With Brett Favre in Minnesota, Jay Cutler in Chicago, Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay and Matthew Stafford in Detroit, it's tempting to talk about the NFC North as a division of gunslingers past, present and future. But what the Packers' 21--15 victory over the Bears on Sunday night reestablished is that any conversation about the four teams should begin and end, once again, with defense.
That is by design. The coaches of the NFC North have made no secret of wanting to return to their smashmouth, black-and-blue roots. Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy was so bothered by his defense's failure to close out games last season—in eight of its 10 losses, the Pack held a lead or was tied in the fourth quarter—that he brought in esteemed coordinator Dom Capers to install an aggressive 3--4 scheme in place of the more predictable, passive 4--3. "This lets us play to our strength," says linebacker A.J. Hawk. "Speaking for the inside 'backers, we're all aggressive, downhill players who want to take the game to the other team. The good thing about the 3--4 is that it allows you to be so unpredictable. We've got a lot of athletes and now we can turn them loose. We can rush linebackers, corners, safeties. There are so many possibilities."
While Hawk embraced the new alignment, there was some initial trepidation among his teammates. The change required end Aaron Kampman, whose 37 sacks from 2006 through '08 rank third in the league, to shift from lining up in a three-point stance to standing up as an outside linebacker; from constantly taking on blockers, which he loved, to playing alone in space. Cullen Jenkins also feared that he would lose some of his playmaking freedom by sliding from tackle to end, where players in the 3--4 are normally asked to tie up blockers so that linebackers can rush the passer or deliver downfield hits.
Even middle linebacker Nick Barnett, who has led the team in tackles in four of the last six seasons, had reservations. "In the back of my mind I've always had the idea that 3--4 inside linebackers are just big, old plug guys," he says. "I've always been part of a 4--3 and didn't know how I was going to fit in and how well it would rock. So far it's been good."
The defenders most liberated by—and consequently, most ecstatic about—the 3--4 are cornerbacks Al Harris and Charles Woodson. Both 12-year veterans, the pair form one of the league's top tandems. In the previous scheme, however, they primarily played press coverage, which meant jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage, then turning and running with them. Now, they more frequently play off the line in zone coverage and can sneak a peek at the quarterback as a play is developing.
The difference was apparent on Sunday. The Packers intercepted Cutler four times in his Bears debut; the final one, by Harris, came with a minute to play, a direct result, he says, of his ability to look into the backfield while playing "off" coverage. "In the past I would have had my back to the quarterback and it probably would have been a pass breakup or a catch because I wouldn't have seen the ball coming," Harris says.
It doesn't take 20/20 vision to see what's coming in the NFC North. The Vikings, who've led the league in run defense in each of the past three years, remain formidable. Chicago's D has regained its swagger (though it sustained a crippling loss when Brian Urlacher went down for the season on Sunday with a broken wrist) under coach Lovie Smith, who took over play-calling duties this year—his first stint as the primary strategist since a successful run as the Rams' defensive coordinator from 2001 to '03. And Green Bay's defense is guzzling the Kool-Aid that Capers is pouring: In the first season at each of his three previous stops as a coordinator, his units jumped at least eight spots in points allowed.
On Sunday, Green Bay limited the Bears to 2.8 yards a carry and pressured Cutler all night. "Guys are so excited," Harris says. "We're ready. I honestly think it will be like this every single week."