into form in the past month. And his Green Bay Packers have perhaps their most impressive regular-season victory in his tenure -- a 26-21 win Sunday over the New England Patriots -- still visible the rear-view mirror.

So which part did he seem most pleased with on Monday?

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
AP Photo/Mike RoemerAaron Rodgers and the 9-3 Packers have come a long way since their 1-2 start to the 2014 season.
Not Aaron Rodgers, who might be on the way to his second MVP award Insider. Not defensive coordinator Dom Capers' unit, which came up with a key third-down sack of Tom Brady in the fourth quarter to help secure Sunday's win. And not even the win against the Patriots in general, a victory that has the Packers at 9-3 and tied for the best record in the NFC heading into the final month of the season.

Instead, what the veteran head coach gushed about the most was his team's personality.

"I think this is clearly our most consistent football team in my nine years here," McCarthy said. "Just from the fact that the way they prepare, you don't have a bunch of personalities that go up and down. It's a very focused, disciplined group."

On the eve of the Patriots' game, McCarthy said he told the players in the team meeting that he thought this group's consistency was its hallmark.

"Every year, you get to a point where you feel like you have an understanding of the type of team that you have and there's always one characteristic that jumps out more than the others," McCarthy said.

That's a credit not only to McCarthy and his coaches but to the locker room leaders -- from Rodgers and his R-E-L-A-X message after the 1-2 start to the addition of linebacker Julius Peppers, who has taken on the veteran leadership role that Charles Woodson played during the 2010 Super Bowl season.

Capers said he has seen some of the same things that McCarthy referenced.

"And I like that," Capers said Monday. "I think that anybody that knows me, I'm going to try to be as consistent as I can be. When I walk in that room every day, I want them to know what they're going to get -- not up and down. I think your teams get to where they're kind of a reflection of that, and I think this team is. I like that, because they're very professional, I think they come in and prepare well. They understand what our job is, to get better each week. I always try to point out there areas that we're getting better in and what we've got to do.

"Here in the month of November, we made significant strides in these areas and now we get into December, we've got to challenge ourselves that we've got to keep that arrow pointing up. We've got momentum. Guys that were on this team in 2010 knew that arrow was going in the right direction. And those things breed confidence, and you need that confidence at this time of the year."
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Clay Matthews wants his shot. So does Micah Hyde.

Both almost certainly will get the chance on Sunday against the New England Patriots.

But there's nothing on film to suggest that either of those Green Bay Packers' defensive players will be able to shut down – or even slow down – tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Whether it's a linebacker such as Matthews or a slot cover guy like Hyde – or even a safety or a cornerback – it does not seem to matter. Oh, the Packers will surely try some of all of those combinations, but ...

[+] EnlargeGronkowski
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesPatriots tight end Rob Gronkowski is a matchup nightmare for any team, and keeping him in check is much easier said than done.
"I don't know that a lot of people have had great success covering him," Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Friday. "He can go vertical. He's a big guy. He's got a big wing span. You've seen him catch a ball thrown behind him and pull it in. He likes the physical part of the game. He's going to challenge you in terms of tackling. If you go up on his upper body, the guy's big and strong. Tacklers bounce off of him.

"You've got to have a plan to try to get the second and third guy there. He obviously gives them a matchup issue. And then Tom Brady's always aware of who's matched up on him."

After a slow start during which he was working his way back into form following ACL surgery, no tight end in the league has been more productive than Gronkowski. Since Week 5, he has 45 catches for 665 yards and six touchdowns. That's nine more catches and 200 more yards than any other tight end during that span, which encompasses the Patriots' current seven-game winning streak.

None of the Packers' three position coaches – Winston Moss (linebackers), Darren Perry (safeties) and Joe Whitt (cornerbacks) – whose players could conceivably be used in coverage against the Patriots' 6-foot-6, 265-pound tight end -- could identify one type of player who has had the most success defending Gronkowski this season.

Said Moss: "It requires a mindset to where the entire defense has to be ready to handle their assignments."

Said Perry: "No, this guy just makes plays. It seems to not even matter who's covering him. He's going to find a way to make plays and we've just got to hopefully slow him down a little bit. He's a great player."

Said Whitt: "He's very hard on little guys because little guys can't bring him down. He's very hard on big guys because he can separate from them. So he's a dynamic player, and he plays with a great play speed and effort."

That sounds like what defenders used to say about former Packers tight end Jermichael Finley.

"I think you could say that," Whitt said. "He's a matchup issue; he really is."

So who will it be on Gronkowski?

Maybe Matthews.

"There could potentially be some opportunities in the game where I'm matched up against him," Matthews said this week. "Yeah, we'll see. Obviously, I enjoy those opportunities to kind of showcase my talents, especially at something that is not my normal pass rushing."

Perhaps Hyde.

"I didn't go to the coach and say, 'I want him,' but at the same time I think it will be fun," Hyde said. "Whoever is lined up against him, I have confidence in any one of our guys that lines up against him, and it's going to be a good opportunity."

And don't forget about outside linebacker Julius Peppers, who has dropped into coverage more this year than in perhaps his first 12 NFL seasons combined. He has a pair of interceptions, both returned for touchdowns, to show for it.

"I've had a little success with it this year," Peppers said. "It's something that I wanted to do, and I've been able to do it since I've been here."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The bigger the game, the more the little things matter.

That's how Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers is approaching the preparation for Sunday's game against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots (9-2) at Lambeau Field.

Brady
"Well, you have to be sharp," Capers said Monday. "There's not a lot of margin for error when you're going against a quarterback that's done it for as long as he's done it with the level of efficiency he's done it with. There's not many things he hasn't seen."

For a good portion of Monday's group session with reporters, Capers used words like "sharp" and phrases such as being "on top of your game" when talking about the Patriots.

When asked later what he meant by those, Capers pointed to three instances from Sunday's 24-21 win at the Minnesota Vikings that, if repeated against the Patriots, could prove more costly.

They were:
  • On a fourth-and-5 play in the second quarter, Morgan Burnett's interception was wiped out because of a holding penalty on Micah Hyde. The Vikings scored their first touchdown on that drive.
  • On a third-and-6 play in the second quarter, Hyde had a chance to tackle running back Joe Banyard short of the line to gain but instead Banyard carried him for 3 extra yards and a first down. (Hyde made up for it with an interception on the next play.)
  • On a third-and-4 play in the fourth quarter, outside linebacker Mike Neal was flagged for a neutral-zone infraction, which gave the Vikings a first down and led to the touchdown that pulled them to within three points with 3:23 left in the game.

"Those are the kind of things that in a game like this, these guys are efficient enough, you can't give them any advantage with, say, penalty-aided drives." Capers said. "Both of the [Vikings'] touchdown drives yesterday were penalty-aided."

The Vikings did not have the experienced quarterback or the playmakers to make Capers' defense pay for its mistakes.

The Patriots (9-3) do with Brady and his supporting cast of tight end Rob Gronkowski -- a match-up nightmare for linebackers and safeties alike -- receiver Julian Edelman and whichever running back they decide to use on a particular week. Two games ago, it was Jonas Gray, who rushed for 201 yards. The last game, it was the recently re-signed LeGarrette Blount, who had two touchdowns in his return to New England.

"We certainly have probably the biggest challenge coming in here Sunday," Capers said. "We've got to go back to work and make sure we're on top of our game and we're ready to go out and play our best, because that's what it's going to take to win a game like this."

When it was posed to coach Mike McCarthy on Monday that the Packers (8-3) would need to be sharp against Brady and Co., he replied: "So you're saying we're not sharp?"

Then how about extra sharp?

"OK, well extra sharp will be the focus," McCarthy said. "You gave me my theme for the week, I guess, there."

And then his tone turned more serious.

"New England is a great football team," McCarthy said. "Just the way they're hitting their stride right now, just watching the video this morning, very impressive. We'll stay in tune with that. We're not going to make a bunch of changes. We like the football team that we are, and we look forward to the competition."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- If Dom Capers' defensive system can be boiled down to a basic principal, it's this: Blitz as often as necessary to disrupt the rhythm and timing of an opponent's offense.

So it should come as no surprise that since he came to Green Bay as defensive coordinator in 2009, the Green Bay Packers have ranked as one of the NFL's most frequent blitz teams (see accompanying chart).

But there's much more that goes into it than just turning linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks loose.

Some of Capers' best defenses in Green Bay have been those that have blitzed the least (see 2009 and 2010).

"I'd say we're probably normally [blitzing at] around 38 to 40 percent of the time," Capers said.

But with worst defense he fielded, the 2011 unit that ranked last in the league, he blitzed the most.

"We couldn't get any pressure on the quarterback that year," Capers said.

That trend is hardly universal.

Take this season, for example. One of the best defensive performances came in Week 5 against the Minnesota Vikings. In the Packers' 42-10 victory, Capers blitzed on 47.2 percent of the Vikings’ dropbacks, according to ESPN Stats & Information (which defines a blitz as sending five or more pass-rushers at the quarterback). Only three other times this season has Capers blitzed at a higher rate -- at Miami in Week 6 (53.1 percent), against Carolina in Week 7 (50 percent) and against the New York Jets in Week 2 (47.3 percent). All were victories

Then there was 19-7 loss against the Detroit Lions in Week 2, when the defense allowed just 10 points. Capers blitzed a season-low 12.8 percent of the time.

This season, the Packers' defense ranks just 25th in yards, but second in takeaways (22), tied for eighth in Total QBR (50.4) and 11th in sack percentage (7.0).

Here is a look at the Capers' philosophy through the eyes of some of his coaches and players:

Offensive coordinator Tom Clements

Before they were on the same side, Clements coached against Capers. One game stands out: Dec. 8, 2002 in Pittsburgh. Clements was the Steelers' quarterbacks coach, and Capers was the Houston Texans head coach.

"That was a weird game," Clements said. "Our defense held them to about a total of 60 yards. We had about 400 yards, and they beat us by three touchdowns."

[+] EnlargeDom Capers
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsDefensive coordinator Dom Capers has made his mark by adapting his calls to each opponent.
Actually, the numbers were these: The Steelers had 422 yards and the Texans had 47. Houston's defense scored three times, two interception returns and a recovered fumble return, in a 24-6 upset.

Which goes to show that when preparing for a Capers' defense, anything is possible.

"Multiple looks, multiple pressures," Clements said. "It requires a lot of film study by the coaches and the players, because you never know what you’re going to get."

Defensive line coach Mike Trgovac

Trgovac, the Panthers defensive coordinator from 2003-2008, knows what it's like to call plays.

He says it's an oversimplification to simply call Capers a blitzer.

"Just to call 100 blitzes, when you start getting in that rhythm of the game, that's actually the easiest part of the game to call," Trgovac said. "The hard part is trying to pick the blitzes based on what you're seeing in the game. You have something set in your mind early and have to adjust from there."

Trgovac says he often finds Capers alone in his office or a film room calling a mock game to try to anticipate those situations.

"He puts in the hours that's required to have knowledge to make a play call," Trgovac said.

Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt

Whitt, who like Trgovac has been with Capers since 2009 in Green Bay, also says it's unfair to label their defense as just a blitzing scheme.

"I wouldn't say that," Whitt said. "I would say it's a week-to-week deal, but we're going to try to do anything we can to win that week. If we have to bring five or six guys, we will."

But then Whitt pointed to one of the biggest defensive plays in last Sunday's win against the Eagles, Julius Peppers' 52-yard interception return for a touchdown. Capers rushed only three players -- defensive linemen Datone Jones, Josh Boyd and Mike Neal -- and dropped Peppers, Clay Matthews and A.J. Hawk into coverage.

"It's whatever's needed," Whitt said.

Outside linebacker Peppers

The 13-year NFL veteran has never been used like this. In his eight seasons in Carolina and four in Chicago, he more or less had one job: put his hand on the ground and rush the quarterback as a defensive end.

"They wanted me to rush for the majority of the time," Pepper said. "Every now and then there was a fire-zone call where I was dropping, but primarily I was rushing."

Perhaps said that's why Eagles coach Chip Kelly said they weren't expecting Peppers to drop into coverage. He said it was "a great call" by Capers.

"I don't think it's anything new," said Peppers, who leads the Packers with 5.0 sacks and is tied for second on the team with two interceptions. "He's been doing that since he's been here as far as I'm concerned."
video
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- You have seen this before from Aaron Rodgers, Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson and Eddie Lacy.

It's nothing new -- these 341-yard, three-touchdown, no-interception games from the Green Bay Packers quarterback, and the 129-yard and 109-yard receiving games from Cobb and Nelson, respectively, and tackle-breaking touchdown runs by Lacy. Breaking records and reaching milestones has become the norm for Rodgers and his crew of playmakers.

But what you saw from the Packers' defense in Sunday's 53-20 dismantling of the Philadelphia Eagles at Lambeau Field might be the new normal. Since their meltdown in the 44-23 loss at New Orleans before the bye, defensive coordinator Dom Capers' unit has turned in a pair of dominant performances in blowout home victories over the Eagles and Chicago Bears.

It has coincided with the new, hybrid role for outside linebacker/inside linebacker Clay Matthews, an idea that was launched during the bye, but it's about much more than that.

"It just shows that we have a very talented defense," said Matthews, who registered a sack for the second straight game. "And it's all about deciding which defense wants to show up."

[+] EnlargeJulius Peppers
AP Photo/Mike RoemerThe Packers' Julius Peppers gets away from Eagles receiver Jordan Matthews for a 52-yard interception return for a touchdown.
If it's the one that foiled Jay Cutler last week and Mark Sanchez on Sunday, then the Packers (7-3) might have the kind of complete team capable of a long playoff run.

Sacks by defensive tackle Letroy Guion on the Eagles' opening series and outside linebacker Mike Neal on the second series set a tone of aggressiveness from the start. Guion beat right guard Matt Tobin on a second-and-6 and dumped Sanchez for a 7-yard loss, which set up a much easier third-and-long situation for the defense and ultimately led to a punt. Neal then dumped Sanchez for a 9-yard loss on third-and-6 to force another punt.

By the time the Eagles got the ball back the next time, they were down 17-0.

"Defensively, you're just seeing a unit that's playing faster," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "The personnel groups that we're getting in and out of, I think it's happening seamlessly. You're getting used to playing together in combinations that we kind of set for the second half. With that, our playmakers are making plays, and we've got a lot of playmakers on defense."

Eagles coach Chip Kelly's fast-paced, high-powered offense looked no different than the Bears offense in their futile performance a week earlier. For the second straight week, the game was over by halftime. This time, the Packers led 30-6 at the break, and even though they gave up 429 yards, it was empty yardage in the end.

"Against an offense like that, to do what they did tonight, that was very impressive," Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. "They're the reason ... yeah, we scored points in the first half, but they kept it to six points. That was huge."

What followed the early sacks was this: a pair of fumble recoveries, one by Nick Perry and another by Casey Hayward, who returned it 49 yards for a touchdown. Then two interceptions, one by Tramon Williams and another by Julius Peppers, who returned it 52 yards for a touchdown.

This against a team that, though it was missing starting quarterback Nick Foles, brought the NFL's fifth ranked offense to town.

The Packers' run defense that was so awful the first half of the season -- it ranked dead last and gave up 155 yards per game -- all of a sudden is more than respectable. They have nearly cut that number in half the past two games and allowed an average of just 82 yards rushing per game.

"We’ve been going out saying that we’re going to get off of the field," Williams said. "[The] offense has been moving the ball unbelievable, and if we can continue doing that throughout the year, then we're going to be where we want to be."
GREEN BAY, Wis. – So Clay Matthews still has some reservations about his move to inside linebacker.

That's understandable for a four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker.

Maybe there's more convincing that needs to be done before he's all-in, but at this point it's the probably the best move for the Green Bay Packers.

[+] EnlargeGreen Bay's Clay Matthews
AP Photo/Mike RoemerClay Matthews' debut at inside linebacker was a productive one, as he had 11 tackles and a sack Sunday against the Bears.
"I don't know what was either expressed or what he truly felt; I haven't had time to sit back and ask him," said Winston Moss, who coaches Matthews and the rest of the Packers' linebackers. "I just know that he prepared in such a matter that he was truly focused to play the best he could."

As Matthews said, it would have been a whole lot more difficult to accept had he not been productive. But 11 tackles later, plus one sack (and another that was wiped out by his own roughing the passer penalty) in the debut of his new role last Sunday against the Chicago Bears should have helped matters.

"The way he played, you would think he loved it," Packers cornerback Tramon Williams said. "You never know; it's still a new position. Even though he played well, maybe his comfort level wasn't there in that point and time. If he gets more reps, maybe he'll get a little more comfortable."

Matthews' hesitancy is reasonable. He made his name -- and a pile of money -- as a relentless pass rusher off the edge. It's been a year-and-half since he signed his five-year, $66 million contract extension, and he's still the highest-paid linebacker in the NFL.

If moving Matthews gives the Packers their money's worth, then so be it. They have been starving for a playmaker from the inside linebacker position next to A.J. Hawk. They alredy tried Brad Jones, Jamari Lattimore and Sam Barrington in the first half of this season before turning to Matthews during the bye week.

And for the first time in Matthews' five seasons, they have another accomplished outside linebacker in Julius Peppers, who leads the team with five sacks to Matthews’ 3.5.

To say the element of surprise was the reason it worked against the Bears would be a discredit to both Matthews' athletic ability and his ability to dissect the game from any spot on the field. He played 38 snaps at inside linebacker and 15 at his old spot.

"If he'd been playing inside there from the first day, I think he'd have gone to the same number of Pro Bowls as he has outside," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said.

Ask Chip Kelly, the Philadelphia Eagles coach who must prepare for Matthews at multiple positions in advance of Sunday's game at Lambeau Field.

"Probably a smart maneuver by those guys," Kelly said this week on a conference call with reporters at Lambeau Field. "It really caused some problems for Chicago in terms of his ability to disrupt things in the middle. Just another thing we’ll be prepared for."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The beauty of throwing Clay Matthews, the inside linebacker, at the Chicago Bears in Sunday night's win was in the surprise of it.

But how well will it work if teams can prepare for Matthews in his new position?

First of all, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy wanted to make one thing clear on Monday.

[+] EnlargeGreen Bay's Clay Matthews
AP Photo/Mike RoemerIn playing mostly inside linebacker against the Bears, Clay Matthews had 11 tackles and a sack.
"Clay Matthews is not an inside linebacker," McCarthy said. "He's a football player."

Nevertheless, if he and Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers want to use Matthews at all like they did on Sunday, when he played 38 snaps at inside linebacker next to A.J. Hawk and just 15 at his old outside linebacker spot, then it's worth wondering whether it will be as effective.

"That’s the benefit of an unscouted look," McCarthy said. "Now, Week 2 will be different, and it obviously goes away. But it has its benefits the first time out of the box."

Matthews had one of his most productive all-around games against the Bears with a career-high 11 tackles (including nine solo stops) and a sack (plus another that was wiped out by penalty.

It was the very definition of an unscouted look on Sunday.

This Sunday, the Philadelphia Eagles will be ready for it.

"Well, I think there's an advantage," Capers said. "All of a sudden you get out there and he’s lined up inside and he's never lined up in there before. Would it affect the protections? Maybe. But I still think that there will be an effectiveness in terms of this package, based on the timing of when we use it."

Teams saw Matthews line up off the line of scrimmage earlier this season, but that was in Capers' 4-3 -- or "quad" -- package. Against the Bears, Matthews was there in the nickel package, which featured a pair of defensive tackles and a pair of outside linebackers on the line of scrimmage.

"He was more on one side of the formation in the quad package," Capers said. "I think it probably became a little bit easier for people to identify where they were going to take the protections if he's only coming from one side or the other as opposed to now, where he's in the middle and he can move to either side basically based off the call."

Capers junked the quad package after the first meeting against the Bears in Week 4 in large part because of its failures against the run. If Matthews was less than enthused about being used off the line of scrimmage in the 4-3, he appears to be more into this change, which Capers and McCarthy decided during the bye week to launch.

"He's going to do whatever that you feel is going to help the football team, and that's basically what he said," Capers said. "If this helps our team, then he's on board. Obviously he likes to rush, which everybody does, but really at the outside linebacker position, he's dropped an awful lot from the outside linebacker position. He's either rushing or dropping from inside as opposed to outside."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers might have solved their two biggest problems on defense with one move.

Or maybe it was just a one-week wonder that caught the Chicago Bears off guard.

But on Sunday night, they filled their need for a playmaking inside linebacker and fixed their leaky run defense all at once.

Matthews
Yes, that was No. 52 lined up next to A.J. Hawk in the middle of the defense at a spot where defensive coordinator Dom Capers has tried -- and moved on from -- Brad Jones, Jamari Lattimore and Sam Barrington.

Meet the Packers' new inside linebacker, Pro Bowl outside linebacker Clay Matthews.

In a defense cooked up during last week's bye, Matthews opened the game at inside linebacker and stayed there during most of Sunday's 55-14 victory against the Bears, except when Capers used his dime package on third-and-long situations. The rest of the night, Matthews played next to Hawk in a nickel alignment that served as the primary defense. Nick Perry started in Matthews' place at right outside linebacker.

Producing a team- and career-high 11 tackles (including nine solo stops) later -- and one sack, which came from his old outside linebacker spot -- Matthews' move was an instant success that took half a season to discover. He had never had more than eight tackles in a game, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"We'll see what it means moving forward," Matthews said. "Obviously it's a little premature to say there's a switch to middle linebacker or whatever you want to call it, but I think as we've shown throughout the years, throughout this season as well, we try to find a little more versatility for myself."

The Packers came into the game ranked last in the NFL in rushing defense, giving up 153.5 yards per game. They held the Bears, who rushed for 235 against them in Week 4, to just 55 yards on 24 attempts. It was the first time all season the Packers have held anyone to less than 100 yards in a game.

Now, for just the second time in seven weeks, they are not ranked last in the league in rushing defense. They climbed two spots to 30th, matching their highest ranking of the season.

"During the bye week, it's like everything, you have a chance to kind of reboot, to reset yourself for the second half of the season," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "Playing Clay at different areas, a different position, to create targeting problems for the offense was something that we spent the whole offseason highlighting it, and this was kind of the next step. Great job by our defensive staff with the creativity, and Clay stepped in there and played at an extremely high level. I thought he was outstanding."

And what kind of inside linebacker does Hawk think his new partner made?

"Tonight, obviously, a pretty good one," Hawk said after the game. "I think being on the move, different times rushing off the edge or coming back and being in the box, that adds something that the offense hasn't seen until tonight, really."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It was an oft-asked question in the Green Bay Packers' locker room this week.

What's wrong with the run defense?

"That's a question you probably have to ask everyone," Packers defensive tackle Mike Daniels said on Friday. "You're going to get a bunch of different responses."

Daniels
In fact, that's exactly what ESPNWisconsin.com's Jason Wilde discovered on Thursday, when he asked every member of the Packers' defensive coaching staff and several players what they can do to fix their run defense, which is ranked 32nd (a.k.a dead last) in the NFL.

For his part, Daniels' answer on Friday was this: "I just think we have to focus a little better."

While there was little or no consensus about why the Packers' run defense has failed, what's clear is when it all fell apart.

Sunday's opponent, the Chicago Bears, serve as that reminder.

In last season's Week 9 game against the Bears at Lambeau Field, the Packers fielded the NFL's fourth-ranked run defense. The first eight weeks of the 2013 season saw it yield just 83.6 yards rushing per game.

Since then, no team has been run on and run over worse than the Packers. And the Bears started it all with a 171-yard rushing performance, including 125 from running back Matt Forte. That was beginning of a 17-game stretch of regular-season games that has seen the Packers give up an average of 155.5 yards rushing per game and 5.0 yards per carry (see chart below).

.

Ten times during that horrific stretch of run defense an opposing running back has topped the 100-yard mark individually, and no team has made the Packers' run defense look worse than the Bears. In all three meetings during that 17-game stretch, Forte has topped the 100-yard mark. He followed his 125-yard game with efforts of 110 in Week 17 of last season and 122 in the Week 4 game this season at Soldier Field.

In the Packers' last outing, Saints running back Mark Ingram put up 172 yards, the most by a back against the Packers since the Viking’s Adrian Peterson ran for 199 in the 2012 regular-season finale.

Forte must be champing at the bit to get another crack at the Packers.

Forte
Forte
"I don't really look at what somebody's ranked in the league, because this is the NFL," Forte said this week during a conference call with reporters at Lambeau Field. "There are still good guys on that team. Just because they may be ranked that low, it doesn't mean that their defense can't stop the run or they're not that good.

"This is the NFL. Guys get paid to play football, play defense, and they're still good. It's always a question from the outside, 'Oh, they're ranked last in the league in this, so you guys should do this on them.'"

Teams sure are trying.

Only three teams have been run on more times than the Packers, who have seen their opponents attempt 257 rushes against them this season.

Until they stop someone -- anyone -- that is not likely to change.

"I would think if you look at us, you'd say that," Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "But I've got confidence, and I don't worry about the stats and where they are. I'm worried about, what can we do from this point forward, the second half of the season?

"I've seen us during the first half of the season play pretty good run defense, where I've said, 'Hey, their two running backs got 60 yards.' So when we were ascending and doing that, we had two or three of those games in there. Now, you never want to have a game like we had in the first Bears game, where we didn't play very good run defense, or the Saints game. Those are the things we've got to iron out to where we become a more consistent team in the second half."
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Only three teams have more takeaways than the Green Bay Packers this season, and just two teams have better turnover differentials. In their four-game winning streak that ended with Sunday's loss to the New Orleans Saints, the Packers had a plus-8 turnover differential. No team was better during that stretch, when they had nine takeaways. Only the New York Giants (with 10) had more.

Halfway through the season, one thing is apparent about the Packers' defense: It survives on takeaways.

And that's not good enough for coach Mike McCarthy.

[+] EnlargeCooks
AP Photo/Bill HaberThe Saints exposed a few holes in the Packers' defense.
Consider what he said moments after the Packers' 44-23 loss to the Saints on Sunday, when the only takeaway his team came up with was a meaningless fumble recovery in the final minutes.

"We need to be more than a football team that just has to rely on winning the turnover ratio," McCarthy said at the time.

Less than 24 hours later, McCarthy used almost the exact same words when discussing the issues facing the Packers' defense during this week's bye.

"We need to be a football team that does more than has to rely on winning the turnover ratio to win," McCarthy said Monday.

And then he added: "This game is about making big plays and taking care of the football, and taking it away. Those are two of the most critical components of it. But to get to where we want to go, we have to overcome when we just don't play right straight to our identity or our format."

Takeaways have been a staple of Dom Capers' defense since he took over as coordinator in 2009. The Packers have more interceptions (124) since Capers took over than any team in the league, and it's not even close. The Patriots have the second most (111). The Packers rank second in turnover margin (plus-70) during Capers' tenure behind only the Patriots (plus-96).

Yet in the nine playoff games since Capers joined McCarthy’s staff, the turnover margin is just plus-4. And in the four postseason games (of which they have won only one) since the Packers won Super Bowl XLV, their turnover differential is zero.

In total takeaways, the Packers have 170 in the 88 regular-season games (an average of 1.93 per game) under Capers. That ranks fourth in the NFL during that span. Yet in the four playoff games since their Super Bowl, they have only six takeaways (1.5 per game).

That tells you that playoff teams, specifically playoff quarterbacks, don't turn the ball over anywhere near as often as the middling and bottom-feeding teams, making it much harder to rely on turnovers to win in the postseason.

And so it was on Sunday against the Saints, who despite their 3-4 record are every bit as dangerous as any offense in the league. Saints quarterback Drew Brees didn't turn the ball over, and the Packers' defense crumbled.

"That has a major influence on it," Capers said of getting takeaways, "but you've got to be efficient in other areas."

SPONSORED HEADLINES

NFC NORTH SCOREBOARD