GREEN BAY – The Packers' defense will have a new leader in 2018 after the team announced this week longtime coordinator Dom Capers will not return for a 10th season.
The Packers put together one of the best statistical seasons for a defense in franchise history upon Capers' arrival in 2009. After making the transition to a 3-4 scheme, the Packers fashioned top-five defenses during Capers' first two seasons in Green Bay en route to winning Super Bowl XLV.
The defense had its ups and downs in recent years, but still ranked among the top five in the NFL in interceptions, opponent passer rating and sacks going into 2017. With hopes high for a strong season, injuries and inconsistency plagued the Packers from the start.
Green Bay ranked sixth in total defense and fifth against the pass through the first month of the year before finishing 22nd in both categories. In the end, Head Coach Mike McCarthy felt the timing was right for a change.
Along with Capers' departure, the Packers parted ways with defensive line coach Mike Trgovac and assistant linebackers coach Scott McCurley earlier this week before it was announced Thursday defensive quality control coach Tim McGarigle would be exploring other opportunities, as well.
While laying out the vision for his third defensive coordinator, McCarthy pointed to one of the biggest areas he wants to address – closing the gap between veterans and young players pressed into action for one reason or another.
"The gap didn't close fast enough this year," McCarthy said. "And really, I think you can put last year as not far behind. We're having guys probably play a little too soon and that's tough. We're not the only one doing it. I think it's the state of our league. Our league is very young. The injuries are up throughout the league, so those are all challenges I think most teams are fighting."
Injuries again were an issue for the Packers, particularly in the secondary where Quinten Rollins (Achilles), Kevin King (shoulder), Kentrell Brice (ankle), Demetri Goodson (hamstring) and Herb Waters (shoulder) all landed on injured reserve. Veterans Davon House and Morgan Burnett also missed a combined eight games due to injuries.
The Packers finished the regular season with Burnett playing "star" slot cornerback and a number of young defenders playing significant snaps throughout the defense. The domino effect also saw safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix playing more two-shell safety than he did during his Pro Bowl season in 2016.
"When you look at numbers, you can't just look at Dom," safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said. "Dom has a job to make calls and you have to go out there and perfect it. When things don't get done, things get glorified a lot, and I think that's what it was coming to. I'm going to miss Dom a lot. I've got to put my (best) foot forward and keep it moving."
McCarthy said he had a productive dialogue with Clinton-Dix during the exit-interview process. Frustrated with how the season turned out and disappointed in his own play, Clinton-Dix told McCarthy he "wants to be a bigger part of the leadership group in the locker room."
There still were bright spots for the Packers. Defensive tackle Mike Daniels was voted a first alternate for the Pro Bowl after notching 49 tackles, five sacks and a forced fumble in 14 starts. Linebacker Clay Matthews, also a Pro Bowl alternate, stayed healthy for most of the season and led the defense with 8½ sacks, while cornerback Damarious Randall had four interceptions.
A pair of 2016 draft picks, defensive tackle Kenny Clark and linebacker Blake Martinez, made strides in their second season. Clark shook off a midseason ankle injury to register 55 tackles, 4½ sacks and two forced fumbles, while Martinez led the NFC with 142 tackles.
With all five under contract for next season, the Packers' next defensive coordinator should have ample in-house talent to build around when healthy.
"That's one of the things that comes with the league," said Martinez of the upcoming changes. "For me, I'm going to do the same thing I did last year. Work my butt off this offseason and improve on my weakness and make my strengths stronger. Come into next season ready to work and ready to compete."
The Packers feel the pieces are still there to be the type of defense they want to be, along with whatever offseason additions come through the draft and possibly free agency.
Given the changing landscape of the NFL, McCarthy isn't as fixated on whether Green Bay runs a 3-4 or 4-3 base defense like he was when Capers was hired in 2009. He plans to interview three in-house candidates, Winston Moss, Joe Whitt Jr. and Darren Perry, plus outside options, for the position.
Once a decision is made, McCarthy said he wants the coordinator to be involved in the hiring of every assistant on the staff. Regardless of who that individual is, however, the players in the locker room also know it's on them to execute the defense's vision.
"Right now, we've got to start looking forward and figuring out other ways and things we need to do to be a better defense," said linebacker Nick Perry, who missed four games and finished the year on IR. "Whoever we bring in, whoever comes about, I think we'll make some adjustments and improvements that we need to continue to be the best, because I think we have a great team, and it's just a matter of putting those pieces together and getting the best and the most out of the players."