This truly is a new defense.
From the start of organized team activities in May through the dog days of training camp in August, the Packers worked on “The Quad” — a 4-3 scheme installed by longtime 3-4 guru Dom Capers, the Packers’ venerable defensive coordinator.
The Packers kept “The Quad” in mothballs for the preseason games and sprung it on the Seahawks in Week 1.
Except the surprise was on the Packers.
All of the plotting and planning and practicing went down the drain. The Seahawks ran for 207 yards, including 110 from All-Pro Marshawn Lynch. Combined with Russell Wilson’s passer rating of 110.9, the Seahawks crushed the Packers 36-16. Before the calendar had been flipped to October, the Packers had scrapped the 4-3.
With the Packers having won eight of their last nine games behind a vastly improved defense, Capers could afford a small laugh about it on Thursday.
“It doesn’t take you long to figure out if something is a good idea or not a very good idea, based on how it works,” Capers said. “I think if you talk to any player in that locker room on defense, they know that when we put the game plan up there and we go out and practice the game plan, if something’s not looking real good, then I have a hard time calling it because you don’t want to be experimenting when you have 60, 65 plays on Sunday. If something looks good, it’s going to get called. If it works, it gets called more. If it doesn’t work, we’re going to try to search to find something that’s going to work better. That’s just the way this thing works. It’s not rocket science. It’s common sense. There’s a reason why you do everything but if it’s nothing, then you’ve got to try to move on to something else. You can’t get so locked into one thing that you become stubborn, or else you’re not going to get any better.”
Give Capers credit. Months had been spent scheming and drawing up ways to improve a defense that hadn’t gotten it done at crunch time the past three seasons. Thousands of reps on the practice field were devoted to getting it ready for prime time. When it didn’t work immediately, Capers and coach Mike McCarthy could have stuck with it and made a few tweaks.
Instead, it was onto Plan B and, finally, Plan C.
Plan B was essentially Capers’ tried-and-true 3-4. That worked fairly well, with the Packers rattling off a four-game winning streak after a 1-2 start. Then came the loss at New Orleans, a 44-23 debacle before the bye that turned Capers to Plan C.
The premise of the 4-3 was to make use of the team’s outstanding depth at outside linebacker. In “The Quad,” Julius Peppers, Mike Neal and Nick Perry rotated on the edge, with Clay Matthews playing off the line of scrimmage at outside linebacker. Against Chicago following the bye, Capers stuck with his 3-4 but moved Matthews to inside linebacker on a part-time basis. That quickly fixed the defense’s worst position group while allowing Peppers, Neal and Perry to play more at outside linebacker.
“We talked a lot about a lot of different schemes, a lot of different personnel groups, and that was just one,” Capers said of the 4-3. “It involved Clay moving around. That was part of the theory behind it. And I think what we’ve been doing here since the bye week involves Clay (at) a little different area. He was more on one side of the ball at that point in time and anybody we play is going to know where Clay is. It’s harder to identify him if he’s sitting inside. You can call him the Mike linebacker but, by the end of the play, he might be the outside guy or he might be pressuring as an inside guy. I just think if you see a problem, you try to solve that problem. When we started (“The Quad”), we were trying to create identification problems for the offense, but I think we’ve been able to do that a little bit better with what we’re doing with Clay than what we were doing early in the season.”
The results were immediate. A run defense that was a rock-bottom 32nd in the first eight games ranked sixth in the final eight. That showed up on the scoreboard. Including a 26-21 victory over Dallas in the divisional playoffs, the Packers in the past nine games ...
— Allowed 21 points or less eight times.
— Allowed 320 yards or less in six games.
— Didn’t allow an opponent to convert more than 50 percent of their third downs, including six games of less than 40 percent.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll used the word “fascinating” to describe the Packers’ defensive developments and how Matthews is being implemented.
“He's played behind the line of scrimmage and they've utilized him for all of the great ability that he has and the aggressive nature that he has,” Carroll said. “He shows up when he plays off the ball as well as when he's on the ball. We don't know how they're going to use him. We know how they have and anticipate some stuff, but we're going to have to wait until game time to see how they do it. But it's interesting how that has coincided with their turn. Great coaching, obviously. It's made a big difference.”
The move of Matthews and the defense’s renaissance are tied together but the insertion of Sam Barrington into the lineup at inside linebacker has paid dividends, too. Barrington started the final five games of the regular season and has provided the physical play that’s been lacking at that position since Desmond Bishop emerged as a star for the Super Bowl team. With Matthews and Barrington taking the lion’s share of the reps at inside linebacker, A.J. Hawk’s role has been reduced and Brad Jones has been phased out of everything other than the dime package. That’s led to a much better middle of the defense.
“Sam, obviously, is a very physical, downhill type of linebacker,” Matthews said. “Young, energetic. I think that’s helped rejuvenate our defense. He’s playing downhill, he’s filling gaps and he can cover man-to-man as well as blitz well. It’s good to see his playmaking ability out there.”
With the middle of the defense solidified, with Peppers turning back the clock and rookie HaHa Clinton-Dix playing beyond his years at safety, with cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Sam Shields allowing safety Morgan Burnett to be an impact performer at the line of scrimmage, the Packers’ defense is better than the unit that had no answers against the Seahawks in Week 1.
Is it good enough to keep Lynch in check? To keep Wilson corralled? To help turn a 20-point loss into a ticket to the Super Bowl?
“You’ve heard me say before that to me the key is to figure out who your best players are and then try to adjust your scheme around your best players,” Capers said. “I think that’s what we’ve tried to do. Obviously, we look a lot different now than we did in the first game. I think that the changes that we’ve made have been positive and had a positive impact. I felt that our defense, the arrow’s been pointing up. I think we’ve been playing with more confidence. The more successful you are, the more confident you’re going to play, and that’s so important this time of year that you’re playing as a confident team, a confident defense.”
email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.