NOTE: THIS IS FROM OUR FOUR-POINT STANCE IN THE UPCOMING WORLD'S BEST PREVIEW.
-- Friday is Veterans Day. Sunday will be Veteran Coordinators Day.
Green Bay’s defense is led by venerable Dom Capers, the 66-year-old who is in his eighth season as the Packers’ coordinator.
By comparison to Tennessee’s Dick LeBeau, Capers is the young whippersnapper. The 79-year-old LeBeau is in his first season as the Titans’ coordinator after serving as their assistant head coach last year.
“I can remember this,” Capers said when asked about LeBeau on Thursday. “This was back in ’92. I joined the staff (as Pittsburgh’s defensive coordinator) and he came in for an interview and I can remember his comment to me then was, ‘There’s not a lot of guys looking for a 56-year-old secondary coach.’ He’s still going strong and has been going strong for a long time and has been extremely successful. I respect him as much as anybody in the league from a coaching standpoint.”
With the Steelers, Capers and LeBeau helped develop and perfect the zone-blitzing scheme that brought both to prominence.
Starting with 1992, this is Capers’ 23rd season as a defensive coordinator or head coach. His defenses have finished in the top 10 in scoring nine times. The Packers won the Super Bowl in 2010 behind a defense that ranked second in points allowed.
LeBeau, a Hall of Fame defensive back, is in his 28th season as a defensive coordinator or head coach. His defenses have finished in the top 10 in scoring 10 times, including Super Bowl championships with the Steelers following the 2005 and 2008 seasons.
“Two different people. Great football minds,” said Packers safeties coach Darren Perry, who was drafted by the Steelers in 1992 and whose first position coach was LeBeau. “Dick is probably more qualitative and Dom is more quantitative in terms of dealing with numbers. Dom loves his numbers and he loves his stats, and Dick’s probably going to look at things at face value and he’s going to make his decision based off more so with his eyes and what he sees. He used to tell us that all the time when he was coordinating that ‘I’ll be your eyes and ears and tell you what it looks like and what it’s supposed to look like.’ With Dom, he may let the numbers tell you what you are.”
The numbers say they’ve both been tremendous coaches. In a league in which trends come and trends go, Capers and LeBeau have continued to field top defenses. Entering this season, the Packers during Capers’ tenure ranked first in interceptions, second in opponent passer rating, fourth in sacks and seventh in points against. Four times, LeBeau’s defenses led the league in points against.
“It’s an up-and-down business, obviously,” Capers said. “You can go from being real smart one week to not-so-smart the next week. I just think you have to try and go on an even keel. And I’m not saying the wins don’t feel as good or the losses don’t feel as bad, because to me that never changes whether you’re in your first year or your last year. I think if you’re somebody that’s way up here one week and you’re way down here the next week, I don’t think your longevity’s as great. And that’s one thing I admire about Dick. Dick’s the same guy. I’m sure he’s probably the same guy now that he was when we worked together 20-some years ago because he’s just like this. He doesn’t ever waver. It’s something I’ve always tried to do with our defensive team. Hopefully, they know they’re getting the same guy walking in that meeting room, no matter what the situation is. And I think they appreciate that. There are going to be natural highs and lows during the season and you don't want those to be any tougher than they have to be.”
At their ages, Capers and LeBeau could certainly find less-stressful ways to get through their days. The challenge, however, keeps the fires burning.
“I don’t know how you replace that,” Capers said. “I think if you don’t, then you don’t look forward to the next challenge because it’s a demanding business. You’re going to be up at 4 in the morning and you get yourself conditioned to not a lot of sleep at night. But I’m not sure what replaces that challenge. So, it’s kind of like here’s Dick, 79, what’s the challenge? You say, well, he still enjoys it. He played for 14 years and has been in the league for 40-some years. I enjoy it, and I enjoy the relationship with the players, the competitive nature of it to where things change so much you have to get a plan ready week in and week out and that plan might be totally different from one week to the next week.”
-- If the Packers’ run defense vs. Tennessee’s running game is like the immovable object vs. the unstoppable force, then a close-game matchup between McCarthy and Mularkey might be the opposite.
According to data provided courtesy of Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders, McCarthy is 16-45-1 in games in which the Packers are trailing by one score (eight points or less) in the fourth quarter. That .266 winning percentage ranks 24th out of 26 active coaches who have played in at least 10 such games. Mularkey ranks 26th on that list, with a 5-23 record equating to a .179 winning percentage.
For perspective, Arizona’s Bruce Arians has a league-best 13-10 record (.565 winning percentage). The coach right in the middle of that list is Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin at 20-41 (.328). In the NFC North, Detroit’s Jim Caldwell is 20-25 (.444), Denver’s John Fox is 36-55 (.396) and Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer is 4-7 (.364), putting them fifth, seventh and ninth, respectively.
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-- Both offenses are third-down juggernauts. After its first poor third-down showing of the year in last week’s loss to Indianapolis, Green Bay fell to No. 2 with a 49.5 percent conversion rate. Tennessee is third with a 47.9 percent success rate.
The Titans have done it by running the ball and creating third-and-manageable situations. Murray is averaging 5.0 yards per first-down carry and has converted on eight of his 11 third-and-short rushes. Both of those rank among the league leaders. When Mariota has had to throw it, he’s converted on 44.2 percent of his third-down passes, tied for seventh in the league. His 38 passing first downs trail only Drew Brees (46) and Rodgers (40).
While Green Bay’s first-down performance has been improving – after being last in the league at less than 3 yards per play, it’s up to 27th with a 4.88-yard average – Rodgers has had to carry the load on third down. He’s moved the chains on 49.4 percent of his third-down passes, good for third in the NFL. His third-down passer rating of 100.0 is fifth-best in the league and he’s first with nine touchdown passes.
Defensively, Green Bay ranks ninth with a third-down conversion rate against of 36.7 percent. The Packers and Cardinals are the only teams in the league that rank in the top 10 in third-down offense and defense.
-- The X-factor in the teams’ third-down stats has been the running ability of the quarterbacks. Rodgers has rushed for 15 first downs, tied with Carolina’s Cam Newton and trailing only Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor. Mariota is tied for seventh with 12 rushing first downs.
“Difficult for defenses. Very,” Mularkey said. “You’ve got to be very disciplined in your rush lanes. At any time, one play can make a difference in a game. If you let these guys out of the pocket, they’re as dangerous as ever if they can buy some time on their own.”
While Rodgers has been excellent with his 5.9-yard rushing average, Mariota is a lethal threat on the move. He’s averaging 6.7 yards per carry with a long run of 41. At the 2015 Scouting Combine, he ran his 40-yard dash in 4.52 seconds. Only one of Green Bay’s defensive starters ran faster than that coming out of college, with safety Morgan Burnett running a 4.51.
“He’s an amazing athlete,” linebacker Blake Martinez said, thinking back to his college career at Stanford and matchups with Mariota’s Oregon teams. “I think there was one time, I chased him down, pushed him out of bounds, and he like jumped over a 6-foot tall table and landed before he went into the stands’ wall. I was like OK, this guy’s a freak.”
Added cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt: "I don’t know if we’ve seen a quarterback that can quite move like this guy. (Andrew) Luck is athletic, but this guy, I think he’s 4.4. He can really hurt you. He’s more in that (Colin) Kaepernick range when it comes to running, RG3 (Robert Griffin III) when it comes to actually speed and running and being able to get vertical on you. He can run away from linebackers. He’s a bigger guy, as well. I don’t think we’ve really faced this type of guy this year that gave us the type of challenge that he will."
To combat that rushing ability, expect both teams to use a spy, at least on occasion. The problem, however, is using a spy is like playing with 10.5 defenders since you have one defender neither rushing the passer not dropping into coverage.
“The three-man (rush) and the spy gives you a little extra time, so you have a little bit more comfort when it’s just three guys because we can double-team two of them,” Rodgers said. “The spy, it depends on how aggressive those guys are. At times they’ve been kind of mirroring, and some teams will really fire a guy when they feel like there’s an opening. Four-man rush, it’s about lane discipline. And I’ve been able to maneuver the pocket fairly well over my time and, when guys lose their lane integrity, it can often lead to big plays.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.