GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It has been a chore for Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers to get things right this season.
In fact, since the Packers won a Super Bowl in 2010, Capers has been grasping at straws in an attempt to bring the defense anywhere close to the level it played three years ago, when it ranked fifth in total yards allowed and second in scoring and interceptions.
The unit has been maddeningly inconsistent, and heading into a wild-card game against the San Francisco 49ers Sunday at Lambeau Field, the Packers know they'll need more than their rocket-fueled offense to carry them all the way to The Meadowlands in New Jersey.
It's just that the odds might be stacked against them because of one factor: youth.
Capers is more respected around NFL circles than he is with Packers fans because those that know his defense understand he has not been afforded the same luxury as his Pittsburgh Steelers counterpart, Dick LeBeau.
In a recent story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, LeBeau, who together with Capers and head coach Bill Cowher transformed the Steelers into a 3-4 defensive powerhouse in the early '90s, basically said he wanted no part of rookies playing in his defense.
"The formula for us has been to get these guys and let them get assimilated into the defense and watch the veterans run it," LeBeau said. "If I had my choice I'd let (them) learn from the veterans and let them step into it as they become real comfortable in the defense."
The 77-year-old LeBeau's aversion to youth can is documented by the amount of playing time Steelers draft choices have had since 2004, when he became coordinator for the second time. FIrst-round pick Jarvis Jones started six games this year, but from 2004-'12, all of the Steelers' defensive choices started a combined five games during their rookie seasons.
That includes players such as Ziggy Hood, Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley, William Gay, Anthony Smith, Bryant McFadden, and Ricardo Colclough. Even before that, safety Troy Polamalu, cornerback Ike Taylor, linebacker Larry Foote and end Brett Keisel, combined for four starts their rookie seasons.
"They've been playing the same defense for 20 years," Capers said this week. "They've been drafting for that defense. You've seen them go through a transition here the last year or two because they had a group together for a long time. You turn them on every week, same players playing.
"That's one of the things you hope for as a coach. The more repetitions guys get with what you're doing, the more efficient they get. You play 60 plays in a game, it normally comes down to who is more efficient for those 60 plays."
Capers was asked about the Steelers' record of shunning youth because the Steelers are the model for successful 3-4 play and the Packers run a very similar system.
Unlike LeBeau, Capers can't wait two or three years for draft picks to blossom because the Packers don't value veterans as much as they do youth. They attempt to re-sign their best young players, but they use draft choices to replace the ones they can't retain.
In the past two years, the Packers had a combined 25 rookie starts on defense. They had 14 in 2010 and 21 in 2009.
This year, the number of starts only reached five, but going into the 49ers game rookies Andy Mulumba, Micah Hyde, Josh Boyd and Datone Jones are set to log considerable playing time on defense. Nate Palmer and Chris Banjo will be backups, and Sean Richardson will be appearing in only his 11th game (no starts) in two years.
These are players the Packers will be counting to help beat one of the best teams in the NFL.
"There's no rookies anymore," veteran end Ryan Pickett said.
Capers knows that 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh will have his eyes on Mulumba, Hyde, Richardson, Boyd and possibly inexperienced linebackers Jamari Lattimore and Mike Neal.
"When you look at people, you're going study them and you're going to try to attack them with things you think they don't have as much experience on," Capers said. "That's kind of where we've been throughout the course of the year. We're playing a lot of young guys.
"If you're dealing with injuries week in and week out, you have to adjust. And you have to make decisions on what you think guys can do and do it efficiently enough to give you a chance to win the game."
Capers said he has simplified the defense as much as possible, but there are still elements of it that require experience and football smarts to be successful.
Former Steelers all-pro defensive back Rod Woodson played under both Capers and LeBeau and brought up a term heard constantly every time the Packers give up a big play: communication.
"If you watch Green Bay play this year, they have a lot of young guys in the secondary and at linebackers and you see guys running wide open," Woodson said. "That's not how the coaches called it. The longer you're in the system, the more you can communicate because you believe in what you're going to see.
"Not only coach LeBeau, but the reason other guys don't like playing young guys is that they're going to make some mistakes making calls. When you play in the secondary, when you have calls that aren't made the right way, you end up giving up a touchdown."
Woodson said identifying the difference between the strength and the "closed" (tight end) side of the defense is paramount because the entire scheme shifts based on that declaration. It becomes complicated in the 3-4 defense because you're typically not just rushing four guys every down.
Usually, you're bringing any combination of the four linebackers and maybe a cornerback or a safety. Sometimes it's a zone blitz where one of the defensive linemen or outside linebackers drop into coverage.
If everyone isn't seeing the offense the same way, the defense falls apart.
"As you grow as a player in the league have to understand when you can and can't do things," Woodson said. "Playing a young guy, he doesn't know what he doesn't know. He's going to make those mistakes. When you have multiple young guys, you just don't know which one of those guys might make that mistake."
When the Packers beat the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV, they had many more veterans than they do now. Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins was running the secondary completely in tune with veterans Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams and Charlie Peprah. Up front, Ryan Pickett, Cullen Jenkins and Howard Green held things together with rookies Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji able to play pressure-free.
In the middle, Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk had grown up in the system together and were playing in tandem.
Things are very different now with Morgan Burnett and M.D. Jennings horribly inconsistent on the back end, 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry injured and underprepared because of the practice time he has missed and Mulumba and Palmer trying to offer even a fraction of what Matthews brought before suffering a broken thumb.
Unlike the offense, the defense is not getting players back for the playoffs. It is looking for someone to blossom now.
"That's kind of the story of our season, the last couple seasons, is guys stepping in and playing well that you might not have normally seen," Hawk said. "We'll see. I think we'll have at least a couple of those on (Sunday)."
That's just the way it has to be around these parts.
Dave Kallmann 5/8 Motorsports Writer / Sports Designer
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