Defense ready to unveil new model
The remodeling of the Green Bay Packers' defense is complete.
When the Packers take the field against the Seattle Seahawks in Thursday night's regular-season opener, the grand vision coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers put in place this offseason finally will be put into action.
The changes came in many forms. Eight-time Pro Bowler Julius Peppers was signed. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was drafted in the first round. Mike Neal shed another 20 pounds. The old guard on the defensive line was ushered out in favor of lighter, more-athletic options.
A few days from its unveiling, not even the players preparing to execute the calls are certain what the makeover is going to look like.
"We're as excited as probably a lot of Packers fans are to watch it," inside linebacker A.J. Hawk said. "We've been sitting here talking about this game and this season and what we're going to do and adding Julius and Ha Ha and all the other young guys, and we want to see it, too. We know what we're capable of, and we need to find a way to bring it to the field in the first real game."
A transformation was needed after the Packers' defense plummeted during the final two months of last season in the face of injuries and inconsistency.
There were noticeable problems in the secondary, namely a safety position that failed to produce an interception for the first time in recordable Packers history, and the pass rush became an issue as the season wore on.
Outside linebacker Clay Matthews broke his thumb. Twice. Nick Perry played the final stretch of the season on a broken foot. Defensive lineman Datone Jones, the team's first-round pick, never was able to shake an early-season ankle injury.
The Packers tied for eighth in sacks, but struggled to apply consistent pressure without sending an extra attacker on a blitz. Meanwhile, the secondary saw its interceptions diminish for the third consecutive year.
"I think it was good sometimes, and other times we needed to improve," Capers said of his pass rush. "I'm looking forward to getting our combination of guys on the field this year because I think we've got some guys who can win one-on-one with the pass rush. Really, that's what you need in this league."
The first order of business this offseason was to find Matthews a running mate. Uncharacteristically, general manager Ted Thompson quietly flew in Peppers and signed him to a three-year deal with a $7.5 million signing bonus.
Peppers, 34, is the oldest player on the roster by three years, but playing in a two-point stance as an outside linebacker was intriguing for both parties. The other option is Neal, who had a career year in 2013 after making the switch from defensive line to outside linebacker. He's now down to 263 pounds.
The barrel ran dry late last season at outside linebacker because of injury. So much so that Datone Jones was forced into a two-point stance for the first time in his career during January's 23-20 playoff loss to San Francisco.
Today, outside linebacker is seen as one of the deepest positions on the roster. The Packers believe that depth will breed more versatility and creativity in Capers' calls.
"We're a better pass-rush team today than we've been in a long time," McCarthy said. "It's a tribute to our players. Some of the things we've changed schematically, we've worked at it a lot more, we've done a lot more group work in the pass-rush area, both in protection and the defensive pass rush."
Matthews and Peppers gained some familiarity by playing 54 generic snaps together in the preseason, but now is when the wins and losses matter. The time to unleash whatever unscouted looks have been formulated starts the moment the Packers step onto CenturyLink Field.
Matthews never has had a teammate with Peppers' credentials. He's spent most of his career rushing opposite street and undrafted free agents. The Packers invested a first-round pick in Perry in 2012, but his 15 games missed in two seasons led to the offseason outsourcing.
The thumb injury cost Matthews six games last season (including playoffs). Yet, he still managed to lead the defense in sacks for the fifth consecutive year with 7½. Peppers and Neal should allow Matthews the ability to freelance more and no longer be the only rusher commanding attention.
"It'll be fun to see," Matthews said. "I know, as I've seen over the years and as Dom has shown, we keep a multitude of defenses and schemes and formations and this is a team that presents the very same problems, so we'll look to unleash it in Week 1 and hopefully it works in our favor."
There are unknowns on the Packers' defensive line. B.J. Raji was supposed to be the anchor at nose tackle, but his season-ending biceps injury makes a young line increasingly so. The prevalence of subpackage formations likely means more Mike Daniels and Datone Jones, though Peppers and Neal could lend a hand.
There's also been a shift at the safety position. Micah Hyde and Clinton-Dix take over for M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian, who are out of the league. Alongside the two youngsters, there's pressure on veteran Morgan Burnett to live up to the four-year extension he signed last summer.
Cornerback remains as deep as ever. Sam Shields signed a lucrative four-year extension and Casey Hayward is back manning the slot in subpackages after a recurring hamstring injury limited him to three games.
How will all the pieces fit? That's for the season to determine. Right now, the Packers' defense feels it is deep enough to get back to where it was during Capers' first two seasons in Green Bay.
"I think we're head-over-heels better," cornerback Tramon Williams said. "Now, we obviously have some guys injured already, but our foundation is still strong. Our foundation is still strong as a team. From top to bottom, from the top guy to the last guy, we have a great quality of players in this locker room. It should be fun."
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