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.”