Dom Capers has been coordinating defenses for a long time. At this point in the game, everyone knows the primary objectives of his defense. Really, it’s the same objective as virtually every 3-4 defensive scheme, whether run by Dick LeBeau, Vic Fangio, or Capers. The objective of these defenses is to get the offense to third down, preferably third and long, and then unleash hell.
However, you don’t coach in the NFL for as long as Capers without tailoring your scheme to the talents of the players you have. After being hired to fix the Packers defense after the debacle of 2008, Capers seemed to do exactly that when the Packers rebounded to finish in the top five in defense in 2009 and 2010. However, those defenses were not built like this one.
Those defenses were built to stop the run in the front seven, and with three Pro Bowlers in the defensive backfield, they could concentrate on the run. Those defenses still got a lot of sacks, but that was mostly thanks to the unique talents of Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson, Capers’ creativity with the zone blitz, and great coverage on the back end. Once the reliability of the coverage declined, largely due to injuries and declining play, the ability of the Packers defense to get to the quarterback and get off the field on third down began to crater.
A defense whose objective was to attack offenses on third down could no longer win on third down, and Packers fans’ confidence in their defense responded accordingly.
Starting in 2012, Ted Thompson and Dom Capers began building a different type of defense. This was partially in response to playoff losses to fast, athletic quarterbacks, partially due to the general trend of football becoming more and more of a passing game, and partially due to Dom Capers’ original objective — get to third down and unleash hell on the quarterback. Or as Al Davis most famously put it, “The quarterback must go down and go down hard.”
The Packers drafted Nick Perry and Datone Jones in consecutive drafts. They asked Mike Neal to drop weight and move to the outside. They drafted an undersized, but speedy defensive end with a huge motor in Mike Daniels. Thompson went out and signed Julius Peppers in free agency.
The vision was obvious. On third down put 11 pass defenders on the field. If they can’t cover and they can’t get to the quarterback, then they shouldn’t be on the field. Don’t give the offensive line any easy outs. Don’t let them concentrate on any one or two pass rushers. Instead, put four or five pass rush specialists on the field and turn them loose.
There were bumps along the road. Most noticeably, the drafting of pass rush hybrids left the run defense vulnerable and the linebackers on the current roster weren’t any good in coverage. The first problem partially explains why the Packers stuck with B.J. Raji and never hesitated in supporting Letroy Guion. You still need guys who can stop the run or you’ll never get an offense to third and long. The second problem was largely fixed by dumping the inside linebackers and replacing them with guys who can actually cover, including a guy like Joe Thomas, whose is essentially a coverage specialist at linebacker.
Injuries also slowed the development of Capers’ vision, but the Packers are now seeing that vision realized and harvesting the fruits of the choices they made.
No one is doing what the Packers currently do on defense. No one has devoted the resources to rushing the passer that the Packers have or built the depth at that specialty like the Packers have.
When St. Louis Rams quarterback Nick Foles dropped back to pass on third down against the Packers, he not only faced pressure from four pass rush specialists, but making matters exponentially worse, he also faced the prospect of the Packers’ best pass rusher having the ability to come from anywhere.
If the 2009-10 defenses were built to fully utilize the talents of Charles Woodson, then the 2015 defense is built to capitalize on the ability of Clay Matthews. Both the diversity of where the pass rush is coming from and the movement of Matthews to the middle of the defense has increased Matthews’ impact on the defense overall. Offenses can’t simply run to the other side or double team him to take him out of the play. They no longer know where he is going to line up or whether he is going to rush or not.
The result has been Matthews making plays all over the field against both the run and the passing game. An unleashed Matthews has been playing the best football of his career and is an early defensive player of the year candidate. The move and the players around him have made Matthews a better player, and like all great players do, his play has made the players around him better as well.
The Packers have the second most sacks in the NFL with 18, and that doesn’t even tell the whole story. They got 14 hits on Foles in week 5, and those hits forced two interceptions and led to multiple throwaways. In fact, Foles’ best play, throwing the ball away, helped him avoid between 3-6 more sacks.
The Packers have faced and victimized the three most sacked quarterbacks in the NFL this season — Russell Wilson, Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick. This Sunday the Packers get the fourth most sacked quarterback so far in Philip Rivers. Expect the plan against Rivers to be the same.
Get to the quarterback. Win the game.
Rivers isn’t one to back down from a challenge, but he won’t need to ask the Packers to bring it on Sunday. That’s what these guys do.