In the NFL, change can happen so swiftly it will make your head spin. Consider the Green Bay Packers' defense. Just two seasons ago, the Packers had a defensive unit that appeared primed for a breakout.
Green Bay had nice mix of savvy vets and young, hard-hitting playmakers. The Packers' D wasn't one of the league's elite, but it showed signs of reaching that class.
What a difference a year makes.
Last year, Green Bay's defense ranked near the bottom of the league. The Packers' D was largely to blame for the team's 6-10 season. A drastic change needed to be made. Head coach Mike McCarthy fired defensive coordinator Bob Sanders, along with most of his staff.
On Jan. 18, McCarthy hired former NFL head coach Dom Capers, who's been tabbed as a defensive specialist for several years. With the addition of Capers, the Packers were to switch from a standard 4-3 defensive scheme (four down linemen and three linebackers), to the less-used 3-4 formation (three linemen and four linebackers). McCarthy said, however, that the Packers would still use the 4-3 set occasionally.
After last season's dismal performance, changes had to be made. But while hiring new coaches and installing a new philosophy is nice, ultimately, it's the players on the field that have to perform. Do the Packers have the right personnel to execute Capers' scheme?
Normally, I don't get too fascinated with first-round draft picks. Remember Justin Harrell? Believe it or not the defensive tackle is still on the active roster. But "active" probably isn't a suitable word to describe the Packers' 2007 No. 1 pick, since we haven't seen much activity from him since he landed in Green Bay.
Let's face it, the NFL Draft can be very wishy-washy, but this year, it appears that the Packers plucked two future standouts from the college ranks. Green Bay's two first-rounders, Boston College nose tackle B.J. Raji and USC linebacker Clay Matthews III, seem to be ideal players fit for the 3-4 scheme.
At BC, Raji was a dangerous run-stuffer and wasn't afraid to pursue the quarterback. Blocking the powerful Raji was a difficult task. Despite his large frame (6' 2," 337 pounds), Raji has rare athleticism unforeseen in most players his size.
He's a slightly smaller version of former Packers nose tackle Gilbert Brown, but I think he'll be more feared than Brown was even in his heydey, because he'll bring a dual threat of run stuffing and pass rushing.
The addition of Matthews (6' 3," 245), gives the Packers depth at linebacker. Matthews could battle Brady Poppinga and Brandon Chillar for a starting position at outside linebacker. Matthews certainly has versatility.
In 2007, he excelled on USC's special team's unit and last season Matthews played 10 games at the right defensive end slot. He's been primarily used as a strong-side LB.
Also lining up in the Packers' four-linebacker set will be MLB A.J. Hawk, LOLB Nick Barnett and former defensive end Aaron Kampman. Kampman, Green Bay's most-feared quarterback hunter, will certainly be under the microscope this season.
His production slipped slightly in 2008 (9.5 sacks), but that was due mostly to the constant double teams he faced as the Packers' only real pass-rushing threat.
When right defensive end Cullen Jenkins went down with an injury, Kampman was asked to carry an added workload on the defensive front.
However, Jenkins will return this fall as one of the Packers' three interior linemen, along with Raji and Ryan Pickett. Harrell is still in the mix, but the oft-injured lineman has a lot to prove to Green Bay's brass.
With Kampman's quickness off the end, I don't see him struggling at the weakside linebacker position. He's a fiery competitor, so he should take on the challenge of the 3-4 defense with gusto.
The Packers' defensive line should wreak havoc, because Raji and Pickett will be a force inside allowing the pass rush to open up for Kampman and Jenkins. Kampman should also collect more tackles feasting on running backs breaking to the outside.
The secondary should be fairly stable. Cornerbacks Al Harris and Charles Woodson are getting older, but they're still a reliable tandem in coverage.
After enjoying a breakout year in 2007, safety Atari Bigby was plagued by injuries last season. Can he still deliver bone-jarring hits? Will safety Nick Collins' holdout disrupt the Packers' defensive transition?
The winds of change have blown through the Packers' defense. But it looks to be a change Packer fans are welcoming with open arms.