Packers’ defense dominating under 3-4 guru Capers

Dom Capers inherited a defensive mess two years ago, taking over
a Green Bay Packers unit that gave up big plays in bunches and
couldn’t hold late leads.

Now they’re one of the best in the league.

In the space of two seasons, the former Carolina and Houston
head coach has imposed his version of the 3-4 defense on a team
used to playing a 4-3. Although there were a handful of complaints
from players early on, the Packers played well in the transition
last season – and they’re dominating this season, despite losing
several significant players to injury.

Going into Saturday night’s playoff game at Atlanta, defensive
lineman Ryan Pickett says Capers has wiped away any memories of the
Packers’ past defensive shortcomings. Green Bay was No. 2 in points
allowed this season, trailing only Pittsburgh.

”We’re a totally different defense,” Pickett said. ”Going
into last week, nobody even thought about ’08, whatever year it
was. We didn’t even think about it. We’re a completely different
defense. It’s hard to score points on us, and that’s just our brand
of football.”

The decision to bring in Capers has paid off for Mike McCarthy,
an offensive-minded head coach who enjoys hands-on work with
quarterbacks.

”He’s been doing it so long, very detailed, knows exactly what
he’s looking for, and I think that’s really the true mark of an
excellent coach,” McCarthy said. ”You have the vision, and (stay)
true to that vision and make sure you do not get off the path to
accomplish what you want. I just think the success we’ve had in the
two years is a big credit to Dom.”

Capers is enjoying the journey.

”It’s been a lot of fun,” he said. ”This year’s been
especially rewarding because of the number of new guys we’ve had
step in, have done it the right way, applied themselves, and gone
out and had success.”

The Packers have 15 players on injured reserve, including three
defensive starters. Several other key defensive players have missed
time because of injuries.

Capers still has plenty of talent; cornerback Charles Woodson
was The Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year last season,
and outside linebacker Clay Matthews is considered a favorite to
win the award this season.

Tramon Williams is one of the league’s best young cornerbacks,
Nick Collins is a Pro Bowl safety and Cullen Jenkins has made big
plays as a 3-4 defensive end, a position that sometimes gets lost
in the shuffle.

But injuries have allowed backups to flourish under Capers:

-Linebacker Desmond Bishop became a starter in the wake of a
season-ending wrist injury to starter Nick Barnett. Bishop has
played so well that the team recently extended his contract.

-Safety Charlie Peprah has stepped into a starting role after a
season-ending injury to rookie safety Morgan Burnett and has played
solidly all season.

-Undrafted free agent rookie Frank Zombo became a starter when
outside linebacker Brad Jones was lost for the season. When Zombo
got hurt, Capers plugged in midseason free agent signing Erik
Walden, who was NFC defensive player of the week after their
regular season finale.

”Our scheme’s changed a lot based off of who we’ve been putting
out there,” Capers said. ”It’s changed from one week to the next.
And that’s been a big challenge for us, in terms of, ‘What are we
going to do this week if we’re missing this and this and this
guy?”’

Bishop says Capers’ experience and mastery of the details of his
defense are his strongest assets as a coach.

”Sometimes, I sit back and watch him watch how things are
supposed to work, and if something’s not right, he’ll definitely
get it fixed,” Bishop said. ”The way he sees the way it’s
supposed to go, it’s at a total different speed than anybody else.
Just his knowledge of how it’s supposed to work is his biggest
strength. I, one day, can hopefully see it how he sees it, and that
would raise my game like 10-fold.”

Given how well the Packers’ defense has performed, there has
been speculation that Capers would attract interest from teams with
head coaching vacancies. While the league-wide trend is toward
hiring younger coaches and Capers is 60, his resume is
impressive.

But with the Denver Broncos’ decision to hire John Fox on
Thursday, it seems more likely that Capers will stay in Green Bay.
Capers didn’t want to talk about the specifics of his current
contract with the Packers, saying only that he has ”more time
left” on it.

”I enjoy what I’m doing, I love the challenge, I love our
players,” Capers said recently. ”You get to be close with these
guys. I like our staff, I enjoy working for Mike. So I’ll do this
as long as I have my health and enjoy what I’m doing. And somebody
will have me around.”

Capers said Thursday that he’s focused only on the Falcons.

”I’ve been so focused in on this game,” Capers said. ”I just
feel like you never know when these opportunities will present
themselves or when they’ll come around again. So I really don’t pay
any attention to all that stuff. My focus is on finding a way to go
to Atlanta and win that football game.”