GREEN BAY, Wis. - Dom Capers has coached the 3-4 defense for, well, ever. And as much as the Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator loves the scheme, he acknowledges that the way the NFL game has evolved in recent years, you'll be seeing less and less of the base defense he's run for so long.
"What you have to realize is, the percentage of 3-4 that we played 15 years ago compared to what you play now has changed. Just because the offenses have changed so much," Capers explained in advance of the Packers opening up their fifth training camp running the 3-4 – and his 28th season in the league. "You don't see a lot of teams – unless they're the Minnesota Vikings with Adrian Peterson and two backs back there – pounding you. You're spread out and (they're) trying to utilize speed, more wide receivers."
Thus, the amount of "Okie" defense, as Capers calls it, remains on the decline. Last year, according to Capers, the Packers continued their trend of playing sub packages much more frequently than they played their base defense, even though Capers began using his six defensive-back dime unit more often than in the past.
"If you look at the percentages we played, we were more balanced last year in our fourth year than we were in any of the first three years," Capers explained. "We were thirds: A third ‘pkie,' a third nickel and a third dime, ‘rover' and ‘bat' and all that (six defensive back) stuff."
The reduction in base defense would seem to lessen the importance of the team's defensive line, since two linemen are on the field in those sub packages (or, in some instances, one). But that's simply not the case, and the Packers' recent draft history backs it up: Not only did the team use its first-round pick this year on UCLA defensive end Datone Jones, but general manager Ted Thompson also took Mississippi State defensive end Josh Boyd in the fourth round this year and took Michigan State defensive end Jerel Worthy (second round) and Iowa defensive tackle Mike Daniels (fourth round) last year.
That's a fairly significant investment into the position, and with good reason: It's a contract year for most of the line, from 2009 first-round pick B.J. Raji and savvy veteran run-stuffer Ryan Pickett, to suddenly productive Mike Neal and solid-if-unspectacular C.J. Wilson. If some or all of those players play like their livelihoods depend on it – which they do – then the Packers will benefit.
But the player the Packers need to make an immediate impact is Jones, who at 6-foot-4 and 285 pounds gives them their first prototypical 3-4 defensive end. Although Jones, like the other defensive linemen, won't have the green light to simply jet upfield on every quarterback dropback, he should boost the pass rush while also holding the point against the run.
"We're not bringing him along slowly at all," said defensive line coach Mike Trgovac, who had Jones working with the No. 1 defense a lot during organized team activity practices and minicamp. "He's a very conscientious kid and very serious about it. But when you put those pads on, that's when you see if a guy really has all the fundamentals down. The true test will be when the pads come on and you get to see guys actually do it full speed. He looks good (in shorts and helmets) doing it."
Jones worked as one of the two defensive linemen in the Packers' No. 1 nickel unit a lot during the offseason, working alongside either Raji or Neal in most sets. That threesome, combined with outside linebackers Clay Matthews, Nick Perry and Dezman Moses, would provide an interesting mix of athletic pass rushers.
"(Jones is) very quick, he's got some very good explosion, but he's also got some strength, too. This position, we're not always going to be the guys jetting off the ball, so he's going to add a good element to us, and I think he'll grow in the position," Trgovac said. "He'll have some good guys that he'll be able to learn from. But I think he adds some athleticism to us. You look at some of the groups that we have, it's going to be interesting to see what happens with them. You've got Mike Neal, Clay, Nick Perry, Datone, B.J., Mike Daniels … there's so many athletic guys up there that are going to be fighting for that position of best pass rusher. Right now, who knows what's going to happen?"
Another intriguing player is Neal, who split his offseason between defensive end and outside linebacker, where he's enormous for the position (294 pounds) but could create matchup problems if he proves adept in a limited role there.
"The advantage for him is we can keep him on the field more," Trgovac said of Neal, who finished with 4.5 sacks last season after his first two NFL seasons were short-circuited by injury. "Any time you can see more from the two-point stance, that will help him. You can see a little more. Defensive linemen are always down and have to face the guys coming at them a little faster and harder as opposed to being on that edge where you can see things."
Meanwhile, 30-year-old Johnny Jolly is trying to earn a roster spot after missing three seasons following multiple arrests for codeine possession and an NFL suspension that came down before the Packers' Super Bowl XLV-winning season of 2010. He will be heavily scrutinized once the pads come on because he did little during the offseason practices – most of which he missed as post-prison red tape kept him away. He was arguably the team's best defensive lineman in 2009 – the first year of the 3-4 in Green Bay – but that seems like eons ago.
"Everything's going to be a process. Me being out three years, I remember a lot of stuff so my routine is pretty much the same. It's just me learning the new plays that we have," Jolly said. "My main thing right now is just coming out here every day and getting what I need to do down so I can be focused and more consistent in what I'm doing. Just being a part of the team and whatever I need to do, that's my main focus. Once everything falls, we can go from there."
QUICK READ: DEFENSIVE LINE
Will the real B.J. Raji please stand up?
The position perhaps is inherently one where players show up only from time to time, which has been the case for Raji the past three seasons. Statistically, he is coming off a poor year in which he failed to record a sack (although he was credited with 25 quarterback hurries by ProFootballFocus.com). That's a stark number compared to the 6.5 he had in 2010, when he also helped pave the way to North Texas and Super Bowl XLV with his interception return for a touchdown against Chicago in the NFC Championship Game. Now, Raji faces the harsh reality that his team isn't quite sure what kind of player he is. If the Packers knew, they'd have extended his contract like they did with Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews and Morgan Burnett. Instead, it appears Raji will have to prove his worth. Although his position isn't always glamorous or good for numbers, the ball's in his court now.
On the rise
It's hard to imagine a career getting off to a worse start than Neal's. A 2010 second-round draft pick from Purdue, Neal missed 26 of the first 28 possible games of his NFL career (including playoffs) because of injuries. He missed the first half of the 2011 season after suffering a knee injury in a training-camp practice and was a non-factor upon his return to the field. Then, on March 13, 2012, the NFL announced his four-game suspension to start last season. Nevertheless, he suddenly is a vital part of the defense after recording 4.5 sacks in only 323 snaps. From his hybrid DE-OLB gig to the fact that he's in a contract year, this will be an interesting season to see if he's the real deal.
Player to watch
The rookie bears a striking resemblance, both in his appearance and in the mature-beyond-his-years way he carries himself, to 1998 first-round pick Vonnie Holliday. Holliday, playing opposite Pro Football Hall of Famer and NFL Defensive Player of the Year Reggie White during his rookie year of 1998, recorded eight sacks in 12 games that year. At age 37, he carved out a 15-year NFL career and has 62.5 career sacks, 32 of which came with the Packers. While revisionist historians would suggest the Packers erred by taking him over Randy Moss, the team should've never let him walk as a free agent after the 2002 season. If Jones can have that kind of longevity – and even more productivity – he'll have done OK for himself.
With Raji, Pickett, Neal and Wilson all in the final year of their contracts, and only so much money to go around, they should all be motivated to earn their keep. Even Pickett, the old man in the Packers' locker room at 33, wants to play a few more years and wants them to be in Green Bay. Raji's contract situation will bear close examination, but Neal probably could be had for a relative bargain if he starts fast and the Packers approach him about an extension. Wilson is no lock for the roster with the recent draft additions, but he's been willing to do the dirty work of eating up double-teams and letting linebackers make plays behind him for almost four years now. There's value in that, too.
No wonder the Packers were preaching fumble creation all offseason. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Packers have recovered 55 fumbles since 2006, McCarthy's first season. That's tied with the Jacksonville Jaguars for the fewest in the NFL over that time. The Chicago Bears, meanwhile, recovered an NFL-best 107 fumbles during that same time frame under Smith, or nearly double the number the Packers did. Interestingly, the three teams that were the best at recovering fumbles since 2006 are the Bears, the Detroit Lions (106) and Minnesota Vikings (95), all of the Packers' NFC North rivals.
"I see competition in there. There's a lot of young bodies in there, and there's a couple veteran guys in there with B.J. and Pickett, so I think we've got a real good mix of guys that can do some real good things, and when you add that much youth to the group with Mike, Jerel, ‘Tone,' Josh – all the guys we have in there that are young. Those guys bring a lot of energy, so you better keep up. That's why I've got to keep up with that energy with them because there's a lot of energy out there with those young guys. Then you have C.J. and ‘Pick' and B.J. with the experience in there. And Mike, when he's in our room, he brings some experience in there as well." – Defensive line coach Mike Trgovac, on the mix of talent he has to work with.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on "Green & Gold Today," and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.