Capers' Defense: So Good, Rodgers Struggles

What's been the secret to the defense's terrific start to the preseason? It starts with coordinator Dom Capers. With Capers' history of one-year makeovers, perhaps the strong preseason shouldn't be a surprise. Charles Woodson, Aaron Rodgers and others provide the inside scoop.

Perhaps the only defense that can stop Aaron Rodgers is his own.

Rodgers, who has completed 71.1 percent of his passes in the preseason with six touchdowns, no interceptions and a near-perfect passer rating of 151.1, met his match on Monday.

During his first pass against a scout-team defense, he was intercepted by Charles Woodson. On his next pass, he was picked off by Anthony Smith. A little later, during a blitz period, his laser over the middle went off Donald Lee's hands and was intercepted again by Smith. In a seven-on-seven passing drill, Tramon Williams picked off Rodgers, as well.

"I'm just glad we don't have to play our defense in the preseason or regular season," Rodgers said after practice.

Now, Rodgers knows what it feels like to be Brady Quinn or Derek Anderson or Trent Edwards. With a blitz coming from somewhere and ballhawking corners ready to prey on any off-target or rushed pass, the Packers' defense has been on the offensive during the preseason.

The maestro behind it all is defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who not only has been successful during his three previous stints as a coordinator, but has been successful in his first season with each team. In 1992 in Pittsburgh, the Steelers surged from 22nd in points allowed to second. In 1999 in Jacksonville, the Jaguars moved from 17th in points allowed to first. In 2006 in Miami, the Dolphins went from 15th in points allowed to fifth. And, of course, as coach of expansion Carolina, his defense helped the Panthers reach the NFC championship game in just their second season.

"Number one, he has experience," coach Mike McCarthy said. "People tend to forget he was the one who implemented the defense in Pittsburgh, and it's been there ever since. It's a big part of their success. He's very organized, very detailed, very consistent, and he's an excellent leader. I think he's off to a great start here."

With the context of his instant success at previous stops in mind, perhaps it's not a surprise that the Packers have allowed merely 10 first-half points in three games and have forced 13 turnovers overall. Maybe that transition from the 4-3 to the 3-4 has been completely overblown.

"I've liked the approach through the OTAs and through training camp," Capers said on Monday. "I think the guys have really been focused. I think that they've worked real hard and I think they're gaining confidence, and that's what you see. As you go through, it's a step-by-step process, and you can't miss any of the steps. You can sense when guys begin to get a little bit more confident in what they're doing, because they play faster."

It's not just the scheme, though. While some of the defensive players were apprehensive about the change, Woodson said he was excited from Day 1 because he long had hoped to play in a 3-4 scheme. Capers' name alone carries considerable clout. The players clearly became disillusioned with the lack of elasticity under the previous regime. There's nothing static about this defense.

"You guys watched our defense last year," Woodson said. "There was no creativity to it. This defense, there's so many different packages, so many different ways you can attack an offense. You can keep an offense on their heels. As long as everybody knows what they're doing and their assignments, it's tough for teams to pick that up. There's a lot to this defense. I think we've handled the transition pretty well."

Woodson has been a focal point in the transition, with Capers using him like he used Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback Rod Woodson back in the 1990s with the Steelers. Rod Woodson once posted six sacks in a season, and Charles Woodson has shown a flare for rushing the passer, as well, with two sacks in the preseason and three last year.


Aaron Kampman and Brady Poppinga celebrate Kampman's touchdown at Arizona.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
"I think everybody — all of us in life probably — like to try to do new things and different things," general manager Ted Thompson said. "And as you watch the games, you see all the different alignments we put our guys into, and I think players enjoy being put in a position where this team is counting on them. I think, in general, Dom is respected. I think the players know that if they do what they ask them to do, that it's going to make them better players and a better team, and I think that all kind of builds on itself."

Thompson and McCarthy have said all along that the talent was in place to run this scheme, even though most of the players were acquired with the old Jim Bates-Bob Sanders scheme in mind. As Thompson likes to say, good players are good players, regardless of the scheme.

"I think this team is built for this type of system," said Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins. "This is a scheme you'd dream of playing. You have a lot of freedom. Teams have a hard time trying to figure out what you're doing and where you're coming from. It's a great system. There's so much speed on this team. As you look out there, we have something special going. Hopefully, we can continue to do it. It's going to be a great year."

Put talented players — Collins, Woodson, Al Harris and Aaron Kampman have been selected to the Pro Bowl the last two years — together with quality coaching, and this dominating preseason is what you get.

Capers brings with him a cache that allowed McCarthy to lure an excellent supporting cast. Defensive line coach Mike Trgovac willingly stepped down as Carolina's defensive coordinator. Outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene has said he was interested in becoming a coach for this job only — because of Capers. Safeties coach Darren Perry, a respected up-and-comer in the profession, played for Capers at Pittsburgh.

"Number one, Dom is an outstanding football coach. He's an accomplished football coach," McCarthy said. "He's a first-class individual. I've enjoyed getting to know him personally. He's done a great job with his staff. It's like anything in this business; it's about the people you work with. When you are hiring a staff, you are going to be spending a lot of time with these individuals. I really like the way he has led the group over there and he has brought the defensive staff together. There is a lot of camaraderie throughout the third floor with those guys. They have all been an excellent addition and that's what you look for in a staff."

Rodgers has seen that confluence first-hand every day at practice. While his four interceptions on Monday were a rare sight, seeing him struggle against Capers' array of blitzes hasn't been unusual.

"Yeah, I think so," Rodgers said when asked if the Packers' defense is the best he's faced this summer. "We've executed pretty well in the three games. I think the Arizona defense is probably the best we've seen in the preseason and that's the best game we've played so far. Our defense is tough. They cause turnovers. They give you a hard time figuring out who's coming, from where and what side."


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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 and Facebook under Bill Huber.


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