GREEN BAY — When Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews and the rest of the Packers are healthy, they might be able to beat anybody in the NFL.
Now if only they could stay out of that crowded trainer’s room.
Coach Mike McCarthy is preparing for the worst, just in case, after 2013’s injury-plagued season.
So come training camp, Green Bay will be getting used to schemes that have been simplified a bit — particularly on defense — in hopes of gaining more roster flexibility. The acclimation process started during offseason workouts.
“We’ve learned some hard lessons here of late,” McCarthy said. “The last couple years of maybe playing some players that probably weren’t quite ready because of the scheme … we’re playing off utilizing your best players, and that’s a trap you just don’t want to fall into as a coach.”
Don’t worry, Cheeseheads, No. 12 isn’t going anywhere. Offensive Rookie of the Year Eddie Lacy is back, too, at running back, along with Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb at receiver. There will be position battles at center, the wide receiver position after the top two, and tight end.
But with Rodgers back and in his prime at age 30, the Packers are a favorite to win a fourth straight NFC North title. They appeared well on their way in 2013 to at least a 12-win season when Rodgers broke his collarbone at midseason.
To get further than the first round of the playoffs, the defense will have to get better. Here’s where one of McCarthy’s bold proclamations comes in.
“We’re going to be a better defense this year,” McCarthy said. “You can write that in big letters.”
Some things to watch in Packers camp:
GETTING A GRIP: Matthews spent much of last season nagged by a thumb injury. After having surgery, the linebacker had been working on getting his grip back and strengthening his forearms.
The rest of the defense can’t wait to see what the pass rush might look like with a healthy Matthews on the field at the same time as the team’s big free agent signee, 6-foot-7 end-linebacker Julius Peppers.
“But like a really dominant player on the outside, I really haven’t had that ever,” Peppers said of Matthews. “I’m excited to get out there with him and see what he can do.”
PACK’S PEPPERS: Speaking of the former Chicago Bear, Peppers has just the kind of resume McCarthy was looking for in trying to add impact players on defense. Sure, he’s 34 and had only seven sacks last year, down from two straight seasons of at least 11. But Peppers has 118½ sacks in his 12-year career.
The transition has been smooth.
“From what I heard, they scaled things back, made it a little bit simpler,” he said. “That’s good for me coming in, I don’t have to learn as much.”
ELEPHANT ON THE FIELD: Next stop on the defense, the elephant.
It’s a new term for a position with the Packers, though the task as described by coordinator Dom Capers sounds as if it might already fit a few players in the 3-4 scheme. That includes Peppers and linebackers Nick Perry and Mike Neal.
“An elephant for us could maybe be in certain schemes an outside backer. He could be a defensive end in other schemes,” Capers said. “When you have a number of different schemes, you could see a number of different elephants on the field in different spots based off what those schemes are.”
MAKE AN IMPACT: Green Bay safeties didn’t get an interception in 2013, exemplifying the team’s season-long woes in not coming up with enough big plays.
Sounds obvious for the preseason, but rookies or younger players who can make those impact plays might get the most opportunities for time on the field.
At safety, the Packers drafted Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round to fill a major need. Micah Hyde has seen more time at safety this offseason after a solid rookie season at cornerback.
ROOKIE WATCH: Clinton-Dix’s progress at safety will bear watching, as will the preseason of receiver Davante Adams, a second-round pick. Camp will be a chance for Adams to establish himself as a viable option to catch passes from Rodgers that used to go to James Jones, who signed as a free agent with Oakland.