Healthy defense gives Capers options in playoffs

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Dom Capers is known for his ingenuity in cooking up new looks and schemes to keep an opposing offense off-balance.

Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews zeroes in on Detroit Lions running back Reggie Bush in the game at Lambeau Field.

Datone Jones playing outside linebacker wasn't one of them.

However, that's what the Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator had to resort to when an already depleted group of outside linebackers grew even thinner in last year's wild-card playoff game against San Francisco.

With Clay Matthews already out with a twice-broken thumb and Nick Perry playing through a significant foot injury, the Packers reserves took a hit when Mike Neal and Andy Mulumba both exited early with knee injuries.

Until Mulumba returned, Capers had to deploy Jones, a rookie defensive lineman, at an entirely new position in the most important game of the season. Not exactly how you draw things up during the offseason program.

"We had to move Datone Jones to play outside linebacker, which you don't want to be doing in a playoff game," Capers said. "What you don't want to do is get in a situation where you have to put somebody out there you don't feel like they have a chance to go out there and have success against who you're playing against."

That hasn't been a problem for Capers and the Packers this season. The Packers enter the playoffs the healthiest they've been during coach Mike McCarthy's time in Green Bay, especially on defense where all 11 preferable starters in the nickel defense were full participants in practice Thursday.

The outside-linebacker post, the crown jewel of Capers' zone-blitz scheme, was so well stocked that Capers was able to shift five-time Pro Bowler Clay Matthews inside to help solidify the defense midseason. That flexibility has allowed the 64-year-old coordinator to concoct a number of unscouted looks.

Last week, McCarthy said he was excited about a few "wrinkles" the defense still had up its sleeve.

As for Matthews, he's ready to get back to work after missing last year's 23-20 loss.

"I think the older you get, you realize this is what it's all about: getting into the playoffs and making that run to the Super Bowl," Matthews said. "Last year was last year. This year, I like what we have going. Hopefully we can continue to improve and keep winning games."

If the shortage of linebackers wasn't enough against San Francisco, the Packers also lost starting cornerback Sam Shields on the very first play of the game with a knee injury.

Shields missed two games this year with a knee injury and was limited last month against Atlanta in his first game back from a concussion, but started to regain form near the end of the regular season.

The Packers are expecting to have Davon House back after missing three games with a shoulder injury, giving the secondary plenty of options against Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and his litany of perimeter weapons.

There was no such luxury last year. Green Bay is hoping that depth is something that propels the team to a deep postseason run.

"To have a healthy 53 is what you always want. I think we're pretty close to that," cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. "But to have my room healthy, everybody is all hands on deck right now. We have every combination that we want to use. If somebody does go down, we can put people in places. We're excited. The group has been very focused. The team has been very focused. Very, very hungry, and excited to watch them play come Sunday." and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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