Packers defense looking for faster start

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews (52) gets a hand on Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Tim Tebow (11) in the first quarter. The Green Bay Packers hosted the Philadelphia Eagles in a preseason game at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. on Saturday, Aug. 29, 2015. Kyle Bursaw/Press-Gazette Media/@kbursaw

The natural reaction might have been for the Green Bay Packers to burn the tapes and forget the game ever happened.

Instead, they've tried to put their 39-26 preseason loss to Philadelphia to use, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.

The Packers' starting defense, in its only three preseason series together, gave up 18 points and 152 yards in a combined 6 minutes, 50 seconds. Eagles coach Chip Kelly pulled no punches with his no-huddle offense during a 39-point onslaught in the first half against the Packers.

Afterward, many in Green Bay's locker room downplayed the game as nothing more than a tune-up. Frustrating? Sure, but far from a concern. Green Bay’s starters still sat out of the preseason finale against New Orleans with attention already set to Sunday’s regular-season opener in Chicago.

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The defense understands what it put on film against the Eagles wasn’t pretty. Instead of harping on it, the Packers hope it serves as a final reminder of what's at stake once the games start to matter.

“That was us in that game, but we know we can’t play like that and win,” cornerback Casey Hayward said. “We know to come in here on defense, we have to play our part each and every week to be an elite defense. That’s what we must do.”

Preseason is the time for vanilla calls and generic schemes, but the performance was alarming given how slow the defense started in 2014 and really each of the past four seasons. The Packers have allowed an average of 33.5 points and 436.5 yards per game in their last four openers, winning only once.

The last four teams they’ve played — Seattle, San Francisco (twice) and New Orleans — all went on to make the playoffs. It would be an upset if the Bears, in the early phase of rebuilding, continued that streak this season. In theory, it’s the perfect opponent to provide some early momentum.

The Packers parlayed stout performances in regular-season openers into the defense's two best seasons under defensive coordinator Dom Capers in 2009 and '10. The Packers held the Bears to a respectable 352 yards in a 21-15 win to start the 2009 season, in which they finished second in total defense.

They contained the Eagles to 320 yards in a 27-20 win the following year before finishing fifth. After giving up 892 yards in their last two openers, the Packers are counting on familiarity and Capers' modified defense to trigger a change of early-season fortune.

“Well, we haven’t done a really good job of that the last three years,” Capers said. “We’ve unfortunately dug a little hole for ourselves, but I think every year you’ve seen us get better and better as we kind of grew together and got a feel of playing together, and found our niche, so to speak. Hopefully, we can find that niche early this year.”

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Mistakes were made last summer when the Packers opted against showing their 4-3 or "quad” defense at all in the preseason for the sake of secrecy. After it faltered, Capers admitted the scheme likely languished because of it.

The quad supposedly stayed on the defense’s ready list for games, but it appears to have gone the way of the dodo. The last time it saw the light of game day came last September during the first half against Chicago in Week 4.

The Packers found an answer to the defense’s troubles in the quad’s remnants. The scheme was meant to get the most out of five-time Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews. By essentially making him a nickel cornerback, it handcuffed Matthews to one side of the field and took him off the line of scrimmage.

During the bye week, coach Mike McCarthy and Capers agreed to shift Matthews to inside linebacker and it made the Packers one of the NFL’s top defenses in the second half of the season. All signs point toward Matthews staying in his new hybrid role going into 2015.

Matthews played only 20 snaps in the preseason during the first three series against the Eagles and he’s good with that. In fact, he feels like the rest should help the defense out of the gate.

“I felt great out there (Wednesday), largely in part because I didn’t get a lot of snaps,” Matthews said. “Hopefully that translates over to feeling good out there on Sunday. The defense is right where we want to be.”

The Packers are near the middle of the pack or better during Capers’ six seasons as defensive coordinator, the longest since Dave Hanner’s tenure from 1972-79. Over the past six years, they rank 11th in total yards (343.4 ypg), 15th against the run (112.2 ypg) and 18th against the pass (231.2 ypg).

True to Capers’ zone-blitz form, the defense leads the NFL with 132 interceptions, 13 more than second-place New England, and tied for first in opposing passer rating (78.7).

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Still, it’s been almost three years since the defense last was inside the top 10 in total yards in any week. It last occurred in Week 4 of the 2012 season (ninth).

Future Pro Football Hall of Famer Charles Woodson, defensive end Cullen Jenkins and safety Nick Collins were catalysts to those early Capers defenses. After years of searching, the Packers finally found a pass-rushing replacement for Jenkins in Mike Daniels, who leads the line with 12 sacks in the past two years.

Playmakers such as Woodson and Collins have proven to be irreplaceable, though the Packers have taken steps toward it with Matthews’ shift inside, the addition of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and the signing of eight-time Pro Bowler Julius Peppers.

Ask any defensive player in the locker room and they’ll tell you how close they feel the unit is to being consistently among the best in the NFL. For the past four years, it’s been all about the offense in Green Bay.

This year, the defense wants respect.

“We don’t want the offense to have to lead this team, we want to lead this team on defense,” Hayward said. “If we can lead this team on defense, we can be a dangerous team because once our offense gets clicking, it’s hard for anybody to stop them. Once we get it clicking on defense, it’s going to be hard for people to stop us, as well.”

Capers feels like the Philadelphia game served its purpose. The defense got a chance to see arguably the league’s highest-paced offense at its zenith. The lessons the Packers learned from that game won’t soon be forgotten.

Now, the points matter. Whatever yards the Packers allow in Sunday’s regular-season opener against the Bears will stay with them for the rest of the season. McCarthy wants a fast start and so does his defense.

“You can’t wait for something to happen to turn it up,” said defensive lineman Mike Daniels when asked about the lesson learned against Philadelphia. “Luckily, that’s what happened that preseason game. We’re coming into this with a complete different mentality than we did the last few years going into Week 1.”

— and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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