"It's funny — I guess it's not really that funny — but watching these rookies swim right now in the playbook, it seems like there's no end in sight," he said on Wednesday.
At this time last year, of course, it wasn't just the rookies who were swimming in their playbooks. With the shift to defensive coordinator Dom Capers and his 3-4 scheme, gone was the familiar 4-3 alignment coordinated by Jim Bates and Bob Sanders.
Of course, the transition went swimmingly. The Packers ranked second in the NFL in overall defense, their best position since the Super Bowl XXXI champions topped the charts. For the first time in team history, the Packers led the NFL in run defense. They also ranked an impressive fifth in pass defense. The defense forced a league-high 39 turnovers.
Green Bay is Capers' fourth stop as a defensive coordinator. In all four stints, he's been a first-year miracle worker. Pittsburgh went from 22nd in points allowed and 22nd in yards allowed before Capers to second in points and 13th in yards in his first season. Jacksonville went from 17th in points and 25th in yards to first in points and fourth in yards. Miami went from 15th in points and 18th in yards to fifth in points and fourth in yards. Green Bay went from 22nd in points and 20th in yards to tied for seventh in points and second in yards.
Common sense says the Packers' defense should be even better in Year 2. The obvious reason is the players have been immersed in Capers' scheme for a full year. Rather than learning an alien scheme, the veterans are building on their year's worth of knowledge. But it goes beyond that. Capers and his assistants are more concerned with fine-tuning the schemes and techniques rather than trying to figure out who lines up where. Last year, to teach the schemes in the classroom, Capers plugged in tapes from previous coaching stints at places like Miami and Pittsburgh. Now, there are 21 games and dozens of practices of the Packers running those schemes.
The NFL, however, is a fickle business. There's no guarantee the Packers' defense will play as well as it did last year. Never mind the lofty numbers simply being hard to match.
In Capers' second year in Pittsburgh, the Steelers' defense went from second to eighth in points but improved from 13th to third in yards. As head coach at Carolina, his inaugural defense ranked eighth in points and seventh in yards before being No. 2 in points and No. 10 in yards en route to the NFC championship game. However, it's a different story at his last three jobs. Expansion Houston was bad in Capers' first year as head coach (20th in points, 16th in yards) and worse in his second year (27th in points, 31st in yards). In Jacksonville, the Jaguars' defense went from first to 16th in points and fourth to 25th in yards. In Miami, the Dolphins' defense went from fifth to 30th in points and fourth to 23rd in yards.
"Every year's a new year," Capers told Packer Report on Wednesday. "I can tell you at Jacksonville, we ended up the last six games playing strictly nickel defense because we didn't have enough linebackers."
"We had a different team at Miami the second year," Capers said. "We were very short in the defensive line due to injuries. We had some good players that ended up leaving — Kevin Carter, Jeff Zgonina — veteran players. What was our strength the first year turned out to be a weakness the next year."
Presumably, that strength-to-weakness issue won't replay itself in Green Bay. The Packers were so good against the run last season because of their defensive line, a group fortified by two draft picks and, maybe, even Justin Harrell. Depth at outside linebacker is a concern — they'll never generate a decent rush should something happen to Matthews — but the secondary hopefully won't be decimated with injuries again.
"I like our guys," Capers said. "I like the approach they're taking. We've had a lot of individual time to work with them. Now, we've had two OTAs. I like their approach in the classroom. I think they're very professional. I think they understand that you have to prepare with a sense of urgency, and what we get done right now will have a big impact on our ability to have the kind of training camp we want to have."
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.