In a nutshell, the 2009 Packers are a much tougher team.
"I think our No. 1 asset as a football team is overcoming adversity," McCarthy said Wednesday.
The Packers were left for dead five weeks ago after an embarrassing loss to the winless Buccaneers. But since then, the team has won five straight and is on the verge of clinching a playoff spot.
The turnaround was dramatic and unexpected to many. In the process, the Packers have branded themselves much more like this week's opponent, the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers, who have fallen on hard times lately with five straight losses but have stayed true to a physical style of football.
"That's the way it always was in Pittsburgh," said McCarthy, who spent his formative years growing up in Greenfield, a Pittsburgh neighborhood just a couple of miles from downtown. "You play great defense, and that was always the bottom line to winning championships. I know being a Pittsburgh native during the '70s, their formula has not changed. They had great defenses in the '70s and that was the backbone of their championship years, and they really never changed it."
The Steelers/Pennsylvania imprint is all over this Packers squad. Seven Packers coaches have ties to the team or state, including McCarthy, who will be making his first regular season trip to Heinz Field on Sunday.
McCarthy's hiring of Dom Capers this offseason was the most drastic change in philosophy that the fourth-year Packers coach has made. Going from a man-to-man based 4-3 defensive scheme under Bob Sanders to Capers' mixed coverages 3-4 scheme has given the Packers a new, aggressive attitude — and the results to go with it.
Those results start up front, where the Packers have used nearly every position on the defense to become one of the stoutest units in the league. All 11 defenders — plus Capers' ingenuity — have produced an attacking style. Opponents have rushed for less than 90 yards in 10 of 13 games against the Packers this season — the team record is 11 games in 1996 — a remarkable total considering the Packers held just four opponents to less than 90 yards in 2008.
Former Steelers players Kevin Greene and Darren Perry have exerted their influence. Greene, a rookie outside linebackers coach, has molded rookie Clay Matthews in his image and in recent weeks has had rookie Brad Jones prepared to play in the absence of Aaron Kampman. Greene has infused energy into his players, while Perry (who also coached in Pittsburgh from 2003 through 2006) has gotten through to the safeties with his communication. Starters Atari Bigby and Nick Collins have been assignment-sure, full-speed ahead players where in previous years they have not been.
McCarthy, a quarterbacks coach by trade, has shifted his team into run mode on offense in recent weeks. Though quarterback Aaron Rodgers is having a great season, McCarthy knows the ground game will be paramount to make a playoff run.
Over the past six games, the Packers are up nearly four rush attempts per game. All three running backs are contributing. starting with Ryan Grant, who is coming off a 137-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Bears last week.
"We were not in sync earlier in the year," said McCarthy, "and really I felt the No. 1 issue was we didn't really give the run game enough attempts. If you look at the times where (Grant's) carries were 18, 19, 20-plus carries, he has been very productive. To me, I say it all the time, the most important statistic for running the football is the attempts, and I think when Ryan has been given those opportunities, he has gotten into a groove and has been very productive. I think he is a very steady, solid player."
Offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, quarterbacks coach Tom Clements, tight ends coach Ben McAdoo and special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum have ties to either the Steelers or Pennsylvania, too, giving the Packers an East Coast flavor, not to mention a possible an advantage this week.
"Our coaches know most everything (about the Steelers) that I know," said Packers safety Derrick Martin, who played against Steelers as a member of the Ravens for three years. "It's kind of funny being in the meetings this week, because they're saying the same things that I was going to tell them."
It all starts with McCarthy, however. After all, general manager Ted Thompson said one of the main reasons he hired McCarthy over six other candidates was for that "Pittsburgh macho stuff."
"I know my history as an offensive coach, but clearly when I became a head coach, I did not want to be known as a former quarterback coach that was a head coach," McCarthy said Wednesday. "It definitely starts with defense. That's always been my vision, and we feel like we've made strides towards that this year definitely. I think that's just part of growing up in western Pennsylvania."
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org