Defense settles into 4-3 look against Jets
The way things were going early in Sunday's 31-24 win over the New York Jets, it looked like the Green Bay Packers might need to reconsider this whole notion of a four-man front, quad or whatever Mike McCarthy wants to term their variation of a 4-3 defense.
Six quarters into the 2014 season, the Packers' defense had given up 57 points, 610 total yards and appeared headed to the franchise's first 0-2 start since McCarthy's first season as head coach in 2006.
It wasn't until cornerback Tramon Williams picked off a Geno Smith deep ball intended for tight end Zach Sudfeld with 1 minute, 52 seconds left in the half that the defense began to show signs of life. Over the last 40 minutes of regulation, a 21-3 deficit morphed into a 28-3 rally.
Social media's cries of "Fire Capers" quickly turned to coy rebuttals. Inside the locker room, defenders raved about how a team-first mindset produced the fourth-biggest comeback in franchise history.
It left only one question: Why couldn't they have just started the game that way?
"I think that's kind of life in the NFL right now," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Monday. "Sometimes you have to settle in to see where they're coming from and make your adjustments and go from there."
Capers rarely sent out his 3-4 defense against the Jets. It was perhaps the least the Packers have worked in their traditional base defense since a 27-20 win over Philadelphia to start the 2010 season when they ran strictly nickel against the Eagles.
Instead, the Packers dispatched their new-look front with the thought it would match up with the Jets' high-tempo offense without having to substitute as much personnel. The Jets gashed it for 212 first-half yards, 180 of which came on their first three drives -- all resulting in touchdowns.
Unlike last week's 36-16 loss to Seattle, however, the Packers stuck with the 4-3 and had success when the formation was mixed with nickel and dime subpackages in the second half. Converting only two of nine third-down attempts in the second half, the Jets managed just three more points and 100 total yards their final six possessions.
Entering this Sunday's NFC North opener against Detroit, the defense knows it must carry the performance through an entire game. It also must find balance with a 4-3 scheme that started slow, but also was responsible for the mid-game turnaround when Green Bay ran it on 11 straight plays, including on Williams' interception.
"What we have to do is be able to start faster," Capers said. "We've been a fast-starting team for the most part. We haven't been a team that's had to come back from many deficits of that magnitude since I've been here. We've been used to playing with the lead a lot."
Capers and McCarthy dismiss the idea there's been an in-season learning curve with the Packers' offseason switch, though many players in the locker room have said there's been confusion at times about calls and substitution patterns.
One change Capers tried to make coming out of Seattle was being more decisive with his calls instead of waiting for a "muddle huddle" to break and an offensive player to leave the field.
Was it always the best call? Maybe not, but it allowed his defenders to line up and settle in.
In a perfect world, McCarthy said, he'd prefer not to have to match personnel with opposing offenses that operate out of muddle huddles like the Jets, but it's been a staple of Capers' scheme since he arrived in Green Bay.
"Dom and I talk about this all the time. I'm not saying what we do is wrong," McCarthy said. "I mean if you're going to match, it's all about getting the players the call at the right time. We want to stay aggressive in our approach. We don't want to be getting calls in at the last second and things like that. Matching, there's a place for matching and there's a place to play by down and distance, and that's how football has always been played."
Capers estimated the defense cut its missed tackles by "more than 50 percent," though Pro Football Focus showed a more drastic shift from 18 missed attempts against the Seahawks to only three Sunday.
Green Bay's pressure was better, particularly in the second half. In dialing up more zone blitzes, defensive lineman Mike Daniels had arguably the best game of his career with five tackles (two for a loss), two quarterback hits and a sack.
Along with the usual suspects like Daniels, Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews, the Packers seemed to benefit from new personnel. Jamari Lattimore stepped in for an injured Brad Jones and finished with seven tackles.
Casey Hayward evidently was dealing with some type of hamstring issue, according to Capers, but the game plan already called for fourth-year cornerback Davon House working as the fifth defensive back in nickel formations.
After not seeing a defensive snap in Seattle, House answered with two tackles and two third-down pass deflections. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed one catch for six yards on three targets.
"Our plan was to play Davon more," Capers said. "We didn't play Davon in the first game and he'd had a very good training camp. We felt going in we wanted to play Davon more and give him an opportunity and I thought he responded pretty well. He covered very well."
The Lions have a new coaching staff this season, but still like to use their arsenal of perimeter weapons to stretch defenses out. Discussions about what personnel will be used to stop them start today.
Capers said the 3-4 is still very much in the team's arsenal. To get what the Packers want to get this season, the defense "will need both" base formations.
The Packers tried to keep their 4-3 defense under wraps this summer and didn't use it in any of their preseason games. As the pieces fall into place, the Packers believe a turnaround will emerge.
They just hope it won't have to be under as dire of circumstances as Sunday.
"We're not trying to trick anybody," McCarthy said. "We're utilizing our personnel. We're doing the things that we've been working on since April. Just getting better at it. We practice it in the OTAs and through training camp. Really, it's just about utilizing as many defensive players as we can. That's the biggest part of it."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod