Defense brings new vision into rematch
All offseason, the four words rattled around everyone's mind.
Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy set the vision for a change in defensive philosophy early in the offseason with the idea of using "More personnel, less scheme," but what exactly did that mean?
Behind closed doors, defensive coordinator Dom Capers and the coaching staff concocted an array of packages aimed at getting the most out of All-Pro linebacker Clay Matthews and newly acquired Julius Peppers.
Their first invention — the quad — debuted in the regular-season opener against the Seattle Seahawks. A rough draft in every sense of the word, the modified 4-3 look saw Matthews take a step back from the line of scrimmage and next to inside linebackers A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones.
While the Packers never showed it during the preseason, it was almost like the Seahawks knew what was coming. Green Bay called the new package on 14 occasions and it was met with porous results in the 36-16 loss.
Seattle ran against the formation six times for 40 yards (6.7 yards per carry) and passed eight (completing seven attempts for 109 yards and a touchdown).
There were moments, but the cost ultimately outweighed the benefits. After a lackluster showing in the first half against Chicago on Sept. 28, the quad was history.
"You never know," Capers said Monday when asked why it didn't take. "It was something we worked (on). We were looking for some matchup problems. I think we only played like 15 snaps of it (against Seattle). We had some good snaps out of it, but we didn't play out of it in preseason, so basically we kind of unveiled it there.
"It's like a lot of these things. You have different packages and, based on that time, we thought it had some advantages to go and do that. We played it the first three or four games and then we kind of got away from it a little bit."
So maybe the quad didn't work, but the idea behind it might have saved the Packers' season. Green Bay had a lot of resources with Matthews back from a twice-broken thumb, Peppers signed and Mike Neal extended for two more seasons.
Throw in former first-round pick Nick Perry's return to health and the pass rush no longer was built around one guy. Suddenly, Capers had options. He didn't have to keep Matthews handcuffed to one position anymore.
With the defense bleeding yards through the first eight weeks of the season, Capers slid Matthews to inside linebacker and immediately saw an upswing. They caught the Bears off-guard with the look in a 55-14 win on Nov. 4. Matthews finished with a career-high 11 tackles and a sack.
Where the quad confined Matthews to one side of the field, he's able to keep everything in front of him when inside the 3-4 or nickel. Matthews even lined up as the lone linebacker in the dime against New England to help combat tight end Rob Gronkowski.
"After the bye week, we've moved Clay and tried to get the same matchups out of a little different package with Clay inside as opposed to outside," Capers said. "We've talked about that a lot in the offseason in terms of Clay being a guy who can handle being moved around. Being able to put him in different places, you've seen us do it with Julius a lot."
The rest of the pieces steadily fell into the place for the Packers' defense as the season wore on. First-round draft pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix became an every-down starting safety. Veteran Letroy Guion, who missed all of the preseason with a hamstring injury, slowly settled in on the defensive line.
The Packers' inside linebackers at the start of the season, Hawk and Jones, moved into minor roles behind Sam Barrington, a 2013 seventh-round draft pick whose snaps have jumped sharply in the second half of the season. Now, Hawk plays exclusively in the base and Jones in the dime.
The defensive improvements give the Packers hope that they might have more success in their second meeting with the Seahawks, Sunday at CenturyLink Field.
There wasn't much worth remembering from their first encounter with Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch and the rest of Seattle's offense. The Packers missed 18 tackles, according to Pro Football Focus, and were two Wilson kneel-downs from surrendering 400 total yards.
"Everything has been improved as the season goes along; hopefully you're getting better in all areas and we have been," said Peppers, who finished with 44 tackles and seven sacks. "We're a better tackling team, we're more physical, we're more fundamentally sound, we're just overall a better unit. That last game was so long ago, there's nothing really to go off of that game. It's a whole new year."
The challenge Wilson and Lynch present is very real. The Seahawks are one of the rare teams that feature a thunder-and-lightning combination based on a quarterback and running back. It propelled Seattle to producing a league-high 172.6 rushing yards per game this season.
Lynch is a natural bulldozer, but it's Wilson who truly makes Seattle unique. He mixed his 3,475 passing yards this year with another 849 on the ground. His ability to throw out of the read-option gave Green Bay fits in the opener.
On the Seahawks' second offensive series, Wilson hit Ricardo Lockette for a 33-yard touchdown early in the victory when Sam Shields bit on the read-option. Clinton-Dix had a chance to minimize the damage, but was caught flat-footed in pursuit.
It was one of three consecutive plays in which Wilson completed a pass of more than 24 yards against the quad.
"We played against him a few times already. We already know what to expect," Shields said. "We've just got to contain him and not let him get loose with the ball so he can get that extra yardage downfield, that big play."
Seattle's perimeter weapons aren't threatening on paper. Percy Harvin, who had a 100 total yards in the opener, was traded to the New York Jets in October amid rumblings of discontent. Second-round speedster Paul Richardson was coming on before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in Sunday's 31-17 win over Carolina.
The Packers passed one test in containing Dallas' second-ranked rushing offense, but stopping Wilson and the Seahawks is an entirely different animal. It's going to take a well-rounded defensive performance and Matthews' versatility to tame it.
It's been an up-and-down season for the defense, but Capers said he feels this unit has come a long way from the one that was using an untested scheme in the opener.
"I think we're a different team," Capers said. "We have a healthy respect for this team we're going in to play. We know the venue, we know how tough it is to go in there. We've experienced that. Hopefully we can take and use that to our advantage because I think we're a lot different team than we were in the opener."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod