When Dom Capers joined the Green Bay Packers as their defensive coordinator, much was made of the team's shift to a 3-4 defense. The Packers had always, at least in modern times, been a team whose defense operated in a very standard 4-3 setup with smaller outside linebackers and pass rushing defensive ends. There was a lot of speculation about how the Packers' existing players would fit into the new scheme. A lot of the question marks centered around A.J. Hawk, who seemed to take until the second half of this season to fully adjust to his new role. More of the questions centered around Aaron Kampman, who has moved on in his career and been unable to return to top form, due to a combination of injuries and a position switch.
Players came and went, but the Packers still don't have perfect personnel for Capers' preferred base defense - or at least they don't with all of their injuries. Still, despite a less than ideal setup and a lot of injuries, the Packers have a lot of talent on their hands. A lot of stubborn coaches would try to throw square pegs into round holes and refuse to adapt, but Capers and Mike McCarthy have tailored a system around their talent without sacrificing any of their ideals.
Because of the versatile skill sets of Cullen Jenkins, B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, and most importantly, Charles Woodson, the Packers are able to run a defense that other 3-4 teams simply don't utilize. It's incredibly inventive, and it defies notation. It can't be classified as 4-3, 3-4, nickel, dime, or anything along those lines. Those descriptions can't tell the whole story of the Packers' surprisingly effective new defensive formation.
While it can't be described by simple notation, it certainly doesn't defy description. Capers is good, but he's still human, our brains can all comprehend whatever defense he comes up with. If we were going to give it a notation, it would have to be 2-4-5, but that still doesn't tell you anything. The formation that Capers seemingly invented features two down linemen, where usually at least one of them is a good hybrid 4-3 tackle/3-4 end (like Jenkins), two outside linebackers acting like pass rushing defensive ends, just from a stand-up position, two linebackers, two corners, two safeties, and Charles Woodson. Woodson doesn't get a position, because he doesn't really play one. He's listed on the roster as a cornerback because that's certainly what he plays when the Packers aren't in this setup, but he does any number of other things while the Packers are in this defense, which will henceforth be referred to as the "Capers Nickel" to avoid insane wordiness.
The beauty of this system is that it allows us to get our best talent on the field for defending against the pass in obvious passing situations. Sam Shields made a lot of rookie mistakes in the first half of the season, but his development in the second half of the season and the playoffs has been faster than a Delorean time machine. Most Packers fans have been well aware of his incredible natural talent since the first time they watched him, but it's been a pleasant surprise to see him morph into a complete football player over the last two to three months. Shields' emergence as a legitimate NFL cover corner has been massive for the Packers. His abilities, combined with the incredible play of Tramon Williams, frees up Woodson to perform lots of other tasks beyond playing man to man coverage on one of the Packers' opponents' best receivers.
In the Capers Nickel, Woodson's role can be tailored to fit whatever need Capers needs to address. Against the Philadelphia Eagles, Woodson was deployed as a spy on Michael Vick in this formation, neutralizing his running ability. Against the Atlanta Falcons, Woodson was asked to perform a wide variety of tasks, including blitzing more often and occasionally covering tight end Tony Gonzalez. Against the Chicago Bears, he is likely to be used in a similar role, occasionally blitzing and working to shut off passing lanes to arguably the Bears' best offensive weapon, tight end Greg Olsen. Woodson could also end up playing a lot of straight man-to-man coverage on third down out of the Capers Nickel due to the frequency with which the Bears play Olsen or other talented receivers in the slot on third down.
Oh, and the best part about the Capers Nickel? The limited amount of film the Bears have on it. It will be very easy for Capers to throw multiple packages at Jay Cutler that he has never seen before.
Packers fans, sit back, relax, and enjoy the show on Sunday. Dom Capers' defense and the Capers Nickel against Jay Cutler is going to be a fascinating battle, no matter the outcome. Win or lose, one thing is clear: McCarthy and Capers have done well to get the team this far with the large number of injuries they have sustained. Lesser defensive coordinators would not have been as innovative as Capers and their teams would have suffered considerably after sustaining the injuries that the Packers have suffered this season. The outcome of the game will do nothing to change the fact that the hiring of Dom Capers as defensive coordinator was one of the best things to ever happen to the Green Bay Packers.