Packers' defense dominating under 3-4 guru Capers

Published Jan. 14, 2011 3:10 a.m. ET

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.''