It will take much more than that for the veteran NFL coach to dig the Packers out of the bottom third of the NFL defensive rankings and help them salvage their season. But he has no plans on giving up on this season or any future seasons.
The 63-year-old, two-time former NFL head coach and the Packers' defensive coordinator since 2009 said Friday that he intends to keep coaching beyond this season, and that retirement is not in his foreseeable future despite increased criticism of the team’s defensive performance.
But the performance of his defense has. Going into the Week 8 game against the Chicago Bears, the Packers were on the verge of cracking the top 10 in the defensive rankings. They were 11th in total yards allowed per game, and their run defense was fourth after spending the two previous weeks at No. 3.
Then quarterback Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone on the first series against the Bears, and everything changed.
Except Capers doesn’t see it that way, or at least he refused to use it as an excuse for the fact that his defense heads into Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons ranked 24th in total defense, 26th against the run and 22nd against the pass.
“I don’t think that has anything to do with us,” Capers said. “We’ve got to look at ourselves, and we’ve got to take care of our business on defense.”
That starts with the run defense.
After allowing just 474 yards rushing in the first six games combined, the Packers gave up nearly that many in their past two games. The Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions combined to rush for 473 yards against Capers’ defense in Weeks 13 and 14.
“It’s the first area we’ve got to get squared away,” Capers said.
Capers’ staff includes two of his former players, outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene and safeties coach Darren Perry. Both have known Capers for decades. They believed in his system as players, and they still believe in it as coaches.
“Just a few weeks ago, I thought we had a top-10 defense, or at least close to it, and top five against the run,” Greene said. “It’s not like Coach Dom came in and changed the game plan and put a whole new system in, you know what I mean? We’re doing the same things here. It’s not like he’s putting us in just a horrible position that we’re going to fail. Our defense just needs to play together as a unit. When they have the opportunity, they just need to make that play. You need to fit together.”
Despite an array of missed tackles, blown coverages and fundamental breakdowns, Capers said he has seen no signs that players have begun to point fingers. The fact that a veteran like Pickett was emphatic in his support for his coach meant something to Capers.
“As long as you stay strong from within, then you’ve got a chance to pull yourself through the thing, because every team in the league is going to go through tough stretches,” Capers said. “But if you don’t, if you come apart from inside, you really don’t have any chance. So you’ve got to stay confident in what you’re doing. You’ve got to make sure that you point out to guys where we have to get better. Everybody has to accept responsibility. My responsibility is to get this defense better, to get us where we want to be.”
Said Perry: “Have we played up to our level expectations this year? No. We’ve had our moments where we’ve looked good, but we haven’t been consistent enough, but that’s not a reflection on coach Dom. I’ve got nothing but the utmost respect for him. You don’t become a bad coach because of a not-so-good season, and when things don’t go the way it’s planned. We’re always subject to criticism when things don’t go well in this profession. That comes with it, and all of us know that and understand that. That’s part of our profession.”
However, the injury was actually to the tibia, the larger of the two bones in the lower leg. While it is just a fracture and not a full break, the fact that it was the shinbone and not the smaller fibula might explain why Cobb’s return isn’t a sure thing yet.
Coach Mike McCarthy said Friday that Cobb will be tested on Tuesday to see if he can return to practice next week.
But Cobb told ESPNWisconsin.com that he hasn’t even been cleared to run yet.
“I thought I was going to be cleared to run two weeks ago, and I still haven’t,” Cobb said. “I feel pretty good, but until I’m able to run and able to test out, I won’t know exactly where I’m at. It’s kind of hard to tell where I’m at without running.”
As for Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons at Lambeau Field, the Packers have concerns about center Evan Dietrich-Smith’s availability. He did not practice on Friday, two days after he rolled his ankle in practice, and was listed as questionable.
McCarthy did not say how the Packers would proceed if Dietrich-Smith can’t play. T.J. Lang likely would move to center like he did when Dietrich-Smith injured his knee against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving, but it’s unclear how they would replace Lang at right guard. Marshall Newhouse replaced Lang initially, but then rookie Lane Taylor finished the game there.
Here’s the full injury report:
Probable – T David Bakhtiari (illness, full participation in Friday’s practice), TE Brandon Bostick (concussion, full participation), LB Jamari Lattimore (quadriceps, full participation), LB Mike Neal (abdomen, limited participation), LB Nick Perry (foot, limited participation), DT Ryan Pickett (knee, limited participation).
Questionable – C Evan Dietrich-Smith (knee, did not practice).
Out – QB Aaron Rodgers (collarbone, limited participation), DE C.J. Wilson (ankle, did not practice).
It was Matthews’ third fine of the season, but he had one of those cut in half and another wiped out all together.
Three Lions players were fined, according to an NFL spokesman. They were: receiver Kris Durham ($7,850 for grabbing Williams’ helmet by the earhole), safety Glover Quin ($7,850 for a late hit against receiver Jordy Nelson) and linebacker DeAndre Levy ($15,750 for unnecessary roughness, hitting tight end Ryan Taylor).
Matthews was fined for a helmet hit in the Thanksgiving Day game against the Lions. Levy was fined for a helmet hit on Packers tight end Ryan Taylor. He was penalized for unnecessary roughness, and the league fined him Friday.
Weatherspoon was docked for leading with his helmet and driving into the chest of Bills quarterback EJ Manuel.
Others fined from Week 13 include:
Information from ESPN.com Lions reporter Michael Rothstein, 49ers reporter Bill Williamson and The Associated Press was used in this report.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy removed any possibility that Rodgers would return from his broken collarbone and play Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons at Lambeau Field by ruling him out on Friday's injury report.
"Aaron Rodgers is not ready to go," McCarthy said.
There was a glimmer of hope that Rodgers would return this week, but tests Tuesday showed he was not healed enough for team doctors to clear him to play. Rodgers was cleared to practice in pads, which he did Thursday for the first time since his injury, but Matt Flynn took the starter's reps all week and will get the call against the Falcons.
The Packers (5-6-1) haven't won since Rodgers was injured on the team's initial possession Nov. 4 against the Chicago Bears, going 0-4-1 and falling into third place in the NFC North.
"He doesn't really let it show to anybody else, but you know he's frustrated and you know he wants to get out there," Flynn said Friday. "This is his team and for him not to be out there is really hard on him. But he doesn't let it show. He's been great trying to get me ready, and just try to pass on tips, as he always did when I was here for four years. He's been a great asset for us."
Although Rodgers had a helmet on and threw some passes off to the side and during individual drills, indications were that he has not been cleared to return to game action. It’s unknown whether he had any additional tests done on his broken collarbone, which has kept him out since Nov. 4.
Only two players were absent from practice -- center Evan Dietrich-Smith (ankle, knee) and defensive end C.J. Wilson (ankle).
Left tackle David Bakhtiari (illness), linebacker Mike Neal (abdomen) and defensive tackle Ryan Pickett (knee) all returned to practice.
With temperatures in the single digits, the team practiced inside the Don Hutson Center.
The Green Bay Packers don’t often pursue big-name free agents, but they chased running back Steven Jackson last March only to see him sign a three-year, $12 million contract with the Atlanta Falcons.
The Packers almost certainly would not have used a second-round pick on a running back, like they did with Lacy, had they signed a free agent like Jackson.
“Probably not,” Packers running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said. “That’s a management question there, but I know going into the draft we were going to be looking for one, possibly two, and we ended up taking two.”
While Lacy has built a strong case for the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year award by rushing for 822 yards -- tops among all rookie running backs and eighth overall in the NFL despite missing nearly two full games because of a concussion -- the 30-year-old Jackson struggled to replicate the success he had during his long, productive run with the St. Louis Rams.
Jackson’s streak of eight straight 1,000-yard seasons will end this year. He missed four games because of an early season hamstring injury and has just 339 yards on 97 carries for the struggling Falcons.
Lacy and Jackson will be on the same field for the first time on Sunday, when the Falcons come to Lambeau Field.
Although Jackson wouldn’t say how close he came to signing with the Packers, he admitted he was intrigued by the possibility.
“Green Bay was in my possible [destinations], yes,” Jackson said. “Obviously, their quarterback is one of the best in the league. The tradition and history with that organization is one of the best.”
In fact, Packers defensive tackle Ryan Pickett, who played two seasons with Jackson in St. Louis, was with Jackson at NFL Players Association meetings in the Bahamas when the Packers were courting the three-time Pro Bowl back this offseason.
Pickett sees some similarities between the 6-foot-2, 240-pound Jackson and Lacy, who is shorter at 5-11 but almost as well put together at 230 pounds.
“They’re similar in they’re big and explosive; that’s about it,” Pickett said. “I think they both have really great vision. They see things before it happens. That’s what makes Steven a good back. I remember he would read blocks very well, and Eddie has that same thing.”
Both also have shown an ability to withstanding the pounding that workhorse running backs take. Lacy’s 207 carries ranks seventh in the NFL, but he has a long way to go to match Jackson’s durability. From 2004 through last season, Jackson missed only 13 regular-season games. He had an eight-year stretch in which he carried at least 237 times in every season, including three seasons with 300-plus carries.
Since Lacy returned from his concussion in Week 5, only Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson has more rushing yards. And Lacy actually held that distinction until last week, when the Detroit Lions held him to just 16 yards on 10 carries. Lacy also has more carries than any back during that stretch.
“I think he’s right where I thought he’d be,” Van Pelt said. “I thought he was a premier player, a premier runner. I’m a little more surprised by his ability to pass protect as well as he has. That’s the biggest thing. I saw it on tape but to translate it over to the NFL game, that’s probably the biggest surprise to me.”
ESPN Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure contributed.
Safety Sean Richardson has played 11 snaps on defense in each of the past two games since coming off the physically unable to perform list.
He could see even more playing time on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons at Lambeau Field.
An increased role for the promising second-year pro might have been one of the things coach Mike McCarthy had in mind when he hinted earlier this week that there could be some changes in some of the Packers’ personnel groups.
“Sean may get some more opportunities this week,” McCarthy said Thursday. “I like what he’s done in his limited opportunities.”
Richardson played sparingly last year as a rookie before he sustained a season-ending neck injury that required fusion surgery. He missed the entire offseason program, all of training camp and the first 10 games of the season.
Richardson, an undrafted free agent, entered the league in the same class with safety Jerron McMillian, a fourth-round pick who the Packers released on Tuesday.
The Packers have been searching for another safety to play alongside Morgan Burnett. M.D. Jennings has played the majority of those snaps, but defensive coordinator Dom Capers also has worked in Chris Banjo.
Now, Richardson may get his chance.
In case you missed it on ESPN.com:
- Capers has come under fire for the defense’s inability to make up for the absence of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, but several players have come to his defense.
- Rodgers took another small step in his return from the broken collarbone by practicing in pads for the first time since his injury, but he still has not been cleared for game action.
- Cornerback Tramon Williams said he received notice from the league that he was fined $26,250 for shoving back judge Dino Paganelli in the Thanksgiving loss at the Detroit Lions. He plans to appeal.
- Falcons reporter Vaughn McClure and I broke down the matchup and made our game predictions in this week’s Double Coverage preview.
- Speaking of predictions, most on the ESPN panel of experts picked the Packers over the Falcons.
- At ESPNWisconsin.com, Sarah Barshop wrote that the shuffling of players on the offensive line hasn’t made things any easier for a group that has had its struggles of late.
- In the Green Bay Press-Gazette, Weston Hodkiewicz wrote that Capers’ future may be tied to how the defense finishes the season.
- In the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Tyler Dunne wrote that running back Eddie Lacy has shown he can handle a big workload this season but wonders whether that will shorten his career.
On talk radio.
In internet chats.
But you'd have a hard time finding many in the Packers' locker room.
From young players to veterans alike, Capers' players defended him this week as the Packers' non-winning streak -- and their defensive struggles -- have continued.
When asked whether the players still believe in their defensive coordinator and his 3-4 scheme, 34-year-old Ryan Pickett -- the most-veteran player on team -- used the word "absolutely" twice without hesitation.
Then, he added: "We absolutely believe in it, so we're going to keep doing what we're doing. We know it's worked in the past. We just have to get back to it."
Just five weeks ago, the Packers defense was on the verge of cracking the top 10. It was ranked 11th in total yards allowed per game and had reached as high as third against the run. The swoon to 24th in yards, 26th against the run and 22nd against the pass coincided with quarterback Aaron Rodgers' broken collarbone.
When the Packers needed their defense the most, it crumbled.
Nevertheless, in the middle of their 0-4-1 stretch without Rodgers, coach Mike McCarthy defended Capers recently by saying, "I'm very comfortable in our coaching staff. I think it's definitely one of the strengths of our program."
However, Capers still might be on the hot seat. He's believed to be in the final year of his deal, although the Packers don't reveal details of coaching staff contracts.
If he is on the hot seat, it probably isn't because his players have lost faith in his scheme. Another veteran, cornerback Tramon Williams, spoke with some hesitation on Thursday but in the end offered his support for his defensive coordinator of five years.
"Um, I mean it's been good," Williams said of Capers' scheme. "Obviously we won the Super Bowl with it. It's been around for a while. When you're struggling, you don't know what to think about it, and that's anybody. That's just part of the frustration going on with things.
"We're still buying into what's going on. It's going to be a struggle from both points -- coaches and players. It's not going to be one of those things where we're going to point fingers at the scheme or it's this. We're not going to do that."
Capers came under fire last season, when his defense allowed 579 yards and looked lost against the San Francisco 49ers' read-option offense in the playoff loss, but he survived. The 63-year-old Capers, along with Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, is considered one of the fathers of the 3-4 defense.
"You've seen a lot of other teams in the NFL running it," said Packers second-year defensive tackle Mike Daniels. "Like I said, people are going to have an opinion whether you're winning or you're facing adversity."
And the players have certainly heard those opinions.
"You've got to kind of block that out," Pickett said. "Of course you hear that stuff and things like that, but you have to block it out, man. We know what's wrong. We're just not playing good. We're not playing good enough. It's not just one single thing. It's multiple things."
One thing that Capers has always hung his hat on is creating turnovers. In his first four seasons as defensive coordinator, the Packers led the league in interceptions with 103. They have only six this season -- a total cornerback Casey Hayward had by himself last season. Two of those came as part of a four-takeaway performance against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving. Yet that 40-10 loss was arguably the Packers' worst defensive performance since the 49ers game. The Lions gained 561 yards, including 241 yards rushing.
That dropped the Packers seven spots in one week, to 26th in the NFL in rushing defense. They haven't finished a season that low since 2008, when they were 26th the year before Capers took over.
"I haven't seen any guys pointing fingers at all," Williams said. "That's the good thing about it. That's the truth. A lot of guys come up in here and say, ‘We're not going to point fingers. We're not going to do that.' Then behind the scenes the first thing you see a guy do is talk about something. But it hasn't been like that around here. Guys still feel that we can get things done. We know we're not down and out of it yet."
“I thought he made a little bit of progress today,” McCarthy said after practice.
McCarthy wouldn’t say if more tests are scheduled on Rodgers’ collarbone this week.
“Until he’s been cleared by the medical staff, he will not be able to play,” McCarthy said. “We’re making progress. He feels better. He’s doing more in the weight room. He’s a step closer. But how far away? Time will answer that question.”
The Packers were missing two offensive-line starters on Thursday. Left tackle David Bakhtiari went home with an illness, and center Evan Dietrich-Smith was held out because of the sprained ankle he sustained on Wednesday.
“Evan Dietrich-Smith, I’m hopeful he can do something tomorrow,” McCarthy said. “But getting injured on Wednesday is never a good thing. I guess it’s better than getting injured on Thursday. We’ll just take it day-to-day.”
Here’s the full injury report:
- T David Bakhtiari (illness, did not practice)
- TE Brandon Bostick (concussion, full participation)
- C Evan Dietrich-Smith (knee/ankle, did not practice)
- LB Jamari Lattimore (quadriceps, full participation)
- OLB Mike Neal (abdomen, did not practice)
- OLB Nick Perry (foot, limited participation)
- DT Ryan Pickett (knee, did not practice)
- QB Aaron Rodgers (collarbone, limited participation)
- DE C.J. Wilson (ankle, did not practice)
Williams said Thursday that he was fined $26,000, but the exact amount likely was $26,250, which is the minimum fine for that offense. The NFL confirms most fines on Friday. Minnesota Vikings cornerback Chris Cook received a similar fine this week for making contact with an official in Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears.
Unlike Williams, Cook was ejected.
"I think they might have said, 'OK guys let's emphasize this,'" Williams said. "But I mean, c'mon man, the referee's on the field just like us. I didn't think Chris Cook's was actually that bad for him to get thrown out."
After the game, Williams called it a "total misunderstanding."
On Thursday, he said Lions center Dominic Raiola shoved him at the end of the play -- a 1-yard touchdown run by Joique Bell in the fourth quarter. Williams appeared to be walking toward Raiola when back judge Dino Paganelli walked in between the two. Williams then brushed away Paganelli.
"I don't think I initiated the contact, but I did finish the contact, I guess," Williams said.
Williams said he planned to appeal the fine.
"Didn't mean any harm by it at all," Williams said. "Wouldn't do that if I knew who it was. Hopefully they give me some money back."