Healthier defense needs to prove its worth

Nov. 27, 2013

Contrary to popular public opinion, the Green Bay Packers’ recent lapses on defense have not been lost on Dom Capers.

On film, the 62-year-old defensive coordinator sees what everyone else does — a unit that’s struggling to get stops, struggling to turn the football over and now wilting against the run.

The good news is the defense is getting healthier. Today against the Detroit Lions the Packers are slated to return three defensive starters – cornerback Sam Shields (hamstring), outside linebacker Nick Perry (ankle/foot) and defensive lineman Johnny Jolly (groin).

Perry put together two of his better professional performances shortly after four-time Pro Bowler Clay Matthews broke his thumb in the Packers’ first meeting with Detroit on Oct. 6. The following week in Baltimore later, Perry broke his foot and has missed five of the Packers’ last six games.

Perry, who has three sacks in six games, returned two weeks ago against Philadelphia before re-injuring the foot. The Packers’ pass rush survived without Perry and four-time Pro Bowler Clay Matthews (Bennett’s fracture), but wasn’t the same with converted defensive lineman Mike Neal and rookies Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer.

Matthews will be playing in his fourth straight game since returning from surgery for a Bennett’s fracture. He’s still wearing a cast on his right hand, but beginning to look more like himself after a two-sack effort in Sunday’s 26-26 tie with Minnesota.

“You think back to a couple weeks ago when he had that big club and he was a one-armed guy out there,” Capers said. “Now, he’s gone to that smaller cast where he can use his fingers. I thought he looked far more like Clay last week. We’re hoping Thursday he’ll be even more of a step forward.”

The Packers are in a five-way tie for first in the NFL in sacks (37), but sit in 20th in total defense (359.6 yards per game), 20th in pass defense (244.2) and 19th against the run (115.1).

The return of Shields will equally meaningful to the secondary. The 6-foot cornerback likely will see a healthy serving of Lions receiver Calvin Johnson, an assignment he was disappointed not to receive last month against the Lions when Johnson was a late scratch due to a knee injury.

Capers still feels the defense can turn things around despite allowing 409.5 yards per game in the four games the Packers have been without starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

If nothing else, Capers’ defense will have an opportunity to prove itself with a full complement of weapons. Cornerback Casey Hayward was placed on injured reserve last week, but Shields, Perry and Jolly are certainly an upgrade at each position.

“Sam has tried to show that he is an every-down corner,” Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “There are a lot of people who said he’s a third-down corner. He wanted to prove that wasn’t the case with his tackling and stuff, and that was more last year. Now, he’s trying to make that next step to can he be in the conversation with some of those top corners that are out there?

“I believe the way he’s played - we haven’t played as well as I would hope that we would play on defense and in the secondary, but he has. You can’t take that away from him.”

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Get Green Bay Packers updates as they happen from our reporting team: (from left) Mike Vandermause, Wes Hodkiewicz and Pete Dougherty.

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