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Packers seeking a Super defense again through NFL draft

This news story was published on April 2, 2012.
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By Tom Silverstein, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –

There’s a reason the Green Bay Packers have been pursuing defensive linemen as if they are a desperate team.

Because they are desperate.

Except it’s not the ordinary desperation you see when a team devoid of talent seeks to fill major holes in its lineup with whatever material it can find.

The Packers are looking for competition among their ranks. After a season in which 10 of the top 12 defensive starters from the previous year performed like they had never met before, coach Mike McCarthy is seeking to turn up the heat in practice.

“We’d like to increase the competition throughout the entire team, especially so on defense,” McCarthy said during the NFC coaches’ breakfast at the NFL owners meetings this week. “That was very consistent in the exit interviews.

“I think our players felt that they could use more competition over there. So, we’re really going about it like we always have.”

Actually, they’re going after it like they haven’t in a long while.

They signed their first unrestricted free agent in three years last week when they replaced starting center Scott Wells with veteran Jeff Saturday. They also added “street” free agent Daniel Muir, a former defensive tackle of theirs; signed free-agent defensive end Anthony Hargrove; and brought free agent end Dave Tollefson, another former Packer, in for a visit.

It might seem that they’re simply adding bodies, but McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson are going after high-energy players to toss in with their comfortable starters and some green rookies in the hopes of turning up the heat.

The fact Thompson has 12 draft picks means a year after using just four picks on defense you can expect a flood of new faces on that side of the ball. If off-season rosters increase to 90, it should be crowded on defense this summer, particularly upfront where the Packers failed to get much pass rush.

“We’re looking to improve every year, whether we’re developing our young guys and potentially bringing in veterans,” McCarthy said. “We’re going to have a number of draft picks that will really help. We’ll have great competition with this new draft class.

“I feel very confident our personnel will be stronger this coming season than it was last year.”

Better personnel solves a lot of problems and certainly would have an impact on a 32nd-ranked defense, but drafting 28th and lacking the salary cap money to sign a Mario Williams, the Packers are going to have to make some strategic changes also.

McCarthy said defensive coordinator Dom Capers went through the most frustrating of his 26 NFL seasons and has spent considerable time this off-season huddling with the head coach in hopes of identifying fixes for a unit that dropped 27 places in one year.

“The pass rush and pass coverage, if you’re looking for a statistical striking point, would be where we’re focused on,” McCarthy said. “But I always go back to the fundamentals. We were not a very good tackling team last year. That will change.

“Those are the things we’re clearly focused on, situation defense, how much you’re playing base and stuff. There’s a whole list of secondary things we want to change the vision of how we look and how we play.”

In assessing last season, McCarthy said he thought the defense got too far away from running the traditional 3-4 defense. The year before, when the Packers won the Super Bowl, Capers played about 70 percent nickel defense because his cornerbacks were playing so well and his pass rush had linebacker Clay Matthews and end Cullen Jenkins leading the charge.

After losing Jenkins in free agency, the Packers never found anyone to take pressure off Matthews and the performance of the secondary dropped dramatically. McCarthy said he found the defense did not react well to the risk-taking opponents who came in and tried to match points with the Packers’ prolific offense.

“I’ve never been this explosive on offense and it’s a good lesson for all of us,” McCarthy said. “The opposing offense plays with a lot more confidence against your defense just because the fact that your offense is explosive. (They’re) like, ‘We have to go in there and score 30. It’s the only chance we’ve got.’

“So teams played us extremely aggressive. We need to do a better job of stopping that on defense. We got into a year that we can never get into again on defense.”

Part of the solution, McCarthy said, might be getting back to a more traditional 3-4 defense and doing what the scheme was intended to do, which is put pressure on the quarterback.

“Frankly, we were so explosive on offense, maybe we weren’t ready, maybe we went to too much sub (nickel),” he said. “We played so much sub defense the last couple of years, we’d like to get back to playing more base and doing some of the things this defense was built on.

“It’s a team game, too. You average 41 points at home on offense, you’re going to get into those type of games. It’s not really the way the game goes, it’s how their offense approaches your defense.”

When it comes to finding solutions, McCarthy said he and Capers will continue to look at the ratio of interceptions to big pass plays allowed, which ballooned to a level McCarthy couldn’t stomach.

“That’s something we’ve taken a close look at and identified,” McCarthy said. “We talked about it earlier; we need to get better rushing the passer and we have to do a better job of being more disciplined with our leverage, particularly at the top of routes.

“Those are the things we’ll talk about with our pass coverage.”

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