Capers adapts to changing NFL offenses
The first thing Micah Hyde learned playing in Dom Capers' defense is that information never stops flowing.
Each week, the Green Bay Packers' defensive coordinator can be counted on to unveil a new statistic or study ahead of an upcoming opponent. Capers combs through data at a painstaking pace hoping to find a tidbit or two that could be an advantage down the road. The changes that develop out of those calculations are the backbone of his survival in the NFL.
Capers, who turns 65 in August, has coached professional football longer than any of his defensive players has been alive, outside of 35-year-old Julius Peppers. You don't last as long as he has by only doing the same thing over and over.
"Dom has more stats than everybody in this room combined," said third-year defensive back Hyde, taking a quick survey of Tuesday's locker room. "I don't even know where he comes up with it most of the time, but he'll talk about something, something was 67 percent and we'll look around the room like, 'How the hell does he know that?' But he has his ways of finding that stuff out."
Capers is an open book to his players. If they want to know anything about his zone-blitz defense, they ask and get an answer sooner than later. On this day, however, Capers isn't giving away any secrets to reporters. When asked how much he deployed his base defense in 2014, Capers is coy.
What he will say is that the amount of traditional two-back, two-receiver packages his defense saw last season was the fewest he can remember. Maybe that has something to do with not seeing Minnesota's suspended running back Adrian Peterson, but the pass-first nature of today's NFL has bred more spread schemes.
Defenses have countered with more subpackage groupings than ever before. But what good are subpackages if you lack a capable secondary? For that reason, the market for athletic, fast and physical defensive backs never has been hotter.
The Packers' secondary was as deep as you'd find in the league until Tramon Williams and Davon House left this offseason. Williams, who turned 32 in March, agreed to a three-year, $21 million deal with Cleveland. House, 25, received a four-year, $25 million contract from Jacksonville.
That's the price those teams were willing to pay knowing they have to face Andrew Luck, Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco at least twice per season. Offenses are spreading out and playing faster. It makes sense that as many as seven defensive backs at a time are needed to keep up.
Capers estimates the Packers played one regular-season game last season in which the opponent's base offense wasn't three receivers. That was Nov. 30 against New England, which features Rob Gronkowski in a two-tight end system.
"When you look at what your plan is with your opponents, there's so much more three wide receivers on the field, whether it be first, second or third down now," Capers said. "Some people will run the ball out of three wide receivers. You have to have a very good subpackage. They're putting three wide receivers out there, you've got to make a decision — are you going to play four, five or six defensive backs?"
According to Pro Football Focus, the Packers operated out of a subpackage on nearly 75 percent of their plays last season (824 of 1,111), roughly 15 percent higher than the NFL average. With nickel and dime looks increasing, their base snaps (24.7 percent) predictably fell well below the league's 38.3 percent average.
So it shouldn't be a surprise that the Packers used their first two draft picks on a pair of cornerbacks, Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, rather than taking one of the top inside linebackers and trying to improve what was arguably their weakest position.
Last year proved the Packers can use Clay Matthews at inside linebacker in a pinch. What the five-time Pro Bowler couldn't do is play a slot cornerback, which was essentially what he was asked to do in the Packers' failed 4-3 quad defense at the start of the year.
The Packers added Randall and Rollins to a room that already returns Pro Bowler Sam Shields, Casey Hayward and Hyde. Behind starting safeties Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Sean Richardson and Chris Banjo also have experience playing slot cornerback in the subpackages.
"Everybody counts," Hyde said. "Every single person who can go out and compete with us counts. You see during the season, one guy could be out. Two guys could be out. Guys have to step in. We understand that as a secondary. That's why we're trying to bring the young guys along and even the older guys keep moving in the right direction to go out there and compete."
So what's different about the defense now? Hyde points toward the meetings. Sure, the defense still gets together as a whole and discusses the nuances of the playbook, but position groups focus on more advanced material now than when Hyde first broke into the league.
It's no longer uncommon for the defensive backs to discuss different defensive fronts, run gaps and scheme over basic Xs and Os. It's a bit more complicated for rookies and young players to pick up, but that's where veterans come in.
It fits with the philosophy coach Mike McCarthy alluded to earlier this offseason when he said the coaches planned to tailor their teaching to experienced players over rookies. In the past, they coached the lowest common denominator based on how perennially young the team was.
"I think there's a time to be individualized, there's a teaching philosophy that you always teach to the lowest guy or youngest guy in the room," McCarthy said. "We've kind of flipped that, we're challenging the older guys to bring the younger guys up and then coach those younger guys in more of a one-on-one fashion. It's just finding as many different ways as you possibly can to motivate and continue to grow as a program."
The Packers appear to have three starters pinpointed with Shields at left cornerback, and Burnett and Clinton-Dix on the back end. Where the rest fit will be decided this summer.
The evolution of Capers' system doesn't have players lining up at the same spot on every down. The Packers dialed up a number of new formations last season to keep offenses off-balance, including their NASCAR dime package in obvious passing situations. Their Big Okie package was effective against the run with Richardson subbing as an extra in-the-box safety.
Since converting Mike Neal to outside linebacker in 2013, the defense has favored players who can play more than one position. They took the same approach last year in maximizing the versatility of Matthews, Peppers, Nick Perry and Hyde.
Whatever Capers dreams up for 2015, it likely will be centered on combating the league's growing number of aerial assaults with stats to back it up.
"Dom is a really smart guy. He's a genius on the defensive side," Hyde said. "I don't think people realize that. He is a genius. You can literally walk up to him and ask him any question about the defense, about a situation, about an offense and he'll help you. If he doesn't know right away, he'll go back and study something and give you the answer.
"We have a real weapon in Dom and he really helps us out a lot."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod
Packers DBs in action
Formations by number of Packers defensive backs on the field
3: 13 plays (1.2 percent of snaps, 1.3 is league average)
4 (base): 274 plays (24.7, 38.3)
5 (nickel): 580 plays (52.2, 46.5)
6 (dime): 243 plays (21.9, 12.5)
*Per Pro Football Focus, regular season only