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Capers' Creative Adjustments Keep Defense Ascending

The transition to the 3-4 defense, combined with the linebacker-loaded roster it requires and Dom Capers’ wealth of defensive experience, has provided a residual benefit to the defense that didn’t really exist a year ago. Namely, the ability to adjust, and do so creatively, to injuries.


Defensive coordinator Dom Capers (on left) talks with A.J. Hawk on the sideline in Cleveland during the Packers' Week 7 victory.

When Head Coach Mike McCarthy decided to bring in defensive coordinator Dom Capers and switch to a 3-4 base alignment this past offseason, his motivations were primarily to find a scheme that stopped the run better and put pressure on the quarterback more consistently.

Those missions have no doubt been accomplished, as the Packers rank No. 2 in the league in run defense, and their 29 sacks with three games remaining have topped last year's total of 27.

But the transition to the 3-4, combined with the linebacker-loaded roster it requires and Capers' wealth of defensive experience, has provided a residual benefit to the defense that didn't really exist a year ago. Namely, the ability to adjust, and do so creatively, to injuries.

Twice this season - most recently last Sunday in Chicago - when the Packers have faced a potential shortage at a defensive position due to injury, Capers has unveiled a new package that not only has compensated for that shortage but successfully thrown an element of surprise at the opposing team.

In the process, the Packers have become both an adaptable and unpredictable defense that has been the linchpin in the current five-game winning streak.

"It's not how you start it's how you finish," rookie outside linebacker Clay Matthews said. "It sounds cliché but it's very true.

"We're five straight wins now and our defense is playing lights out. I think we're playing the best ball that we have in a while and like I've been saying, everyone is buying into it right now and only good things are happening."


The first significant dabbling in creativity came in Week 3, heading into St. Louis. The defense was a bit discombobulated at safety, with starter Atari Bigby going down with a knee injury in the season opener and replacement Aaron Rouse having been released following a bad game in Week 2.

Going further down the depth chart, reserve Derrick Martin had only been with the team a couple of weeks, and free agent Matt Giordano had just been signed to take Rouse's roster spot.

As a result, Capers faced a puzzling challenge - how to replace Bigby's safety skills in run support without simply loading up with another defensive lineman, thereby inviting the offense to throw the ball against depleted pass coverage. The defense was going to be facing the Rams' Steven Jackson and the Vikings' Adrian Peterson the next two weeks after getting run over for 141 yards by the Bengals' Cedric Benson the previous game, so it was a pressing issue to say the least.

The answer came in the form of the "Big Okie" package, which put Brandon Chillar on the field as a fifth linebacker in place of the second safety. If the offense came out in a run-oriented formation, such as with an extra tight end in place of a receiver, Capers could counter with "Big Okie" because Chillar could adjust on the fly to cover a tight end if there was play-action.

The results were respectable. Jackson did rush for 117 yards in Week 3, but it took him 27 carries to do it and he was held to one, zero or negative yards on 11 of his rushes. The following week, Peterson had just 55 yards on 25 carries.

Since then, "Big Okie" has been a viable alternative package against the run for the Packers, though it was on the shelf for four games after Chillar broke his hand on Nov. 1. It has returned the past couple of weeks, and its success has been a factor in the Packers' steady rise since Week 3 in the run defense rankings.

"We've got plenty of things to do," Capers said of the variations available in his playbook. "It's just a matter of matching them up against people and how successful we think they can be. To me you don't just want to do something because it's new and different. But if you like the way it fits and you think your personnel can execute it ..."

Which leads into Capers' second major creative twist this past week.


As the Packers began preparing to face the Bears, the defense's top four linemen - nose tackle Ryan Pickett and ends Cullen Jenkins, Johnny Jolly and B.J. Raji - were all on the injury report. Capers didn't know when the week began how many of those four would be available to play, and if they could play, how many snaps they would remain effective considering their nicks and bruises.

With three down linemen needed to keep the base and "Big Okie" alignments formidable against the run, Capers decided the most effective adjustment could be made on passing downs with the nickel defense.

In order to give any banged-up linemen who were playing some snaps off here and there, and with the added benefit of throwing an unscouted look at the Bears, Capers implemented his "Psycho" package, which uses one down lineman and five linebackers in front of the normal five defensive backs in the nickel.

He went with Jenkins, the healthiest lineman, as the one rusher coming out of a three-point stance, and he put linebackers Nick Barnett, A.J. Hawk, Desmond Bishop, Matthews and Chillar all on the field, standing up and darting around, to confuse the Bears. Any of those five could potentially rush the passer or drop into coverage, creating a cat-and-mouse game with quarterback Jay Cutler and his linemen as they tried to keep their blocking scheme straight.

Capers called for "Psycho" on the first three third downs the Bears faced in the first half, and the results couldn't have been better as Chicago didn't convert any of the three times. The Bears were so messed up the first time they saw "Psycho" that Jenkins and Bishop crashed through virtually unblocked on a third-and-3 draw play, and they buried running back Matt Forte for a 3-yard loss.

The Packers went with "Psycho" three other times on third downs, and the Bears only converted once against it. And now that it's been practiced and utilized, it's another wrinkle to throw at an opponent on passing downs the rest of the way.

"When we had all these linemen hurt early last week, you start looking and say, 'How can we get our best football players on the field?'" Capers said. "To me, that's always the key. Whether it's a 3-4, 4-3, nickel, dime, 'Psycho,' whatever, you make a big mistake if you take and just try to plug players in. You want to get your best players out there and put them in position where they have the best chance of making plays."


It's that type of flexibility and creativity the Packers simply didn't have last year when injuries felled multiple starters. The old 4-3 scheme necessitated finding replacements and pushing forward, and the defense didn't hold up.

{sportsad300}When Jenkins went down for the season with a torn pectoral muscle in Week 4, or when Barnett was lost for the year to a knee injury in Week 9, or when Bigby was in and out of the lineup much of the year, players filled in and shifted around. But in essence the defense was playing the same scheme with lesser players, and it finished the year ranked 20th in the league, 26th against the run.

This year there have been some straight fill-ins needed - rookie Brad Jones for Aaron Kampman at outside linebacker, and Tramon Williams for Al Harris at cornerback (and by extension Jarrett Bush for Williams in the nickel) - but Capers' creativity and the flexibility afforded him with all the active linebackers on the roster has made adjusting to injuries a whole different process in 2009.

"You get creative for a number of different reasons," Capers said. "Through the course of the season with injuries you have to be flexible, and when guys are asked to do multiple tasks, you become a more multiple defense and a more flexible defense."

The other factor, of course, is the players' ability to adapt and execute Capers' new packages effectively. Practice time is precious during the regular season, so the players have to prove in a limited time frame that they can take a concept that might have been introduced briefly in training camp and master it in a few short days before a given game.

"It's the players taking the plan, believing, trusting the plan, and going out and executing it at a high level, because frankly, that's how those packages get called," McCarthy said. "It's one thing to have a great playbook and have all these great ideas, but to get it to Sunday, it has to be executed and it has to be done correctly, and there has to be trust from the coordinator making that call to the players."

Capers calls that trust a two-way street, but he feels it has developed over time in all areas of the defensive operation - in the meeting room, on the practice field and during games. When the players executed Capers' aggressive game plan to near perfection against Dallas in Week 10, one of the top offenses in the league at that time, the foundation of trust grew considerably, in both directions.

In the meantime, Capers' defense continues to add variety that's rarely seen three-quarters of the way through a season. It's also variety that players can get fired up about because at any moment they might get a play-call they know is going to raise eyebrows on the other side of the ball, especially one as unorthodox as "Psycho."

"We have many packages that are very disciplined where a guy has to line up with his foot in a certain place," Capers said. "But if you can move people around and tell them, 'I don't care what you do before the snap, I just want you to end up here,' they can be creative about it and they like that."

Which begs the question, what else is left to unveil? Hopefully any more new packages won't be needed because of injury, but the players have proven they can continue to expand the arsenal successfully.

Despite the changes and injuries, the Packers have the only defense that ranks in the top eight in the league against both run and pass, and they're in the top three in both (No. 2 vs. run, No. 3 vs. pass). And the playbook isn't empty, for this season or future ones.

"We're growing into some other areas," McCarthy said. "You're finding out more about your players as you move forward in Year 1. I think that's a normal progression. And we're starting to target and get to some of the things we haven't done yet."

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