Mike McCarthy and coaches look at ways to improve Packers defensive unit in 2015
From Tom Silverstein, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
GREEN BAY — Now that he’s free from play-calling duties, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy has been spending more time with his defensive coaches working to develop the long-term consistency his offense has established.
On offense, it helps when you start with Aaron Rodgers at the most important position every year.
On defense, the closest thing McCarthy has to that is versatile linebacker Clay Matthews, the guy for whom general manager Ted Thompson set aside $66 million in order to keep him in a Packers uniform.
In the middle of last season, McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers came to the conclusion that they needed Matthews to change positions in order to shore up a run defense that had allowed eight straight 100-yard games to start the season, including three of more than 190.
The impact was instant. Teams ran for 100 yards in only six of the final 10 games. Third-down efficiency improved from 47.1% to 36.5% in that span. Sacks increased from 2.2 per game to 3.2.
Two months removed from the devastating loss to Seattle, McCarthy’s challenge is to build from some of the advances the defense made on the road to the NFC Championship Game.
“He made a huge impact playing inside linebacker, bigger than I think all of us would’ve imagined,” McCarthy said of Matthews during an NFC coaches media breakfast Wednesday at the NFL owners meetings. “I know his teammates in the exit interview, a number of them just brought that up outside of the conversation, what a big impact he made when he went inside and played the way he did.
“His teammates not only respect Clay on how he plays the outside linebacker position, but the respect that they have for him as a football player grew up a lot higher.”
So what’s the next step? How does McCarthy make him better, the same way he developed Rodgers into the player he is?
“I think you move him to safety next,” McCarthy joked. “That’s what the off-season’s for. We’ve looked at all the snaps of him playing inside and outside. It’s like any great player, it’s not really where you play him, it’s really what you do with the players around him.
“So I think the impact of how our young players will have opportunities around Clay is really the answer to your question.”
Instead of being part of the problem as in previous years, McCarthy’s younger players were part of the defensive improvement last year.
Inside linebacker Sam Barrington was an upgrade over both A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones, and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was an upgrade over M.D. Jennings. Cornerback Micah Hyde made strides as a hybrid nickel back and ends Mike Daniels and Josh Boyd flashed at times.
But where was their Eddie Lacy, David Bakhtiari, Corey Linsley, Davante Adams and Richard Rodgers, five offensive players who as rookies immediately helped Aaron Rodgers be a better player? No one doubts that any of those five, not to mention receivers-in-waiting Jeff Janis and Jared Abbrederis, are going to make the offense even better this season.
On defense, it could be argued the only impact player waiting on deck is Clinton-Dix, last year’s first-round pick. After starting 12 of 18 games, McCarthy is expecting big things from him, as he should.
“I think he’ll be one of the classic second-year players that makes a huge jump,” McCarthy said. “He looked very comfortable in the back end. The communication, pre-snap awareness and all of the things that go on at the safety position, I think he’ll be a lot more comfortable this year.”
As you look at the rest of the defense, however, you wonder who can be to Matthews what Lacy, Adams and Linsley were to Rodgers this year?
First-rounders Nick Perry and Datone Jones, along with second-rounder Casey Hayward, haven’t proved to be those players.
McCarthy’s answer is that he doesn’t need more volume from those players. He just needs them to play to their strengths.
“I think as you look at our defense and watch them play, I don’t think you’ll see a whole lot of things that will be done differently,” McCarthy said of next season. “I thought we did an excellent job of utilization of personnel, hitting the play-time reps, something that was my focus for the defense going into last year.
“That’s something we can definitely build off of.”
Thompson hasn’t done anything this off-season to build depth at inside linebacker and cornerback, positions that each lost a pair of regulars. Free agency is pretty much over and Thompson seems to have set himself up to need extra bases-type drafts like he did in 2013 and ’14.
Hyde, Boyd and linebacker Nate Palmer are in place from the ’13 draft and end Khyri Thornton, linebacker Carl Bradford and cornerback Demetri Goodson from the ’14 draft.
They would ideally be the next generation on defense, but only Hyde and Boyd have qualified for that distinction and so the ’15 rookie class might have to be early achievers.
McCarthy is convinced that 35-year-old Julius Peppers will be just as effective as he was last season when he contributed 57 tackles, 9½ sacks, two interceptions, six forced fumbles and 11 pass breakups in 18 games. Whether Peppers can remain fresh playing 74% of the snaps again is something McCarthy will have to monitor.
Peppers, Matthews and Morgan Burnett were the core of the defense. If free agent nose tackle B.J. Raji were to return and play better than he did in ’13, he also would be part of that group. Cornerback Sam Shields, Daniels, Barrington and Hyde would be next.
Two months into the off-season much is still hanging in the air as McCarthy plots out next season.
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