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Defense Eager To Employ New Tweaks To Scheme

Offseason workouts in the NFL can be a real grind. There are no games to look forward to, and there are no pads and no hitting to spice up the practice action.

But talk to a few of the Green Bay Packers' defensive players and there's definitely some excitement swirling as the offseason winds down with next week's mini-camp. That energy stems from what they see as a potentially expanded playbook in the second year of defensive coordinator Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme.

"We went through the first half of these OTAs and we were just kind of rehashing memory from last year, but now we're learning new defenses," second-year outside linebacker Clay Matthews said. "We're trying to implement new ideas and schemes to see ways in which we can beat teams that we fell short (against) last year.

"We're light years ahead of where we were last year and we look forward to start using all these plays we're putting in."

No scheme stays exactly the same from year to year. Coaches spend the first part of the offseason evaluating all their film from the prior season and looking for things to improve on or do differently.

Then OTAs are the time to start experimenting, and according to his players, Capers is doing plenty of it. That's not to say every new formation or tweak will become a permanent part of the 2010 playbook, but the OTAs accomplish two things in that regard - they provide a testing ground for new ideas, and they allow changes to be introduced long before some of the more detailed work may take place.

"I think now's the time where you can take a look at new things, see how it looks," Capers said. "It gives you a little bit more time to evaluate it. It gets it on tape, guys get a chance to look at it, and then you decide how much of it you want to do during training camp.

"You have to put a lot of volume in during training camp, and you might not use some of that until maybe after the fourth or fifth game, and then you'll save some things for the latter half of the season."

It will be interesting to see just how creative Capers might get. Last year, Packers fans saw glimpses of that when he devised the "Big Okie" package that employed linebacker Brandon Chillar in place of a safety to help stop the run, and then he unveiled the nickel look called "Psycho" with one down lineman, five linebackers and five defensive backs.

Even greater flexibility should be possible this year because all the basic concepts in Capers' 3-4 were installed last year and reviewed again this spring.

"Now we're adding things to the defense that we didn't have last year," former nose tackle turned defensive end Ryan Pickett said. "He keeps stuff coming at us, but at the same time we've got the basics. He built the foundation last year, now we're just trying to add on to it. Everybody is working to get this stuff down so we can be even better than we were last year."

That's a tall order, considering the Packers were No. 2 in the league in yards allowed, No. 1 against the run, and No. 1 in takeaways. But they did struggle against veteran quarterbacks with high-powered passing attacks, so no one is denying there's improvement to be found.

When it comes to expanding the playbook, Capers believes the players' knowledge of the base scheme goes hand-in-hand with the coaching staff's increased familiarity with the players.
"I think our players know a lot more about our defense and what we expect, and I think we know a lot more about our players because we've been around them and we've seen what we feel their strengths and weaknesses are," Capers said. "So it works both ways, and hopefully that's something we can use to our advantage heading into our second year."

Defensive coaches generally employ the most creativity in devising different ways to rush the passer, and Matthews, who led the team with 10 sacks a year ago, hinted that will be the Packers' approach.

That's why he was not alarmed when the team didn't draft another outside linebacker this year to compete for the job opposite him. Not only does Matthews have confidence in fellow second-year pro Brad Jones and veteran Brady Poppinga to provide a pass-rushing complement, he sees the pass rush as a whole coming from more than just those two spots in year two.

"They have us coming from everywhere," Matthews said. "I know there's a few new wrinkles in which we'll have some inside linebackers coming off the edge, some interior linemen coming off the edge. It's kind of deceiving when you say you have two outside linebackers, because we bring everybody on the defense at one point or another rushing from an outside linebacker standpoint."

It certainly keeps the players interested, and anxious, even after a full month's worth of OTAs.

"We're putting in so many defenses that you have to stay focused," Matthews said. "We're putting in so much more than we put in last year, which I think is going to pay off dividends for us in the long run. It's a grind, but this business calls for that."

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