Capers Continues Defensive Revolution

In a give-and-take decision, Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers rarely played his base 3-4 package. Instead, he took advantage of his uncommon depth at one position group to play an unprecedented defensive style.

A quarter-century ago, while trying to figure out how to stop the unstoppable Joe Montana Express, Dom Capers and his boss, then-New Orleans Saints coach Jim Mora, would kick off a revolution with an attacking, zone blitzing defensive scheme.

The 60-year-old Capers might have authored another, more subtle revolution last season.

Capers is renowned for his aggressive 3-4 scheme but, by Packer Report's unofficial tally, he trotted out his nickel package on a stunning 68.1 percent of the defensive snaps last season. League-wide statistics aren't kept, but it's quite possible no team in the history of the NFL played nickel as often as the Packers did en route to winning the Super Bowl.

In today's pass-happy game, with more athletic tight ends to stretch the field and more three-, four- and even five-receiver sets, there's a sort of common-sense logic to lining up with two defensive linemen, four athletic linebackers and five swift defensive backs rather than three bulky linemen and four guys with cover skills.

Of course, it takes guys who can cover to make such a revolution possible. The Packers procured that ability in unorthodox fashion.

General manager Ted Thompson, who generally has shown a distaste for high-stakes free agency, doggedly pursued Charles Woodson. Woodson has rewarded Thompson with 30 interceptions in five seasons while assuming the mantle of team leader and heartbeat.

And while Thompson built a Super Bowl champion mostly through the draft, he's swung and missed on cornerbacks Mike Hawkins (fifth round, 2005), Will Blackmon (fourth round, 2006), Pat Lee (second round, 2008) and Brandon Underwood (sixth round, 2009). That's 0-for-4, but like a good power hitter in baseball, strikeouts are acceptable if there are enough home runs. Thompson hit grand slams by signing undrafted Tramon Williams off the street late in 2006 and undrafted Sam Shields in 2010.

With Woodson, Williams and Shields, Capers has one of the best trios in the league at his disposal. The tradeoff, of course, is rather obvious. With more small guys and fewer big guys, it's harder to defend the run. Thus, the Packers went from league-leading figures of 1,333 rushing yards and 3.59-yard average in 2009 to an 18th-ranked 1,838 rushing yards and 29th-ranked 4.65 yards per carry in 2010. While opponent rushing attempts went up slightly (395 in 2010 and 371 in 2009), output surged by 503 yards and more than a yard per attempt.

The tradeoff was something Capers could live with, confident that a team couldn't run the ball consistently well enough to march up and down the field and control the game. For the most part, Capers gambled and won. That's because once the run defense stiffened, the pass defense generally finished the job.

Williams, with nine total interceptions, and Woodson, with his superlative play in the slot when the Packers lined up in nickel, were selected for the Pro Bowl. It was Shields, though, who was the revelation and allowed Capers to unleash his latest mark on the game.

Shields, who played receiver at the University of Miami until moving to corner for his senior season, played 73.4 percent of the defensive snaps in his 18 total games. In other words, when Shields was healthy, the Packers played nickel almost three-quarters of the time. To say he defied expectations would be an understatement, considering he entered training camp behind Woodson, Williams, Al Harris, Jarrett Bush, Underwood, Lee and Josh Bell on the pecking order. Shields had his struggles, especially in the Super Bowl, but according to Pro Football Focus, he allowed 57.4 percent completions with four touchdowns, four interceptions and a passer rating of 78.2.

To be sure, adjustments will be made. But that's a story for another day.


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport.


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