Packers camp Day 1: Tackling drills

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Here's what intrigued me more than anything I saw Thursday at Green Bay Packers training camp: a pair of simple tackling drills.

As you might recall, we have questioned the steps -- or lack thereof -- the Packers made to improve their pass defense in the wake of a couple ugly late-season showings. Didn't they need more cornerback depth? Other than linebacker Clay Matthews, where would their pass rush come from?

During an interview at the March owners meeting, coach Mike McCarthy said he would make the pass defense an "emphasis' and established two defensive priorities for the offseason: improving tackling and handling adversity. He added: "There are some things we can do to improve that in our drill work, and that's what will be done."

What the Packers did Thursday, and have done throughout their camp, was tackling drills that I haven't seen since covering high school football. In their morning session, they stacked two large pads on top of each other. An offensive player stood at one end holding a ball, and a defensive player was instructed to strike and fully tackle him in a painless, heavily-cushioned exercise.

In their evening session, players ran diagonally and were tackled into another set of cushions.

You might think that NFL players should already know how to tackle, and you might wonder how much tackling can affect pass defense. So I asked defensive coordinator Dom Capers to explain it all. (Think in terms of limiting yards after the catch.)

"I think all good defenses are really good tackling defenses," Capers said. "It's kind of a lost art. Part of it is once the salary cap came in, you were very limited on players and had to be careful about tackling guys in camp. We're trying to get as much as we can into those bags over there, including the follow-through and finish.

"Because what I've seen happen to tackling drills is that nobody finishes because you have to take those guys to the ground. So we have the pads there so you can tackle the guys through and finish, and take the guy to the ground, and you're being safe as far as injury.

"It's always driven me crazy that when guys do tackling drills, they just tag off. Because that's not the way it happens. You've got to wrap, you've got to drive, you've got to shoot your hips. You've got to follow through with the techniques as close as they're going to be on Sunday and eliminate the injury problem."

So there you go. Those tackling drills aren't the only measures the Packers have taken to address the pass defense, but they sure do help us close the book on McCarthy's comments in March.

Let's hit a few other camp observations before calling it a night:

  • If I didn't know any better, I would say the Packers have pitted linebacker Brandon Chillar against Brad Jones for the starting linebacker spot opposite Clay Matthews. Jones returned from a back injury Friday, but Chillar continued to get the first-team snaps. "We have healthy competition everywhere," McCarthy said. "We're not giving a starting spot to Brad Jones. We're not giving a starting spot to Brandon Chillar."

  • Matthews put a serious pop on fullback Korey Hall, knocking Hall to the ground with a shoulder thrust during 11-on-11 drills.

  • I thought cornerback Pat Lee made an exceptional interception during the morning session, leaping over receiver James Jones to grab an Aaron Rodgers pass. Lee has been working primarily as the team's dime back during team drills, with Brandon Underwood at nickel. As we discussed many times this offseason, the Packers' hope for improved pass defense this season rests in part on their shoulders. Capers: "They're making progress. They both have the height that you want, the athletic ability. They're working the right way right now. They know that they need to continue making the kinds of plays that you saw out there today."

  • I'm going to give it some more time, of course. But what I saw Thursday from rookie Sam Shields tells me he isn't among the top candidates to be the Packers punt or kickoff returner. The speedster mishandled three kicks while I was watching. That's about two more than coaches usually feel comfortable with over the course of an entire training camp.

  • Rookie safety Anthony Levine put a nice hit on running back Quinn Porter during the evening session. Levine has apparently made an impression on coaches. "That's a young man you should keep your eye on," McCarthy said.