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Mike Vandermause column: Believe McCarthy's 'big' talk on defense

May 18, 2014
 
ES_GPG_Packers rookie camp_5.16.14
Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy looks on during rookie orientation camp Friday inside the Don Hutson Center in Ashwaubenon. Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media

Mike McCarthy promised that the Green Bay Packers defense will improve this season.

For emphasis, the Packers’ head coach put an exclamation point on that claim for everyone to see.

“We’re going to be a better defense this year,” McCarthy said immediately after the draft. “You can write that in big letters.”

McCarthy isn’t the type to spew idle chatter for effect. When he brings out the big letters, it’s worth noting.

The last time McCarthy made such a bold statement, he backed up his words with actions.

Almost a year ago, in response to persistent questions about the Packers’ subpar running game, McCarthy proclaimed: “We’ll be better, I promise you that. You can write that down. In big letters.”

Sure enough, the Packers’ running game catapulted from No. 20 in the NFL in 2012 to No. 7 last season.

If that example is any indication, a major upgrade could be in store for the defense, which ranked No. 24 in scoring and No. 25 in yards last season.

When McCarthy puts his mind to something, results normally follow. He appears to be taking a greater personal stake in the progress of the defense this offseason, which could bear fruit on the field.

In January 2009, McCarthy cleaned house on his defensive staff, replacing defensive coordinator Bob Sanders with Dom Capers, and two years later the Packers won the Super Bowl.

While he hasn’t acted with the same type of desperation this year, McCarthy knows the defense has been holding the Packers back from deep playoff runs the past three years.

Soon after last season ended, McCarthy said he planned to set the vision for the defense and he expressed confidence that Capers and his staff could carry it out.

“Our defensive staff has been very diligent in preparing the personnel groups, the expectations and how we’re going to package these guys,” McCarthy said. “So I feel with that going into the offseason program, we have an opportunity to be better. ... We’ll be a better defense this year.”

There’s a risk of looking foolish when public promises are made, so McCarthy must have good reasons to be brimming with confidence.

While the perceived weakness at inside linebacker has become an obsession in some circles, the Packers look better in other places.

The signing of Julius Peppers could transform an ordinary pass rush into something special. At 34, Peppers is no spring chicken, but if he’s used less frequently and more effectively, as the Packers have suggested, things could open up for everyone else.

Clay Matthews never has had the luxury of a rushing threat like Peppers lining up on the other side, so in theory this could unshackle him.

During an interview with USA TODAY last month, Matthews might just as well have been drooling when he said: “They’re going to double the big guy (Peppers), and that leaves plenty of opportunities for me. I haven’t had too many one-on-one opportunities, and when you do, you’re expected to win — at least in our locker room — the majority of the time, because that’s supposed to be a mismatch.”

There’s a lot of conjecture and what-ifs, but the Packers’ defensive line also should improve. The plan calls for B.J. Raji to move back to his natural nose tackle position, while Mike Daniels is an ascending impact player, and free-agent signee Letroy Guion will add bulk. There’s also the anticipation that second-year players Datone Jones and Josh Boyd are ready to make a splash.

“I feel very good about those guys, as far as our big guys,” McCarthy said.

At safety, the Packers have gone from the outhouse to the penthouse by drafting Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round. He should start immediately and make everyone forget about the shortcomings of M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian.

“He’s shown that he can be a three-down player at Alabama,” McCarthy said of Clinton-Dix. “He’s coming from obviously a program where he was very well-coached and they use multiple schemes, and I think his transition here will be pretty seamless.”

The Packers’ solid cornerback rotation will only get better with the return of rookie sensation Casey Hayward, who missed almost all of last season with a hamstring injury.

Make no mistake, the Packers’ defense won’t be as dominating as the ones featured in Seattle and San Francisco. But then, the Packers’ dynamic offense doesn’t need a great complementary defense, just a good one, and the pieces are in place to make it happen.

We have McCarthy’s word on that.

mvandermause@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.

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