Communication key to defense's upswing

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Mike McCarthy learned a long time ago that the line of communication from coach to player isn't a one-way street.

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin is brought down by Tramon Williams, A.J. Hawk and Morgan Burnett in the second quarter.

With as much time as you spend with your players, it's expected they will occasionally give you their two cents on how things are done, no different than any other occupation.

It's constructive. It's part of building a football team. It doesn't matter if you're the head coach of the Green Bay Packers or Bay Port High School.

It's important to listen.

"I learned my most football from the players throughout my career," McCarthy said. "The experience of sitting in rooms and going through video, the coaches spend the most time with their players. I think it's only natural that the dialogue should go back and forth continuous."

Everything was on the table leading up to Sunday's 38-17 win over the Carolina Panthers. With how much trouble the read-option has given the defense, veterans like cornerback Tramon Williams felt the unit could benefit from increased exposure in defending it.

So the Packers dedicated an entire period to it in practice last week. It might have been a moot point since the Packers' three quick scores put Cam Newton in a pass-first mode early, but Carolina still struggled to get its ground game established when it mattered most.

It's just one example Williams alludes to when discussing the defense's recent upswing. It wasn't pretty early in the season, but Dom Capers' unit has allowed only 51 points over the past 14 quarters since giving up 96 in the first 14.

Early-season breakdowns still have the Packers positioned 19th in the NFL in total defense (362.7) and 31st against the run (147.9), but they now lead the league in opposing quarterback rating (74.0) and are tied for 10th in scoring defense (21.0).

Those latter two statistics are valuable when your offense is averaging more than 36 points a game over its past four games and your quarterback, Aaron Rodgers (117.3), trails league-leader Peyton Manning (118.2) by less than a point in passer rating.

Williams believes it starts with communication, an area the defensive coaches have wanted to see improvement the past few seasons. So far, it's what the 31-year-old cornerback believes is keying their turnaround from a slow start.

"At the end of the day, we're the ones out there, so we have to be comfortable," Williams said. "I think the communication line has been really well between coaches and players and the understanding has been really good between us of understanding what we see on the field, trusting what they see on the film and in their game-plan and adding that all in together and coming up with a game plan."

Capers always is up for a conversation. It's all part of adjusting. Like McCarthy, the 64-year-old defensive coordinator knows he doesn't have all the answers.

Added depth has given the Packers' defense options, though. Against the Panthers, the Packers made the bold move of inserting second-year linebacker Sam Barrington into the starting lineup after he'd missed two games with a hamstring injury.

The Packers also received a jolt in their pass rush from its "NASCAR" package that's taken on a greater role in third-and-long situations during the two weeks defensive lineman Datone Jones has been out with an ankle injury.

Newton didn't complete a pass against the formation, a variation of a dime defense with no traditional defensive lineman and all four of their elephant linebackers hunting the quarterback.

With Mike Neal and Clay Matthews rotating alongside Julius Peppers on the interior, Newton was sacked once and nearly had a pass picked off by Williams in the early going.

The Packers wanted to find ways to incorporate more of their outside rushers. They might have found it in the subpackage instead of the 4-3 defensive front, which has been conspicuous by its absence the past three games.

A staple of the offseason overhaul of the defense, the Packers haven't used the quad since last month's 38-17 win over Chicago. Whether it has anything to do with sticking more with the 3-4, the run defense has allowed an average of 110.3 yards over the past three games, which is roughly 60 fewer yards than the first month of the season.

"We've had quad on the ready list each week," Capers said. "It's been not a lot of calls, kind of specific things for specific situations, but the personnel that they've used has dictated a little more five- and six-DB stuff, where with quad you only have four on the field."

You could understand the motivation behind the changes after the scheme turned vanilla late last season amid injury and inconsistency, but not everything had to be overhauled.

The cornerback position has been a strength for the better part of three seasons, but it's taken on a prominent role with the re-signing of Sam Shields and maturation of Davon House and Casey Hayward.

Even when Shields didn't play against the Panthers because of a strained patellar tendon, there wasn't much of a drop-off with House. According to Pro Football Focus, the fourth-year cornerback has allowed one catch for five yards in the past two games.

Hayward, who nabbed his second interception in as many weeks, is allowing only one catch every 37.3 coverage snaps, the best among NFL cornerbacks.

It's even trickled into the back end with starting safety Micah Hyde dropping down into the slot of the nickel subpackage for run support when needed against Carolina. In his stead, rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix started his first NFL game and played all 69 snaps.

The Packers couldn't have dreamed of such versatility last season when Hayward missed most of the season with a hamstring injury, and M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian were patrolling the back end.

"It helps a lot because now the quarterback doesn't know who's the nickel, who's the mike backer or if Julius is playing outside linebacker or d-end," House said. "It gives them different looks."

The Packers are sixth in the league in pass defense, but it's still early. The run defense was seated third through the first seven weeks in 2013 before collapsing to 25th.

The defense feels like it can maintain the trajectory, but it'll be tested Sunday in the Superdome against Drew Brees and the second-ranked New Orleans Saints' offense.

More adjustments will be made as the season wears on. The important thing is there's greater communication and more experienced players to digest whatever is being thrown their way.

"I certainly hope that we can improve," Capers said. "I think you've seen improvement over the last four weeks of our defense. I've seen signs, very encouraging signs.

"We've been able to, I think, dictate the tempo. We've been in adversity situations where we've had to start on our side of the field, and we found a way to go out and keep them out of the end zone. I think we've got some things to build on."

— and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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