The Green Bay Packers’ defense wasn’t in the market to repeat the 2011 season.
From the front office down to defensive coordinator Dom Capers, the Packers knew they had to make some adjustments with their defensive personnel if they were going to avoid being the worst ranked defense in the NFL for the second consecutive season.
Some NFL teams like Buffalo went to the free-agent wire to fix its shortcomings. Others, like the Packers and general manager Ted Thompson, turned to their feeder system of drafting and developing players instead of spending cap room for high-priced fixes in free agency.
What resulted was a 2012 NFL Draft class that saw the team draft six consecutive defensive players, many of whom have seen significant playing time on a unit hampered by injuries at times this season.
While injuries shortened first-round linebacker Nick Perry’s rookie campaign, second-round pick Casey Hayward has six interceptions this season to position himself in the running for defensive rookie of the year.
Safety Jerron McMillian, and defensive linemen Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels have also worked into the rotations while even undrafted rookie Dezman Moses has received a fair share of starts in place of an injured Clay Matthews, who recently returned from his hamstring injury.
Outside of Hayward, the rookies haven’t bumped any veterans permanently from their playing time, but they have allowed Capers’ defense a cushion to defend itself from injury.
Unlike last year when the loss of three-time Pro Bowler Nick Collins and a year-long shoulder ailment for cornerback Tramon Williams zapped the defense of its spark, the Packers have forged through injuries to Matthews, defensive tackle B.J. Raji, and defensive backs Sam Shields and Charles Woodson.
“We didn’t want to repeat what we did the year before,” Capers said. “We came in and the first two years we’re in the top five of defense. We won a lot of games, but last year we won games because of our offense. You didn’t have to be a really skilled eye to look and say we need to try to upgrade some areas, and I think we did. To me, it’s a credit to Ted, going into the draft and coming out with guys, and all those guys have contributed.
“I know I’ve looked out there at times and we’ve had six at times out there, rookies, trying to win a game with six rookies at one time, sometimes you’re holding your breathe a little bit but they’ve responded.”
Along with the rookies, second- and third-year players like cornerback Davon House and defensive lineman Mike Neal have battled injury to carve out roles on defense. Despite being suspended for the first four games of this season, Neal’s 3 ½ sacks lead the defensive line.
Unlike last year when the Packers had to plug their defensive holes with veterans, banking on potential has been this team’s calling card. It's worked as the defense has seen its total yards allowed drop from 32nd last year to tied for 14th entering today's game against Tennessee.
“Looking at the whole team really, especially of course defense and defensive backs, these guys are young players, they’ve been asked to do a lot,” said Woodson, who’ll miss his eighth consecutive game today with a broken collarbone.
“With the nickel and the dime and the safety position, you have those guys who have to come in and do what I’ve done for a long time. Those guys have came in and filled in well, and they've helped lead this team to a lot of wins and get us into the playoffs.”
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