GREEN BAY, Wis. — Mike McCarthy doesn’t make major declarations often. But the last time the Green Bay Packers’ coach made a bold statement, he turned out to be right, so perhaps everyone should take note.
A year ago, it was the Packers’ running game in question. Having ranked 20th, 27th and 24th in the NFL in rushing yards over the previous three seasons, McCarthy vowed it would change.
"We’ll be better (as a running team), I can promise you that," McCarthy said June 11, 2013. "You can write that down. Big letters."
With a lot of help from Eddie Lacy — whose season concluded with being named the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year, McCarthy delivered on his promise as Green Bay finished seventh in the league in rushing yards.
Fast forward to this offseason with the Packers defense under heavy criticism after allowing 372 yards per game (ranked 25th in the NFL) and 26.8 points per game (ranked 24th). That won’t be the case in 2014, though, apparently.
"We’re going to be a better defense this year," McCarthy said. "You can write that in big letters."
There it was: the "write it in big letters" suggestion again. McCarthy didn’t shout it, but he likely intended for his words to look something like this: "WE’RE GOING TO BE A BETTER DEFENSE THIS YEAR."
Like it was with Lacy last year, McCarthy didn’t just have the same personnel on the roster and expect magic to happen. McCarthy knew then — or, perhaps more accurately, he very strongly believed — that Lacy would be a significant difference-maker and turn around a running game that had been missing for years. Now, McCarthy isn’t looking at his roster on defense and just blindly assuming that somehow every player would take a huge step. Green Bay has brought in help to make sure McCarthy goes 2-for-2 on his "big letters" promises.
Though it would be unrealistic to expect a rookie to take a 25th-ranked defense and turn it into a top-10 defense, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix should make an impact right away. No position on the Packers’ defense was nearly as inept as the safeties were, a group that failed to record an interception — or do much of anything positive — all season. But it’s not the addition of Clinton-Dix that has McCarthy feeling so good about the near future of his defense.
"I’d say it’s important for Clinton-Dix to come in and compete for a position," McCarthy said. "I’ll say this: The moment we selected Ha Ha, our special teams improved. Because with that particular body type, and when you draft a player that high and the competition for not only the safety position or a spot in the secondary but especially on special teams, the heightened awareness, the energy applied to that goes up.
"I don’t have any slotted ideas that he’s going to play this position and this many snaps. He’ll compete to play. He’s shown that he can be a three-down player at Alabama, he’s coming from a program where he was very well-coached, and they use multiple schemes, and I think his transition here will be pretty seamless. But he needs to come in and compete with the guys that are already here."
Regardless of McCarthy’s attempt to keep expectations in check for the team’s first-round pick, Green Bay’s defense likely won’t have a major turnaround unless Clinton-Dix is able to transition to the NFL quickly. However, McCarthy has felt all offseason that Micah Hyde could play a hybrid role that includes plenty of snaps at safety, so in the coach’s mind, Clinton-Dix may just be a bonus.
But it’s not just rookies who have been added to the defense, and McCarthy will certainly need the free-agent signing of veteran Julius Peppers to pay off in a big way. General manager Ted Thompson has rarely ventured into free agency to bring in notable players from other teams.
But the last time the Packers did do that, it netted them Charles Woodson, and that worked out extremely well. McCarthy has seen Peppers terrorize Green Bay and the rest of the NFC North over the past four seasons and obviously believes the 34-year-old still has time left to dominate.
Peppers’ role will be an interesting one, and he won’t be alone in it. Peppers and Mike Neal will both play the "elephant position," splitting their snaps between having their hand in the dirt along the defensive line and standing up as an outside linebacker.
McCarthy has also looked for other players on the defense to be more versatile, and he wants defensive coordinator Dom Capers to find what each of them does best and use it to the Packers’ advantage.
"We’re not a very vanilla ‘just line up and play one way’ and draft guys to fit that particular way," McCarthy said. "We’re a multiple-scheme offense and defense. . . . When you draft a good defensive player, I always view it as the responsibility of the coordinators to make sure we have room for that guy, within our scheme packages."
McCarthy held onto Capers as defensive coordinator this offseason despite plenty of criticism from outside of Lambeau Field headquarters. But it’s now on Capers to ensure that no one is looking back a year from now and writing that McCarthy was unable to deliver on his latest "big letters" message.
"Our defensive staff has been very diligent in preparing the personnel groups, the expectations and how we’re going to package these guys," McCarthy said. "So I feel with that going into the offseason program, we have an opportunity to be better. Health needs to be better, that will definitely help us. The addition of our free agents and a couple more guys, and hey, let’s not forget the free-agent process is still going on right now. We still may be able to add a couple guys and we’ve done very well in the college free agent market too.