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Packers’ changes on defense need to show results

By Tom Silverstein, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –

GREEN BAY, Wis. — The restoration project the Green Bay Packers began last winter on their 32nd-ranked defense has a drop-dead completion date of Sept. 9.

With roughly 21/2 weeks to go, no one knows whether the results will produce anything more than cosmetic changes that will be quickly exposed the day the San Francisco 49ers come to town. If structural fixes have been completed, they should start showing soon.

On Thursday night, defensive coordinator Dom Capers will gain the most insight one can get in a four-game exhibition season in which starters mostly stay off the field to protect them from injury.

But as is the norm with Game No. 3 — this one against the Cincinnati Bengals — the starters will play more, the one and only time this summer they’ll play together for a half or more against a real, live opponent. For once, the objective isn’t just to find out who are the 25 guys Capers will have this season but also to see how the top 12 or 13 will work together.

“That’s the hard thing when you have a lot of different pieces,” Capers said of the off-season additions. “It’s the continuity of how they all fit together, everybody doing their job. We really haven’t kept the group out there.

“We’ll have them out there more this week than we have in the first couple of games. It’s the first time we’ve gone through a normal week of preparation.”

After the Bengals game, the starters won’t play much — if at all for some of them — so Capers hopes to get a sneak peek at how some of the alterations to his defense are shaping up.

Is Charles Woodson’s switch to safety in the base package working? Is cornerback Tramon Williams back to being the player he was in 2010? Can D.J. Smith fill the shoes of Desmond Bishop at inside linebacker? Can first-round pick Nick Perry take some pressure off fellow outside linebacker Clay Matthews? Has safety Morgan Burnett matured enough that Capers can count on him to be in the right place at the right time?

Capers needs to know how far he can push the envelope with this group. How the half-dozen or so rookies who are expected to make the roster fit in remains probably the biggest question he faces, but the big picture he’s seeking is how deep into his playbook can he go with the talent he has.

“That will be told by how well we’re doing,” Capers said.

Capers has been practicing a lot of different things during camp, but when the regular season comes around, he’ll use only what he thinks the defense can handle. In other words, if he pulls it out on a Wednesday during the regular season and the players don’t execute it the way he wants it in practice, he’s not going to use it.

“You have to prove to me on the practice field that you’re ready to run it in a game because we’re not going to just go out and roll the dice if we haven’t seen it run in practice,” he said.

Against the Bengals, Capers won’t be calling his best defenses — or even ones that are beyond the most basic — but he will be seeing not just how rookie defensive linemen Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels have advanced their game but whether they work well next to B.J. Raji or Ryan Pickett; or whether rookie Jerron McMillian or inexperienced M.D. Jennings and Anthony Levine complement Burnett as a nickel safety.

This is a chance for Capers to rotate some of the younger players in with the starters to see how they work off each other rather than just trying to get them a set number of snaps so they continue to develop .

“The other games you’re trying to make sure that this guy has this many reps and that guy has that many reps,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. “You kind of treat this more like a game where you might do a little bit more substitution.

“It’s getting guys in together, these two together, these three together.”

The biggest difference Capers sees between this defense and the one that finished dead last in the NFL last year is the variety of athletes he has available. General manager Ted Thompson used his first six draft picks on defensive players, ranging from a small, quick cornerback (Casey Hayward) to a box-type safety (McMillian) to an inside pass rusher (Daniels) to a big, physical outside rusher (Perry).

No two are very much the same.

Same with free-agent additions such as defensive linemen Daniel Muir (6-2, 322 pounds) and Philip Merling (6-5, 315).

“I think we have more options and more possibilities than we had in terms of athletic ability and quickness,” Capers said. “I like the enthusiasm that the young guys bring. They’re wide-eyed.

“You still don’t know how they’re going to respond when the bright lights come on. I like the way they’re working. I think we’ve made progress the first two preseason games. There’s still a lot of things to correct, but hopefully what you look for is not making the same mistakes that you corrected.”

The spots that Capers still has to fill in the base defense and nickel package are right cornerback (Jarrett Bush, Sam Shields or Hayward) and nickel safety (McMillian, Jennings or Levine). Those decisions won’t come after this week. It’s likely players will be rotated to see how they function with the starters.

Then, in the fourth game, the young players will play a lot.

“We’re younger and we have some really good athletes competing and we’re just short of experience in some areas,” safeties coach Darren Perry said. “We have to pick up the pieces and bring those guys along as quickly as possible.

“But we have had plenty of practice reps out there to where (the starters) have a good feel for each other. I think more than anything we have to just adapt and adjust to the speed of the game Thursday night and just get those guys to where they’re reacting and using the proper techniques and they feel good about where they are individually.”

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