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GREEN BAY – The suggestion that a team would reveal some of the plays it will use in its regular-season opener during a meaningless August contest is normally met in NFL coaching rooms with coffee sprayed all over the conference table.
Who would be dumb enough to tip their hand in the exhibition season?
The reality is, unlike the years when practice time wasn’t limited by the current collective bargaining agreement, it is tempting to use the games for more than just player evaluation.
In the exhibition opener against Philadelphia last week, Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers threw so many blitzes at the Eagles it surprised even the players who were performing them.
“I mean, we didn’t talk about it, but I noticed it,” inside linebacker Joe Thomas said. “Every other play we were blitzing, so I guess that’s the emphasis that maybe we’ll be pressuring a lot more. We’ve got the guys to do it, we’ve got the guys who can cover, too.
“Whatever Dom calls, that’s what we run.”
Capers used the first half, when most of his starters and key backups were in the game, to run an array of blitzes featuring linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks. In the first quarter, he rushed more than four guys on every pass attempt but one.
In the first quarter, there were two six-man pressures with an inside linebacker and slot corner added to the rush. There were two five-man rushes with just the slot corner blitzing. There was one with a safety and inside linebacker blitzing.
Later in the second quarter, two cornerbacks and an inside linebacker on a six-man rush.
“I was shocked,” said veteran defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois, who is on his fourth team and has seen primarily bland game plans in August everywhere he’s been. “But I think he wanted to see different blitzes from different looks. We get a lot in practice, but he wanted to see it in real, live-game experience, see what our reaction was, see how we’ll match up, the audibles, checking anything out of those blitzes.
“That was something new for me to actually do.”
The notion that the Packers are using blitzes they might employ against Seattle would be anathema in most NFL circles, but Capers decided this summer he wanted his defense to practice them under game-like conditions.
In 2014, Capers came up with a 4-3 look he wanted to spring on the Seahawks in a season opener in Seattle. He kept it a secret from the rest of the NFL, using it only in the privacy of the Packers’ practice fields.
The Seahawks destroyed it, and while it turned out to be a poorly conceived idea, the Packers might have been better at it if they had tested it out in a game. Or maybe they would have realized it wasn’t going to work.
This year, Capers, who has a revamped secondary that has many new pieces and moving parts, has decided he needs the live action to test out his plan. He is using the August games to create an identity for his defense and set the tone for the regular season.
As for tipping his hand, Capers isn’t worried about that.
“Sometimes, you can get too caught up in that,” Capers said earlier in training camp. “I think we’ve got to continue to work toward what we’re going to be and focus in on what we do and technique and those types of things.
“You don’t want to be doing it by trial and error once you get into the regular season. You want to feel pretty confident. You don’t want to go out and play outstanding for 58 out of 60 plays and have two plays make the difference in the game.”
It’s very likely Capers won’t blitz nearly as often as he did against the Eagles once the regular season rolls around.
But a couple of things have been evident throughout training camp. The Packers are going to use a lot of press-man coverage with their tall, long-armed cornerbacks and they’re going to try to keep pressure on quarterbacks.
To that end, Capers has not hidden his "nitro" scheme, which replaces an inside linebacker with a safety in the nickel (five defensive backs) package. It means there will be six defensive backs on the field, but one will play near the line of scrimmage and be able to blitz or play coverage.
It’s going to have to be used on passing downs because teams will just run it at them and force the safety, either Morgan Burnett or rookie Josh Jones, to take on linemen that weigh 100 pounds more than them.
Regardless of when it’s used, the nitro scheme needs to be practiced and Capers ran it often against the Eagles and probably will run a lot of it against Washington on Saturday night.
“I think we’re in the mindset that it doesn’t matter if a team knows what we’re doing,” inside linebacker Blake Martinez said. “As long as we execute and get the job done we won’t be stopped.”
The general consensus after the Eagles game was that the blitzing turned the tempo of the game in the Packers’ favor, but the execution of the blitzes and nitro package could have been a lot better. The defense finished with just one sack and one quarterback knockdown.
There were four turnovers forced, but some of the coordination and timing needs to improve. That was especially the case with the nitro package.
“As much as we did pressure, you would have loved to see more production,” inside linebackers coach Scott McCurley said. “Based on what we ended up doing and how we sped up the time clock of the offense, I think we got something accomplished in that regard.
“Just going back and looking at the tape, we talked about it in there, some different things we can do. Maybe be a little cleaner on some one-on-ones, clean up our timing, clean up our disguise and do some things better there.”
One thing is for sure, the coaches won’t have any hesitation working all that stuff out in games.