DC search: McCarthy gambles on big change

If the drastic move to a 3-4 defense under new coordinator Dom Capers does not go smoothly, the coach could pay a steep price. Packer Report publisher Bill Huber details the issues facing the players, coaches and general manager, and explains why the decision was made.

Editor's note: Here is the rest of our coverage from Monday ...

Pack goes with Capers

Coach breaks silence

NFL insider expects quick turnaround

Good-bye, Bob Sanders and the 4-3 defense. Hello, Dom Capers and the 3-4.

On Monday afternoon in the Lambeau Field media auditorium, coach Mike McCarthy discussed what almost certainly will be a make-or-break hiring for his tenure in Green Bay. McCarthy said the 3-4 will be the "starting point" for his defense, and he's gambling a lot on Capers' track record running the scheme, his players' ability to adjust to it and general manager Ted Thompson's ability to find the right personnel to add to the mix.

If all three phases of that operation don't coalesce into a playoff-worthy defense, then McCarthy's neck — and perhaps Thompson's, too — will be on the line.

"I'll assure you we'll be ready when we kick it off for the opener," McCarthy said of the challenges ahead.

The success of the 2009 season rests heavily on the current personnel's ability to fit what Capers wants to do. McCarthy didn't shed much light on his rough-draft depth chart — "I think it's too early to really get into that," he said — but it's fair to say Capers will be charged with putting at least a few square pegs into round holes.

How Capers is able to make do with the Packers' personnel — the attributes needed to be a 4-3 defensive end, for example, aren't necessarily the same as a 3-4 defensive end — is critical because, as one NFL insider told Packer Report, it takes at least two years to make the transition.

While life should go on relatively unchanged in the secondary, it will be up to Thompson to find the right fits elsewhere.

Outside linebacker is the money position in the 3-4 because rushing the passer is their primary job. For instance, Steelers outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley combined for 27.5 sacks. The Packers don't have anyone who seems tailor-made to provide that difference-making production, so that almost certainly will be near the top of Thompson's offseason wish list. Ditto for a run-stuffing nose tackle to share time with Ryan Pickett.

McCarthy said Thompson is "all in" on the scheme change, even though the scouting department had spent the last several months looking for players to fit Sanders' defense.

It's a gutsy move by McCarthy. But while less than one-third of NFL teams run the 3-4, the Steelers and Ravens played for the AFC title and finished first and second, respectively, in the league in defense. Beyond those defensive juggernauts, the Patriots are a dynasty and finished eighth in the league in scoring defense, the Dolphins ranked ninth and the Falcons 11th. The Chargers, who ranked 15th even without stud Shawne Merriman for the season, allowed only 18.5 points per game in the second half of the season.

The common thread is applying pressure, which is an area where Sanders' unit fell woefully short.

"I'm a big believer in the 3-4 defense for a number of reasons," McCarthy said. "It gives you the ability to use your personnel with flexibility. It's an excellent run defense and it creates pass rush on the quarterback. From an offensive standpoint, when you're playing a 3-4, it creates targeting problems. It really cuts the menu of the offense probably in half."

At the end, McCarthy and Thompson better be right. McCarthy and Thompson spent a lot of the capital built during the 2007 run to the NFC championship game. While injuries were a reason the team went from 13-3 to 6-10, McCarthy was quick to take blame for the Packers' inability to win close games. Thompson deserves blame, too, for overestimating the talent and not finding any instant-impact players in the draft or free agency.

McCarthy and Thompson got strong votes of confidence from team President Mark Murphy in an interview with Packer Report last week. Perhaps he's given McCarthy and Thompson assurances that they'll be safe after 2009, as long as signs of progress are evident.

Asked if the wholesale changes — McCarthy fired most of the defensive staff and conditioning coach Rock Gullickson, and convinced special teams coordinator Mike Stock to retire — amped up the pressure, McCarthy smiled.

"I mean, how much more pressure can you have?" he asked. "My view of how I attack the job is going to stay the same. I think I bring passion, energy, work ethic to the job every day. I have one goal in mind, and I'll do everything in my power to bring home the next championship."

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report 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 Lambeau Level forum.

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