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Defense is unit in ascent

Posted Aug 28, 2012

There’s more than one reason to like the depth the Packers appear to be developing on defense in 2012.

Injury insurance is the one fans most readily think of, and the Packers are being tested in that area already with inside linebacker Desmond Bishop (hamstring) out for the season and promising young cornerback Davon House (shoulder) uncertain about when exactly he can return.

Just as important to Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers, though, is depth as a synonym for flexibility, which can breed creativity, unpredictability and a host of other characteristics to a defense striving to get back to its Super Bowl-winning ways of two years ago.

In other words, the more players Capers has who are capable of contributing at a high level, the more roles he can devise for them and the more packages on which he can call at any given time. That keeps both the scheme from getting stale and individuals from wearing down.

“You bet, I think that’s one of the keys,” Capers said. “If the guys you’re playing against are constantly subbing and getting fresh people in there, you have to have the ability to do the same. I think we’ll have more flexibility that way.”

The proof will have to come in the games, but there’s compelling evidence simply in how the defense, at all three levels, is shaping up as the final cuts approach.

On the defensive line, Jarius Wynn didn’t even survive the first roster reduction, and he played in all 16 games a year ago. At outside linebacker, rookies Nick Perry and Dezman Moses are among the top four at the position, while 2011 starter Erik Walden just concluded his best training camp as a Packer. In the secondary, a 25-game starter over the past two seasons in Charlie Peprah was released before camp and Capers has practiced more dime defense – with six DBs and steady rotations – than in any of his previous three summers here.

Perry and Moses especially are in the spotlight because they man one of the playmaking positions in Capers’ 3-4 scheme, and developing outside rushers to complement Pro Bowler Clay Matthews has been a priority from the start.

“The more reps they see, they will improve,” position coach Kevin Greene said of the two rookie outside linebackers. “In this defense, you really have to crawl, then start walking, then fast walking and slow jog, then fast jogging. It’s really a progression. It’s a vision thing, a knowledge thing. They’re going to progressively get better.”

Capers didn’t specifically say the Packers lacked this kind of depth last year, but he didn’t have to. It showed in the way the season played out. The nickel defense became Capers’ de facto base. Lineman B.J. Raji played too many snaps, Matthews’ sack total was more than cut in half as offenses could afford to key on him, and cornerback Tramon Williams battled through the entire season with one healthy arm. In short, Capers’ options were sorely limited.

The caveat to the depth this year is the youth that dominates it. Over the final two weeks of training camp, Capers’ primary nickel and dime groups have, at times, included four rookie draft picks among the 11 players on the field – Perry, linemen Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels, and safety Jerron McMillian. A fifth draft pick, cornerback Casey Hayward, got his share of snaps with the ones earlier in camp and will factor into the picture, as well.

But without hesitation, Capers will take that youth for the depth and flexibility it provides after seeing his defense fall to last in the league in total yards and passing yards allowed last year.

“We’re going to be very young, but I think there are more possibilities, more options, more guys that you say, hey, if we work hard and these guys really apply themselves, the arrow should be pointing up as we go through the season,” Capers said.

That steady climb is what Capers recalls from his first two seasons in Green Bay. In 2009, as the Packers won seven of their final eight games, a run defense that allowed back-to-back 100-yard rushers early in the season clamped down and set a franchise record as it finished first in the league against the run (83.3 yards per game).

Then in 2010, after opponents scored at least 20 points against the Packers in five of the first seven games, they did so just twice over the next 10 contests, including the opening playoff win that began the title run.

“You saw it kind of kick in. I’ve seen us do this,” Capers said, using his hand to mimic a plane taking off. “I think we’ve got more guys with the potential to ascend.”

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