CBSSports.com Senior Writer

For Capers, suitability and seasoning keys to Packer defense

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DALLAS -- Dom Capers was in Pittsburgh when the 3-4, zone-blitz defense came to prominence in the early 1990s. He was there as it was massaged and tweaked, in the early days of a defense the team has run for 19 seasons, so he knows a thing or two about why it has had continued success.

"They've done a great job maintaining it because they've done a great job drafting players that fit it," Capers said.

That was a problem when Capers took over as defensive coordinator of the Green Bay Packers in 2009. He came with a 3-4 scheme and his many wild blitzes and looks, but the players didn't exactly fit it.

Defensive coordinator for the Steelers from 1992-95, Dom Capers has coached with eight NFL teams dating back to 1986. (US Presswire)  
Defensive coordinator for the Steelers from 1992-95, Dom Capers has coached with eight NFL teams dating back to 1986. (US Presswire)  
"It was a challenge that first year," Capers said.

Not so much anymore.

The Packers were the second-ranked scoring defense in the NFL this season, with only the Steelers, the team they will face in Super Bowl XLV here, being better. A lot of that is because Capers now has players who fit his scheme, the best being outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who came as a first-round pick in 2009.

Matthews played well as a rookie, but he's really come on in his second season, the best rusher on the Green Bay defense.

He is a perfect fit, an aggressive upfield rusher who gives his all on every snap -- not unlike his position coach, Kevin Greene, who played the same position for Capers in Pittsburgh and with the Carolina Panthers.

"He (Matthews) arrived with a mentality that 'I am going to scratch and claw, and I am going to fight for everything regardless of when you drafted me,' " Greene said. "He has no ego or attitude, he listens very well and he implements the things that I am teaching and coaching him to do, and he sees that it is successful. He is a hungry man."

The keys to the Green Bay defense are Matthews, nose tackle B.J. Raji, corner/nickel/safety Charles Woodson and cover players Tramon Williams and Sam Shields.

Matthews provides the outside rush. Raji clogs the run game. Woodson is the X-factor and the two cover players allow Capers loads of flexibility with Woodson.

Woodson can line up to cover a receiver split wide. Or he can line up in the slot with a slot receiver. Or he can be used as an in-the-box safety. The emergence of Shields and Williams in coverage has allowed Capers to move Woodson around in the defense.

That's what makes this style different from what the Steelers use. They don't have a Charles Woodson.

"We were a different defense last year than we've been this year," Capers said. "Last year, we drafted a young linebacker in Clay Matthews, put him on the right side and had to get him ready to play. This year we've put him all over the place. A year ago, we moved Charles Woodson all over the place. You just have to try to feature the guys you think have a good chance of winning one-on-one battles and of making plays for you. So we're still in the process. That is probably the biggest difference between us and Pittsburgh. They've been running the same defense since about 1992."

Capers' creativity is what sets the Packers apart. While Dick LeBeau, his counterpart on the Steelers, uses a more conventional zone-blitz defense, Capers uses more exotic looks. When he thought the Bears might run the ball more in the NFC Championship Game, he moved Woodson to safety and put him in the box. Woodson made two tackles in that alignment.

The moving around can be challenging for the player, but Woodson has embraced the role. He is the perfect player for what Capers wants to do because he's still good in coverage and he's a fierce hitter for a cover corner.

"Dom [Capers] uses me in multiple positions," Woodson said. "I might play safety or corner, or he might put me at nickel. I blitz. I cover. I do it all. He's able to draw packages to put me in a position to make plays. It's a lot of fun for me. During the week, I have a lot on my plate."

Capers said Woodson is one of the best tackling defensive backs he's had. He compared him to Hall of Fame corner/safety Rod Woodson, who he coached in Pittsburgh.

"He's just a physical guy who loves to tackle," Capers said. "That allows us to use his versatility."

It is Matthews' ability to rush the passer that had to emerge. Capers has had a good pass rush at every one of his NFL stops. It is what sets his defenses apart. A former walk-on at USC, Matthews finished second in the voting for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Matthews isn't a pure speed rusher, but he's quick enough to beat slower tackles and he has the power to run over them.

"When I'm on the field, I'm a whole different person out there," Matthews said. "I'm a guy who's willing to give it up for three to four hours to the point where it's hard to walk off the field."

With the players fitting the system, Capers could then move them around with ease. That's when he becomes a mad scientist of sorts, creating looks to confuse opposing quarterbacks.

"There are just a lot more moving parts to this defense," Greene said. "As far as the [opposing] offense, you look at the defense and you never know what's coming. You have a lot of movement pre-snap, and the defense makes the opponent confused."

Getting another team's QB on the ground is the idea -- it's hard to throw from your back.

"We feel we have many different things that can attack and pressure the quarterback, and we know this is a quarterback-driven league now," Capers said. "If you let the quarterback sit there and he can do everything on time, then it's normally going to be a long game in this league."

The Packers were third in the NFL in sacks per pass play and were sixth in the league with 34 takeaways. That's the idea behind this attacking defense.

"When you look at it, we have safeties, cornerbacks, inside linebackers, outside [linebackers] and defensive linemen and we're all coming at one point or dropping into coverage," Capers said. "It presents problems because everybody is able to do multiple things."

Most importantly, they fit his style, which is vital to the success of the 3-4, zone-blitz scheme. The Packers only need look across the field Sunday to see that.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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