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Despite heavy investment, Packers’ defense lacks an identity

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Dom Capers’ defense in Green Bay has talent, they just don’t know who they are.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons
There’s no denying the talent on the Packers defense, but how they deploy it remains a mystery, even to them.
Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Dennis Green could never have ranted about this Dom Capers defense.

Are they a fire zone team? A physical man coverage team? Are they a power defense with big bodies and immovable strength? What about a smaller, faster team who can disrupt and rally to the ball?

A team can’t be who we thought they were if we had no idea what they were to begin with.

Capers went through a phase with his front seven where he wanted power to combat the bruising NFC running games spearheaded by teams like Adrian Peterson and Frank Gore.

Ted Thompson drafted Jerel Worthy as the cornerstone piece of a move toward a penetrating, attacking style. This was in response to the worst defense in Packers history.

That ... didn’t go great.

At times, it seemed as though the team would learn the wrong lessons from failure. A secondary well-suited for man coverage suddenly gave up big plays because the corners had aged and the safeties weren’t very good. So, instead of upgrading personnel, Capers turned to move off-man and zone coverage to prevent deep shots.

Colin Kaepernick famously (or infamously for Packers fans) made the Green Bay defense look slow. The defining image of this failure was Colin Kaepernick not only running away from Charles Woodson but putting distance between them as he galloped downfield.

Nick Perry was supposed to usher in a new era in Green Bay, one where athleticism and versatility reigned. And for the pass-rushers this was true. Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, Datone Jones, and Perry provided a battery of athletic, dynamic players.

The NASCAR package ravaged offensive lines when this group was healthy, something that happened far too infrequently.

But the team’s inability to find safety help for Morgan Burnett (until drafting Ha Ha Clinton-Dix) or a running mate for Sam Shields doomed this defense.

Neither Matthews nor Perry could stay healthy, they never found an answer at inside linebacker after Desmond Bishop got hurt and overall there was an inherent incongruity to the Capers and Thompson pairing.

The scheme Capers wants to run requires veteran understanding, instincts, intelligence and experience. Ted Thompson desires a young, fresh team.

Those two things are at odds.

Through two weeks, Green Bay has seen two opponents with clear identities on defense, and not just because Dan Quinn’s Falcons team runs a similar scheme to the Seattle Seahawks. When Quinn came on board, they brought in smaller, faster players at linebacker, but drafted a battering ram safety in Keanu Neal.

They had a plan and they’ve executed it. Their improvement defensively underscores that development.

The Cincinnati Bengals may not currently be a very good team, but they know who they are defensively: they’re going to rush four, drop seven, and mostly play zone coverage. They’ll mix in man and some blitz schemes, but mostly they’ll try to confuse you pre-snap then drop into something more easily recognizable.

Through two weeks, they’ve been effective.

Who does this Packers defense want to be now?

We’re beginning to get an idea thanks, in part, to Capers being an old dog learning a new trick, and Thompson’s dexterity in finding talent. It was a potential I wrote about before the season.

Last year, team speed, injuries, and a failure to find an everydown inside linebacker next to Jake Ryan led the team to trying Morgan Burnett.

They tried him at the line of scrimmage, in the slot at corner — a spot where he excelled to such a degree they used him at times as a corner instead of the actual corners on their roster — and in the middle of the field.

Then, with the first two picks in the 2017 draft, Ted Thompson snagged two freak athletes with run-and-chase ability, along with versatile skill sets in coverage.

Kevin King has the size of a boundary corner with the foot quickness to cover in the slot.

Josh Jones has the athleticism of a corner, the pedigree and experience of a safety, and Green Bay immediately decided he’s a linebacker.

With Kentrell Brice injured, Jones will get his chance to show the training camp hero can put it on tape in a real, live NFL game.

King, despite an up-and-down preseason, already appears poised to snag the starting boundary corner job from Quinten Rollins and Damarious Randall, outsnapping them against the Falcons and playing more than adequately.

Add those players to Burnett the linebacker (where he played nearly every snap against Atlanta) and Kenny Clark, Dean Lowry, Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, and Mike Daniels, the Packers suddenly have an ultra-athletic defense.

OK, cool.

But now what?

The schemes still don’t quite matchup with the personnel. King, House, and Randall all went to play press, yet Capers often has them playing soft zones that not only don’t fit their talents, but are poor matches for their temperaments.

Green Bay has one of the best free safeties in football. Why not let the corners get physical with opposing receivers and trust your former first-round pick to erase mistakes in the back end?

The players the Packers have on defense are better, but the scheme — that which begets a team’s identity — hasn’t quite caught up.

It can, and the rookie defensive backs can be the driving forces behind it.

Burnett had the assignment of Julio Jones in the slot and handled himself. Ditto for King on the edge. A team that had no cornerbacks last season suddenly has a host of players capable of playing effectively in coverage, despite some of the struggles we saw Sunday night.

Jones may not know the defense as well as Brice, but he’s a more instinctive player, a more natural playmaker, and has more experience in man coverage. His emergence, along with King outside, could lock into place the kind of versatile, athlete-driven defense this team appears to want to be.

Glimpses of a front capable of dominating emerged against Seattle’s atrocity of an offensive line. It’s hard to glean much from that, but when healthy, this front should be the strength of the defense. When Daniels returns, perhaps the pieces will fall back into place.

We’re getting hints of a plan. Now, they just need to execute it. They won’t have an identity until there’s more than just a baseline idea.

They have to be who they think they are.