GREEN BAY — When training camp opened 10 days ago, it began — as it has for years — with a series of slideshows.
Oh, how Mike McCarthy loves his slideshows.
Once an expert in importing data and playbook sketches into old-school computers as a lowly entry-level assistant coach, at some point the Green Bay Packers coach fell in love with Power Point.
And as much as McCarthy knows about coaching quarterbacks and offensive play-calling, he has now become just as adept at designing overhead projections to keep his players’ attention in meetings, whether those are team gatherings or separate get-togethers on either side of the ball.
“In our defensive meetings, Mike being Mike, we start off with the slides,” veteran outside linebacker Clay Matthews said during a break in training camp. Then, he shared the two that opened the first defensive presentation of the summer: “ ‘Be the best defense (in the NFL),’ ” Matthews said, “and, ‘Win the Super Bowl.’ ”
By the end of Saturday night’s annual Family Night practice at Lambeau Field, however, McCarthy and the Packers weren’t much closer to knowing just how good their defense will be — and if it’ll be good enough to get the team back to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2010 season. The Packers finished that season ranked fifth in total defense and second in scoring defense en route to winning Super Bowl XLV.
And that’s OK, McCarthy said, because now is not the time to make such judgments.
Because McCarthy eliminated the scrimmage element of Family Night several years ago — and live tackling along with it — the wildly popular, fan-friendly event is essentially just a well-attended version of the practices that have been going on at Ray Nitschke Field since July 27 — only with open concession stands and post-practice fireworks for the sellout crowd.
Saturday night’s practice marked the eighth and final playbook installation session, which McCarthy said makes the environment more about teaching than evaluating. And while the team will open preseason play Thursday against the Philadelphia Eagles, not even that game — or the three exhibition games to follow — will be enough for McCarthy to truly know whether the defense will be championship-caliber before the games start to count with the Sept. 10 regular-season opener against the Seattle Seahawks.
“I’m not concerned about where we are as far as how people may view it,” McCarthy said in advance of Saturday night’s practice. “The tape has been really good, (but) it’s moving pieces. … We’re going to have an understanding of how it’s going to fit together when we get ready for Seattle.
“At the end of the day, (training camp) is about getting players ready to play in games. It’s more of an individual focus; the unit will come together. But I would say the first real, real test will be Thursday night against Philadelphia.”
Whatever McCarthy’s modus operandi is for evaluating his defense’s progression toward the season opener, he and his staff are well aware of how vital that unit’s performance will be to the team’s overall success. With two-time NFL MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers at the controls of the offense, there’s no reason to think that side of the ball will experience any slippage whatsoever.
“We go in this year with the same attitude that we went in the first year I was here. Our job is to try to be as good as we can be,” said defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who’s entering his ninth year in Green Bay. “That’s our responsibility, and I think we can.
“I like the attitude of the guys, I like the way they’ve been practicing. I think they understand the things we have to do to be a top defense, because we’ve been able to be a top defense at times in certain areas. You have to put it together, where you can kind of make it all mesh together. … And we expect to.”
Through eight practices, Capers has extensively used what he calls his “Nitro” package — a nickel defense that shifts veteran safety Morgan Burnett to inside linebacker. Designed to reduce matchup problems with tight ends and shifty running backs catching passes out of the backfield, the hope is that the Packers will be faster, and thereby better equipped to defend the pass after finishing 31st in the 32-team league in pass defense last season.
Improving that ranking will also come down to how well the Packers cover wide receivers, and so far, cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt has been encouraged by what he’s seen. Veteran Davon House, rookie top pick Kevin King and third-year man Quinten Rollins have spent the most time with the No. 1 defense, and Whitt hypothesized that if Rodgers plays like Rodgers on offense and the cornerbacks hold up their end of the bargain on defense, the Packers will be a championship contender.
“I’ve mentioned many times: If the quarterback and cornerbacks play well, we’ll win. We have a chance to win Super Bowls if those two groups play well,” said Whitt, who points to 2010 — when Rodgers and cornerbacks Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams and Sam Shields were on top of their games late in the year. “So, I don’t necessarily get excited when we do our job.”
That hasn’t happened often enough on defense during the team’s eight-year run of consecutive postseason berths, however, so all eyes will be on the defense when the season opens. For now, though, the unit took another step on Saturday night — whether it felt like it to McCarthy or not.
“Everyone knows what our goals are here. When we’ve accomplished that goal or when we’ve been close to accomplishing that goal, we’ve played pretty well on defense,” Capers said. “Obviously, when you have an offense like we have and a quarterback like we have, they are always going to be up there.
“We set a high standard that way. If you don’t reach that standard, you feel pressure to go ahead and accomplish it. We know what it’s going to take for us to do what we want to do.
“The thing I’m encouraged by is, I think we’ve added some skill and we’ve added some speed. We’ve got a lot of young guys. Our job is to get those young guys ready to contribute. We’ve got to be ready to come out of the gates ready to play well and have the young guys hopefully ready to contribute.”
‘The thing I’m encouraged by is, I think we’ve added some skill and we’ve added some speed. We’ve got a lot of young guys. Our job is to get those young guys ready to contribute.’ MIKE MCCARTHY, Packers coach