GREEN BAY – When the Green Bay Packers reconvened at Lambeau Field and took to the practice turf of Clark Hinkle Field across the street for the start of organized team activities last week, it was the first time the entire team had been together since a season-ending division playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers in January.
There were the typical questions asked – how offseason’s were spent, if players were healthy, how the rookies were adjusting to a new team, contracts to discuss.
But invariably, conversation turned toward the field, and the 444 yards of total offense and four touchdowns 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick dropped on the Packers in that playoff game on the West Coast.
Kaepernick might as well have been a ghost when rushing for 181 yards, often leaving Packers defenders chasing formations to the other side of the field or completely out of position when trying to make a tackle.
"The QB that they have now is able to do that with that offense, whereas that offense they really didn’t have him doing that as much with Alex Smith," Packers safety Jerron McMillian said of the difference between the 49ers in Week 1 of last year and the playoff game. "You’ve still got to prepare but, sometimes they come out with things you’ve never seen before because the quarterback is able to use this athleticism."
It was a successful season by most standards – an NFC North championship, a home playoff game and victory – but that loss left a very bitter taste.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers and his 3-4 system returns for his fifth season in Green Bay, and it should be bolstered with the addition of first round draft pick Datone Jones and the return to health of last year’s first round pick, Nick Perry.
Back when Capers was hired, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said the 3-4 scheme "creates targeting problems" for an offense. Now, that defense is learning how to manage the targeting problems the new offensive rage in the NFL – the read option - creates for a defense.
The Packers not only will face Kaepernick and the 49ers in Week 1, but they may see Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins in Week 2 (Griffin III is still rehabbing a knee injury). Then they’ll run into the Philadelphia Eagles and Michael Vick in Week 10, and it’s widely assumed Kelly will incorporate many of his read-option tendencies from Oregon into the Eagles’ system.
Throw in a new head coach and offensive coordinator in Chicago (Weeks 9 and 17) and mobile quarterbacks where some elements of a read-option/pistol offense could be shown in Dallas (Week 14) and Pittsburgh (Week 15), there are plenty of reasons for the team to study up.
"It seems to be a growing trend around this league, obviously," Matthews said. "It’s the newest trend or whatever you want to call it but we’ve got to be ready for it. That’s what we’re doing now. We’re incorporating it into our practice regimen each and every day in the hopes that if we do face that type of offense (we’ll be ready)."
Matthews was asked if the Packers defense needed fixing - an assertion he dismissed.
"It’s not so much that it’s ‘we need to fix this’ it’s ‘we need to learn,’" he said of the defense adjusting to the new offense. "I think that comes with it’s an imitation league as far as the direction the league is going, especially on offense. But we need to learn how to stop it. It’s no different than if we were to stop the Wildcat or any other offense. It’s the newest thing. We just need to figure out a way to stop it and we feel good about our game plan, especially with what the coaches put in this offseason."
What many remember most about Kaepernick’s journeys around and through the Packers defense in that playoff game was the sheer amount of space between him and any single defender.
Rectifying that is the biggest lesson to learn for the Packers, and it’s one that is nearly all mental.
"The pistol, or option – it can get physical – but a lot of times it’s responsibility and assignments, so that’s very important," Matthews said.
But learning such responsibilities and assignments doesn’t mean a drastic change in formations.
"It’s still the same plays," McMillian said. "You’re job in that assignment may be something different that you haven’t seen a lot. I’m sure we’ll catch on to what we have to do."
The biggest key for the Packers when faced with certain offensive formations or schemes is just being heard.
In combating the read-option, changes might be made right up until the snap, in which case team leaders like safety Morgan Burnett and Matthews will have to come across loud and clear with what those assignments are.
"It’s just about the defense getting on one page," Burnett said. "The main thing is communicating, making sure we’re all lined up, playing the same defense and then we just live to get through the down. That’s our main focus – communicating, being on the same page, because offenses are smart and they’ll find ways to try and trick you. You just have to communicate."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.