Will Packers defense rise to challenge?

Will Packers defense rise to challenge?

Dom Capers knows the numbers. He has heard others try to explain them away – how certain rankings are misleading, how there are a variety of ways to statistically measure a defense’s effectiveness – and admits that even he sometimes tried to do it himself last year.

But the bottom line for the Green Bay Packers veteran defensive coordinator is this: His group wasn’t good enough last year. Based on yards allowed, a defense that was in the top 5 in Capers’ first two seasons in Green Bay ranked was dead last in the 32-team NFL last season, allowing an astonishing 6,585 yards.

And he can’t let that happen again.

“I think this: When you’re in the business for a long time, the thing that excites you about the business is challenges,” the 62-year-old Capers said in advance of Sunday’s regular-season opener against the San Francisco 49ers, which will kick off his 27th season as an NFL coach.

“And I think probably one of the things I’ve enjoyed the most about this job is, every week’s a new challenge. And no matter where you are in your career or in the season or whatever, to me, there’s nothing that motivates you more than a challenge.

“I think our total defensive staff, our team, we look at this as a challenge to improve. I don’t get too caught up in some of the statistics because I think I know the ones that mean the most in terms of winning games, and I know that our guys know how to play good defense. Sometimes they can get skewed a little bit, but our goal is to be as good as we can possibly be.

“I’ve looked at it as a challenge, to critique everything and look at scheme and personnel and how we can fit our scheme to our personnel, because I’ve always believed that’s where it’s at – your personnel changes tremendously, and you better be able to adapt your scheme based on the people you have. And I think since we’ve been here, we’ve done that numerous times. But I get excited when I see young players that I think give you some flexibility, more possibilities in there. That’s the thing. I enjoy the challenge.”

This season will certainly be a challenge for Capers. While he has undeniable talent at his disposal – cornerback-turned-safety Charles Woodson and shutdown cornerback Tramon Williams in the secondary, pass-rushing savant Clay Matthews at outside linebacker and run-stuffing big uglies B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett – Packers general manager Ted Thompson implicitly admitted that Capers’ defensive didn’t have the requisite talent to be better in 2011.

That admission came in the form of an NFL Draft that saw Thompson not only select defensive players with his first six picks – outside linebacker Nick Perry in the first round, defensive lineman Jerel Worthy and cornerback Casey Hayward in the second round, safety Jerron McMillian and defensive lineman Mike Daniels in the fourth round and inside linebacker Terrell Manning in the fifth round – but trade up three times to select specific players.

Perry, Worthy and Daniels were drafted in hopes of improving an anemic pass rush that ranked 27th in the 32-team league in sacks with 29 and dead last in sack percentage (sacks per dropback) at 4.28 percent – despite, according to STATS, the Packers sending five or more rushers more than any team in the NFL except the blitz-happy New Orleans Saints.

“I can tell you that I like all three of them. I think they’re all young guys that have got potential,” Capers said. “I like their approach. I think they’re good athletes. I think they’ll do nothing but get better as we go along here (with) the more experience they gain.

“It’s like any time you put rookies out there for the first time, you’re always interested to see how they respond to the bright lights of opening day because you certainly see a lot of things on opening day that you haven’t seen in your preparation.”

In the back end, while Hayward apparently won’t be in the mix initially, McMillian battled M.D. Jennings for the nickel and dime safety job during the second half of camp. The improvement in that group, though, should come from its veterans – and an improved pass rush that shouldn’t force them to cover for as long.

The issues in the secondary last season have been pointed out ad nauseam: Williams played one-armed for nearly the entire season after suffering a shoulder injury in the opener; Sam Shields, a godsend as the No. 3 cornerback with Woodson and Williams as a rookie in 2010, regressed badly last year and spent most of camp behind Jarrett Bush and Davon House in the cornerback pecking order; and the season-ending and career-threatening neck injury suffered by three-time Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins in Week 2 threw off the entire unit.

The result was a secondary that, while leading the NFL in interceptions with 31, allowed an NFL-record 4,796 yards through the air (breaking the 1995 Atlanta Falcons’ record by 255 yards) and 73 passes for 20 yards or more.

“We know that wasn’t us,” Williams said. “You can look at the tape from the previous years and look at the one last year, and it just wasn’t the same. That just wasn’t us. We know that, and that’s why we came into training camp refocused, ready to go. We put a lot of good things on film this preseason, and hopefully they carry over.

“The yardage thing is kind of more overblown than anything. But it does go into the history books. It’s considered a fact now. It is what it is at this point, but we’re not worried about that. We know we’re a lot better defense than that, and we just have to go show it.”