Capers Makes Defensive Transition By Maximizing Talents


Dom Capers was the Carolina Panthers' first head coach, from 1995-98, which included an appearance in the 1996 NFC Championship Game in Green Bay.

Charged with installing his 3-4 defensive scheme to a Green Bay Packers unit that for the most part has only known a 4-3, new defensive coordinator Dom Capers can't predict exactly how the transition will unfold.

But he knows what he won't do, and that's bring the blueprints for his 3-4 into a meeting room and start telling all the players where they're going to play and what their new jobs are. That's not how it works, and that's not going to set the stage for success.

"I think you make a tremendous mistake if you come in and say you have a cookie-cutter 3-4 defense and this is what we're going to be and try to fit your personnel to that," Capers said during his initial Green Bay press conference on Tuesday. "I think you fit your defense and have enough flexibility in your defense to fit it to the personnel you have, and you evolve from there."

Capers hasn't studied Green Bay's defensive players enough to start formulating too many ideas about how to maximize their talents just yet. But the approach is the same process he's gone through in the past, evaluating film and watching players practice to see how their duties and strengths as exhibited in the old 4-3 alignment best translate to a 3-4 scheme. He's done it multiple times, and he said the biggest transition he made in that respect, from a pure 4-3 to a 3-4, was at Jacksonville in 1999.

It didn't take long to get meaningful results. In 1998, before Capers' arrival, Jacksonville was an 11-5 playoff team that needed to upgrade on defense, ranking 25th in yards allowed (347.4) and 17th in points allowed (338) and posting just 30 sacks, or less than two per game.

Making the transition to the 3-4 in 1999, Capers highlighted Tony Brackens and Kevin Hardy as his most dynamic playmakers in the front seven and turned the Jaguars into a sack machine. Brackens (12), Hardy (10½) and lineman Gary Walker (10) all reached double figures in sacks as the Jaguars nearly doubled their previous season total, posting 57 sacks, or 3½ per game.

The Jaguars rose to fourth in the league in yards allowed (270.9), giving up 76.5 fewer yards per game, and to first in points allowed (217), or more than a full touchdown less per contest. Jacksonville went 14-2 and was hosting the AFC Championship Game that year.

"I think that the key in this league is deciding what your guys do the best and trying to feature that and mold your defense around that," Capers said. "If you can get a combination of good players and the scheme matches up and guys are into it and they understand their responsibilities and the other guys around them, now you've really got something."

Capers' defensive principles include the fingerprints of many coaches he's worked with in his 38-year career, beginning with his days in the college ranks with Don James at Kent State, Johnny Majors at Tennessee and Earle Bruce at Ohio State.

He then worked under Jim Mora in the USFL and NFL as a defensive backs coach, and that staff took their defense from the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars to the New Orleans Saints. Capers noted that the scheme had a lot of success right away, except against the NFC West powerhouse San Francisco 49ers, then a Saints division rival.

From there it was on to Pittsburgh and Bill Cowher's staff in the early 1990s, when Capers was a defensive coordinator for the first time and many of the zone blitz ideas - a zone blitz is a disguised pressure package that uses a linebacker or defensive back to blitz while a defensive lineman drops off the line of scrimmage into coverage - took root.

"We'd used some elements of the zone blitz in New Orleans, and Dick LeBeau had used some in Cincinnati, so we used a little the first year, a little more the second year and the third year is when it became 'Blitz-burgh', and everybody thought we blitzed every down," Capers said. "Our guys really caught on a got a feel for it and were having success with it. It was an aggressive style and they loved being aggressive.

"At that point in time there weren't many teams in the league doing it, but shortly after that everybody had some element of it in their scheme."

It's easy to see why. In Capers' first season in Pittsburgh, the Steelers ranked second in the league in points allowed, giving up 119 fewer points than the previous season. In 1993, they were third in the league in yards allowed, and in 1994 (Capers' final season there before leaving to take over the expansion Carolina Panthers), they ranked second in the league in both yards and points allowed and the team was in the AFC Championship Game again. Their sack totals also increased every year, peaking at 55 in 1994, with four players posting seven or more.

The Packers obviously would love to see results like that. Last year's defense ranked 20th in the league in yards allowed (334.3) and 22nd in points (380). The inability to pressure the quarterback consistently was an Achilles' heel, and the Packers had just 27 sacks, with no one in double figures (Aaron Kampman had 9½). The sack total was the team's lowest since 1990 (also 27).

Head Coach Mike McCarthy spoke on Monday about how as an offensive coach, the best ways to make a quarterback successful are to run the ball and protect him, so the priorities on defense need to be stopping the run and breaking down the offense's protection schemes. He feels Capers and his scheme will give the Packers that, and Capers, while acknowledging that he had discussed job openings with other teams, felt the Packers were the best fit for him.

"It's exciting to come in and have a new challenge," Capers said. "I think that's why we got in this business to begin with, the challenge of competing and the excitement of it."

How the Packers ultimately line up in the 3-4 front will be intriguing to watch, but just as interesting is how any changes might evolve in the pass coverage.

In three seasons under McCarthy, Green Bay's secondary has featured primarily man-to-man, press coverage while only occasionally playing zone. But Capers hinted that he may employ a greater variety of coverage schemes as he installs the defense.

"I think you've got to be able to mix your coverage," he said. "I just don't think that there's anybody good enough in this day and age to just sit in one thing with the multiplicity of the offenses that you see.

"You have to be able to change up and it's got to be a combination of pressure, coverage and disguise and not letting people know exactly what you're doing, because I don't care who you are, how good you are, if they know exactly what you're doing, you're going to have problems stopping them."

{sportsad300}Interestingly, before coming to Lambeau Field this past weekend to meet with McCarthy, Capers' last visit to the stadium came as Carolina's head coach in the 1996 NFC Championship Game against Green Bay.

He still remembers a lot of things about that cold January game, including one of his assistant coaches getting his gloves caught on fire when the sideline heaters melted his laminated play sheet. But more than anything he remembers leaving Lambeau Field on the losing end of a conference championship, a feeling he also felt once each in Pittsburgh and Jacksonville.

Now he's in charge of putting all that experience, success and heartbreak to work for the Packers, who are only one year removed from a conference title game defeat themselves.

"I'm excited about being a part of this organization," Capers said. "I've always had a tremendous amount of respect for the tradition, the fan support, and what Green Bay stands for.

"I had conversations with numerous teams and when it came down to it I felt this was the best match and best marriage. You always are evaluating the team, the options and what you think can be done there. I had a good feel about it."

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