For an offensive guy, it had to be difficult to admit.
But there was Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy on Monday, with his team about to begin preparations for Sunday’s NFC wild-card playoff game at Philadelphia, coming clean about his belief that the key to making a Super Bowl run is defense.
Maybe it’s because he knows that stopping Eagles quarterback Michael Vick will be critical to advancing beyond the first round.
Or maybe it’s because he has seen how coordinator Dom Capers’ defense finished the season with a dominating six-sack, two-interception performance in Sunday’s 10-3 victory over the Chicago Bears and has kept the Packers in game after game this season while the offense has been on the inconsistent side.
Whatever the reason, McCarthy, the former quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator who as a head coach has the Packers in the playoffs for the third time in the last four years, claimed that his team will need its defense to perform to make a title run.
“I think it’s important for your team to be noted for great defense,” McCarthy said. “That’s always been the goal in my tenure here, and I think we definitely have reached that.”
The Packers finished the regular season ranked second in the NFL in scoring defense, allowing 15.0 points per game. Only the Pittsburgh Steelers (14.5 ppg) were more stingy. Six times this season, the defense has held an opponent under 10 points, including the Oct. 31 road shutout of the New York Jets.
“I think that speaks volumes of the improvement we’ve made from last year to this year,” McCarthy said. “Because I think defenses do win championships. Your offense and your quarterback obviously play a big part in that, and you can carry it over to special teams. You have to have all three phases, but it starts with defense. I’ve always looked at defense as the thermostat. When you have a great defense, they keep you in games week in and week out, and it’s the responsibility of the offense to score more points than the opponent.”
That’s not to say McCarthy wants to get in a shootout a la last year’s wild-card playoff game at Arizona, where the Packers lost 51-45 in overtime. Capers’ defense last season, which was his first as the Packers’ coordinator, had some inherent problems despite leading the league in rushing defense.
It never developed a consistent pass rush and had depth issues in the secondary by season’s end because of injuries. So the fact that Kurt Warner and the Cardinals’ talented group of receivers beat them shouldn’t have come as a major surprise.
The second edition of Capers’ defense appears to be more complete. The pass rush has been strong, led by Clay Matthews (13½ sacks) on the outside and B.J. Raji (6½) on the interior. If they get Cullen Jenkins (seven sacks) back after missing the last four games because of a calf injury, it should be that much better. But Capers also has found other rushers like fill-in outside linebacker Erik Walden, who had two sacks against the Bears.
“If you can learn anything from last year, I think we were the hottest team in the NFL and came out and gave up 51 points or something along those lines,” Matthews said. “That’s not indicative of our defense and of our team. So if we can learn anything, it’s to keep this rolling, we can’t back off. We earned the right to be in (the playoffs). Now it’s about taking it to the next step and winning the first game.”
Capers used an array of five- and six-man pressures to almost completely shut down the Bears on Sunday. Whether he can blitz the more mobile Vick as much as he did Jay Cutler remains to be seen, but the Packers should be more prepared to handle Vick than they were when he nearly rallied the Eagles to a comeback victory in their Week 1 meeting.
The Packers spent much of their preparation time for the opener game planning for new starter Kevin Kolb. But Matthews, who had three sacks in the opener, knocked Kolb out of the game in the second quarter. The Packers led 20-3 midway through the third quarter, when Vick started to burn the Packers with his rushing ability. He ran for 103 yards on 11 attempts and threw for 175 yards and a touchdown in the Packers’ 27-20 win and quickly wrestled the starting job away from Kolb.
“He certainly played extremely well against us in the second half there,” Capers said. “We probably played about as good a first half of football as we’ve played this year, and then Vick goes in and we had a hard time chasing him down. Now I’ll say this, it wasn’t one of those games where we had an extensive plan for him. We were counting on (Vick playing) six to eight plays, and he played the whole second half.”
Vick didn’t play in Sunday’s meaningless regular-season finale to rest a bruised quadriceps but is expected to be healthy come Sunday.
The Packers used Walden to spy Cutler, who likes to run but isn’t as dynamic as Vick. Walden got one of his sacks on a delayed rush from the spy position.
“Anytime you game plan in any phase of the game, you’re always identifying the impact players and how you want to contain those individuals,” McCarthy said. “Our ready list in that (first) game dramatically changed when Michael Vick came into the game. I think we’ll be more prepared for him this time, that’s for sure.”