The excitement feels genuine. It doesn’t feel like the before-the-season, hope-springs-eternal tripe that sometimes passes for excitement in the days leading up to the first game. No, the enthusiasm emanating from the members of the Green Bay Packers defense seems to be the real deal.
From increased depth in the secondary at cornerback and safety (first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix isn’t even a starter), to the offseason signing of 13-year veteran defender Julius Peppers, to the healthy return of four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Clay Matthews from a twice-broken, twice-surgically repaired thumb, to schematic changes that will employ less scheme but more personnel groupings, the team is convinced that it has the right recipe to return to being the top-10 defense it was during its Super Bowl XLV title season of 2010.
“I think we’re real excited,” Matthews said earlier this week, in advance of Thursday night’s regular-season opener against the defending Super Bowl-champion Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field. “Our expectations are always sky high when we line up and start the year, we always feel like we can better this year than in year’s prior, [but] especially now.
“We’re not working with a patchwork defense in which we’re bringing in guys [every week] – even though we may have [added some] with Peppers and draft picks like Ha Ha – but we feel good. We feel like we’ve got some talent out there.
“We feel like we’re physical, fast, aggressive and ready to make a statement and kind of get back to that defense we were accustomed to in 2009, 2010, early in my career.”
In 2009, the Packers ranked No. 2 in total defense, No. 7 in scoring defense and No. 1 in takeaways). In 2010, they were No. 5 in total defense, No. 2 in scoring defense and No. 6 in takeaways.
“We’re as excited as probably a lot of Packers fans are to watch it,” added inside linebacker A.J. Hawk, the unit’s most senior member. “We’ve been sitting here talking about this game and this season and what we’re going to do and adding Julius and HaHa and all the other young guys – and we want to see it, too. We know what we’re capable of and we need to find a way to bring it to the field in the first real game. We’re ready and we’re anxious, for sure.”
In hopes of delivering, defensive coordinator Dom Capers had to alter his approach. He famously has more than 150 defenses in the three-ring binders that he brought with him upon his hiring in January 2009, but he and head coach Mike McCarthy had some long, difficult conversations during the offseason about the direction of the unit. While McCarthy believed that injuries once again reduced the defense’s effectiveness, he wanted the unit to be better prepared if misfortune was again an issue. That meant scaling back on scheme in the event that younger players were forced into the lineup, but also getting more creative with more players so the group wouldn’t be relying on its stars quite as heavily.
It also led to the creation of the “elephant” position, a defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid that will utilize the versatility of Peppers, converted defensive end Mike Neal and 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry, among others. Because each has an appealing combination of size and athleticism, you might see Peppers with his hand down on the ground in a three-point stance one play, and standing up in a two-point stance the next.
“We have a lot of different combinations we can put out there,” Peppers said slyly this week. “We’re excited about the people, the weapons that we can put on the field.”
That flexibility will allow Capers to disguise and – he hopes – confuse opposing offenses in passing situations, as his scheme has always been most effective when the quarterback doesn’t know exactly where the pressure will be coming from.
“People say, ‘Why have you always liked the 3-4, been based out of the 3-4?’ Because you’ve got four linebackers, and any combination of those four linebackers can become rushers or droppers,” Capers explained. “If you’re a four-down [lineman] scheme, normally, I think that people are more geared in on who your rushers are going to be.
“This is the first time Julius has really done that. We’ve been pleased with what we’ve seen out of him doing it. … The more those guys can do that, the harder it makes for people to prepare for you.”
During Capers’ first five seasons as defensive coordinator, the Packers had 37 sacks in 2009 (tied for 11th), 47 in 2010 (tied for second), 29 in 2011 (tied for 27th), 47 in 2012 (fourth) and 44 last season (tied for sixth).
But according to Pro Football Focus, the Packers’ pressure numbers (quarterback hits plus hurries) were 199 in 2009, 213 in 2010, 205 in 2011, 172 in 2012 and 209 last year. While sacks are wonderful, Capers wants more consistent pressure more than anything, which would help create the takeaways they lacked last season, when they had just 22, marking the second straight year of setting a team-low during the Capers era. For comparison, they had 40 in 2009, 32 in 2010, 38 in 2011 and 23 in 2012.
“What I think you’ll get to see a little more this year [is] turning guys loose and allowing them to do what fits them best,” Matthews said. “We’re finding guys that fit the scheme, not the other way around. Pressure on a quarterback, I love the way we get after the quarterback.”
But according to defensive end Mike Daniels, it’s also about bringing an attitude that the unit has lacked in recent years – an attitude the Seahawks clearly embrace.
“You watched the Super Bowl, right? OK. That kind of explains it,” Daniels said. “If you play defense and you watched the Super Bowl and didn’t take notes, you probably don’t belong here, because they showed how you get it done.”
Now, it’s the Packers’ turn – and while McCarthy disputed the use of the word “unveiling” when asked about his defense entering the opener, you can bet Capers has a few unscouted looks planned for the champs.
“You hope you have enough things that can work. We’ve got a big challenge,” Capers said. “There’s always a lot of excitement surrounding the first game because there’s always more unknowns going into the first game than any other time.
“I think our guys are excited about the challenge. I think they’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.