*The Green Bay Packers' four weeks of organized team activities (OTAs) begin this week. Workouts, all in shorts and without pads, will be open to the public once per week, weather permitting, beginning this Thursday, May 28 (the other open dates are the following three Wednesdays - June 3, 10 and 17).
After OTAs will be a three-day full-squad mandatory mini-camp from June 22-24 before the players take a roughly five-week break prior to the start of training camp. The first training camp practice is Saturday, Aug. 1.
Packers.com caught up with the three coordinators on the Packers coaching staff - Joe Philbin on offense, Dom Capers on defense and Shawn Slocum for special teams - and got their thoughts on the goals, objectives and points of emphasis they have for their units over the next month.
Those thoughts are being presented in a three-part OTA preview series, continuing today with the defense.*
Perhaps nothing will be analyzed more between now and the start of the season than the Packers' transition to the 3-4 defensive scheme under Capers, and the OTAs provide the first opportunity for the entire defensive unit to learn the system together.
"We kind of have a step-by-step plan in terms of installing the system, and this is a big step for us," Capers said of the upcoming month. "There's a lot to learn, and there's a lot to get done.
"By going through this, the success here will enable us to really have a productive training camp if we can come away with a good feel of what's expected and what you have to do."
With that in mind, here are a few things Capers and his defensive staff will be focusing on throughout the OTAs:
Starting evaluations and defining the 3-4 playbook volume.As the defense makes the transition to the 3-4, some elements of the new scheme will be picked up faster than others, and that will determine how much pure 3-4 the Packers run and how much remains a hybrid with, or perhaps leftover from, the 4-3.
Given a choice between having a huge playbook where little is mastered or a more narrow set of choices at a high level of execution, any coach will choose the latter.
"It's a matter of not only evaluating the players but evaluating how much we can do and how much we feel we can do efficiently," Capers said. "There'll be a lot of teaching."
Players already have had the opportunity to meet individually with their position coaches during the offseason program to learn some of the basics of the system. While competition for positions will be more legitimate in training camp, some does start now, and those who have regularly attended the offseason program will be better for it.
"The sooner the guys can become comfortable with what they're doing, the better opportunity it gives them to show their abilities," Capers said. "This is a game there can't be a lot of thinking. This is a game of a lot of quick, violent action and reaction. There can't be a lot of gray area in your mind in terms of what your assignments is or how you're expected to do it, or you won't play at the type of tempo or speed that it takes."
The transitions from DE to OLB, and where Clay Matthews fits in.Players like Aaron Kampman and Jeremy Thompson, who are moving from defensive end to outside linebacker, will be watched closely. Head Coach Mike McCarthy has said he feels the 3-4 will help Kampman because the defense can disguise better when he's rushing the passer, and where he's coming from.
"For guys that have been defensive ends in a 4-3, there's more involved from a coverage standpoint, because now they have to be able to drop into coverage at times as opposed to always rushing the passer," Capers said. "You have to be able to do both, and when they use different formations and motion and shifting, your responsibility might change. If you've been a defensive end, normally when they move people, your responsibility didn't change quite as much as it would now."
Meanwhile, Thompson is still young with plenty of time to learn, and Matthews was drafted in the first round specifically for the outside linebacker spot, where he'll compete with Thompson, Brady Poppinga and perhaps Brandon Chillar and Desmond Bishop for the starting role opposite Kampman.
"I think it's always interesting to see how (the rookies) come in and fit in with the team and how they adjust to learning a new system, how quick they pick things up," Capers said. "It's not like the veteran guys have played in the system for three, four, five years. But we'll accelerate things for the rookies and we'll load them up pretty good and see how they handle it."
The addition of B.J. Raji and the versatility along the defensive line.The coaching staff has noted it plans to take a look at Raji, the No. 9 overall draft choice, at both the nose tackle and defensive end spots, looking at the possibility of getting Raji and the veteran starter at nose tackle, Ryan Pickett, on the field at the same time in certain situations.
"What you'd like to accomplish is to look at as many different combinations," Capers said. "There's certainly nothing etched in stone on anything right now. We'll be looking at different combinations of people, and the bottom line is when it comes time to play we have our best 11 football players on the field. It's our job to figure out how to utilize them. We'll look at guys at different spots and see how they do in those areas."
Safeties controlling communication.The safeties are the quarterbacks of the 3-4, and learning how to make the calls and adjustments against a live offense is an important first step. Media reports have indicated Pro Bowler Nick Collins may not attend the voluntary OTAs as part of a contract negotiating stance, and if that happens, how much that impacts his learning curve will be watched closely.
But regardless of Collins, all the other safeties - Atari Bigby, Aaron Rouse, Charlie Peprah and newcomer Anthony Smith - will have their own take-charge responsibilities to get down.
"At every level, the speed changes," Capers said of the communication process. "You can put it in during meetings, and it's one thing to sit in meetings and make the calls, or to walk through it and make the calls. But the next level is you start to go against our offense, and things move quicker and you have to react and make your calls much quicker. You don't have as much time to think.
"Then you come back in training camp and it happens faster, and then you get into the preseason games and then the regular season games. It ratchets up every step."
Key players' health.Several starters or potential starters are coming back from 2008 injuries, and depending on their health, they may or may not participate fully in OTAs. Bigby had significant hamstring, ankle and shoulder problems a year ago and played in only seven games; defensive end Justin Harrell lost all but six games to back and hip injuries; and linebacker Nick Barnett missed the final seven games last year after reconstructive knee surgery.
The one expected to get the least, if any, work in OTAs is Barnett, who is making steady progress in his rehabilitation but is only six months removed from the original injury. Chillar or Bishop is his most likely replacement with the No. 1 defense at inside linebacker alongside A.J. Hawk.
"Obviously we'll be cautious with Nick," Capers said. "With his personality, he'll want to be out there as much as he can, doing as much as he can. We just have to make sure that we're smart. The most important thing is that we have him totally healthy and ready to go once we get into camp to where he can get his work and get ready to go for the season."
Coaching staff continuity.The defensive staff is almost entirely new, with the only holdovers being assistant head coach/inside linebackers coach Winston Moss and cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. (who was defensive quality control assistant last year). The group got its first chance to work together on the field during rookie orientation weekend, and now they'll be adding the veterans en masse.
"I think we were really pleased with the things we got accomplished in the rookie camp," Capers said. "We've got a group of guys coaching out there together for the first time. It's like any new team coming together, guys have to try to figure out how they fit in the whole scheme of things.
"We obviously have a lot of work to do, and we're excited to get started and excited to see the guys on the field for the first time."