'D' takes measured approach to position changes
The years pass, the offenses evolve and philosophy remains unchanged for Dom Capers and the general managers responsible for finding defensive players who fit his defense.
Everything in Capers’ world is based on projection. Every year, Green Bay Packers scouts and coaches scour the college ranks to find players who fit their coordinator’s zone-blitz scheme. They measure athleticism and aptitude. How much can a player handle? How fast does he process information?
It’s not an exact science. You often don’t know exactly what a player can do until you pull back the finery and start the development process on the practice field. It has been the cornerstone of the organization’s personnel structure since Ted Thompson replaced Mike Sherman as GM in 2005.
Sometimes it’s like fitting a square peg into a round hole. Three years ago, Michigan State defensive lineman Jerel Worthy was brought in to provide the pass rush the defense lacked without Cullen Jenkins. The Packers even traded up to get him in the second round of the 2012 NFL draft.
Instead, the answer came two rounds later when they drafted undersized rusher Mike Daniels out of Iowa. A gifted few, such as Daniels and linebacker Clay Matthews, have fit seamlessly into what Capers’ scheme is trying to accomplish, while others require a position change to develop a proper niche.
The challenge is trying to figure out exactly when they make the move.
“Some guys have to be programmed to just one thing,” Capers said. “If they don’t practice it and see it, then they have a hard time going and executing it. Take a guy like Clay. Clay is instinctive enough and smart enough that Clay can see it, but he doesn’t have to have 100 reps on it. The more of those kind of guys you can get, the more flexibility you have for your defense.”
Matthews is the poster child for the direction Capers’ defense has turned in recent years. The five-time Pro Bowler started at outside linebacker during his first 5½ NFL seasons before making a midseason shift inside to help the team’s fledgling run defense.
He learned the position in less than a week and the defense improved drastically in the second half of the season. In a perfect world, the Packers prefer to move players in the offseason. That’s when lineman-turned-linebacker Mike Neal and cornerback-turned-safety Micah Hyde made their switch.
Yet, every player learns at his own pace. Neal played his first three NFL seasons as a three-technique on the defensive line before surprising everyone when he stood up in the 2013 offseason program. Hyde spent one year in the cornerbacks room, while Nate Palmer once moved to inside linebacker during the last week of training camp.
Capers’ newest project has been 2013 first-round pick Datone Jones. His 6-foot-4, 285-pound frame seems better suited to be a 4-3 defensive end, but the Packers liked him since he had some experience playing in a 3-4 at UCLA. The Packers initially hoped Jones could play all three downs.
However, Jones spent his first 2½ NFL seasons working mainly as an inside rusher in the dime sub-package. Even when the coaches were pleased with the impact he was making early this season, there simply wasn’t much room for him on a crowded defensive line that often uses only two at a time.
After two years in the scheme, Jones finally transitioned to outside linebacker this season with Capers’ blessing. He lined up outside for the first time two weeks ago against Detroit and recorded the first multiple-sack performance of his career a week later against Minnesota.
“He’s a natural outside player,” Daniels said of Jones. “He’s a natural 4-3 D-end. Just like I’m a natural 4-3 three-technique and sometimes it takes a while. You’re shuffling guys around and then you put them in the best position they can be, and I think you see the production. This year, I’ve been playing primarily three-technique and it’s one of the better seasons I’ve had. I think it’s my best pro season so far. Datone is having his best season playing on the edge, which is where he belongs.”
Capers likes the flexibility of players working multiple positions, but it also allows the Packers to see where guys can generate the most impact. It doesn’t have to be anything drastic, either. As Daniels alludes to, sometimes it’s as simple as a lineman zeroing in on a specific spot.
Both Daniels and B.J. Raji bounced around for years before mostly settling into one position this season. Raji returned to nose tackle, a position he hadn’t played since 2011, and Daniels has played almost exclusively as a three-technique, where he lines up on the outside shoulder of the guard.
Daniels is on pace for a career year with 37 tackles, four sacks and a forced fumble. His 43 pressures this season are the fourth-most among all 3-4 defensive ends, according to Pro Football Focus.
“Mike’s played more three-technique because we feel that’s what he does best,” Capers said. “Same thing with B.J. in there at the nose tackle. Like our run defense, when we’re going best and we have those guys in there, they have to play off each other because it’s all gap fits and confidence.”
The same ideas apply in the secondary. Each time cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt is given a new prospect, he looks to see how much they can handle right away. Are they savvy enough to play inside? Do they have the ability to control vertical routes on the perimeter?
Whitt is working with first-round pick Damarious Randall and undrafted rookie LaDarius Gunter on learning the slot cornerback position in the defense’s sub-packages. For Gunter, it may turn out to be his most direct route to getting on the football field in a deep cornerbacks room.
“I didn’t think he could be an inside guy, but he’s done a nice job in there and he’s going to get his opportunity to play here soon,” Whitt said of Gunter. “It probably is going to be on the inside maybe. He’s a guy I didn’t think could play in there. You just have to get them and really understand what they understand and how much they can handle.”
The trial-and-error approach the Packers have taken with their defense has produced favorable returns this season. If the offense continues to struggle — it’s on pace for 100 fewer points scored this season than last — how far the Packers’ season goes may be determined by how far Capers’ newly configured defense takes them.
For a converted rusher like Jones, he's just thrilled to finally get steady playing time. His opportunity also is what the Packers were championing when they introduced the idea of "more personnel, less scheme" two years ago.
“I was excited because for me coming out of college, I was able to rush from outside to inside, over to center, stand up. I could do it all," Jones said of the switch. "It was just great to see Dom using me. It was great to see coach trusting in me and putting me in special situations."