Packers preview part 2: The defense

"I'm the NEW minister of defense around here"

"I'm the NEW minister of defense around here"

By Jake McCormick

Twenty two NFL teams changed defensive coordinators this offseason, but none has been talked about more than Green Bay’s transition from the 4-3 to the 3-4 headed by Dom Capers. The Packers Donald Trumped nearly their entire defensive staff after a dismal 2008, where the team finished 20th in Total Defense, 26th in Rushing, 12th in Passing, and 11th in Points Allowed on their way to blowing seven fourth quarter leads. The change to the more unpredictable 3-4 will take time, but Capers is easily the Packers best 2009 offseason pickup, as he is known for quick turnarounds when transitioning to his scheme.

Capers turned the 1998 26th ranked Jacksonville Jaguar defense into the league’s 4th-ranked defense in 1999, and vaulted Miami’s defense from 18th in 2005 to 4th in 2006. Now with the Packers, he’s got two former Capers’ system standouts (outside linebacker coach Kevin Greene and secondary coach Darren Perry), and an experienced defensive coordinator that was willing to take a demotion to coach under Capers (defensive line coach Tom Trogvac). The defense will remain a massive question mark until Week 1, but in Capers I trust.

Defensive line
In a 3-4 scheme, the nose tackle must be able to absorb more than one blocker on a regular basis to open pass rushing lanes. Likewise, the defensive ends need to play like a 4-3 tackle-end hybrid (if that makes any sense) and create an effective rush while taking on multiple blockers.

Ryan PickettThe Packers closest thing to a definitive 3-4 nose tackle is Ryan Pickett, who has been very open to the change. Johnny Jolly will rotate with him, provided he isn’t suspended for his involvement in a Purple Drank smuggling run. It’s important to note that the San Diego Chargers’ switch to the 3-4 was eased considerably by tackle Jamal Williams’ embrace of the scheme. Pickett’s attitude could have a similar impact, although he isn’t the same player as Williams.

Cullen Jenkins was on his way to a career year in 2008 before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 4. Reports from the Packer training camp are showing that Jenkins is already showing a lot of potential as a 3-4 end and is enjoying the transition, although he is a bit undersized for the position. But the key to the defensive line’s cohesiveness lies with a pair of first round picks in Justin Harrell and B.J. Raji, who remains unsigned.

Harrell continues to insist he is healthy, but having the back of a 75-year-old man doesn’t give me too much confidence. He is a prototypical 3-4 end, and any consistent production from him will be a huge step forward for the line. That means that Raji will see a lot of playing time at end and should give the Packers a combined 700 lbs of bulk between him and Pickett.

The last time Green Bay transitioned to a 3-4 defense in 1980, new coordinator John Meyer noted that “Linebackers are the heart of a 3-4. That’s why you go to a 3-4.”

The Packers are very deep at all the linebacker positions, with Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk starting in the middle and backed up by Brandon Chillar and Desmond Bishop, who has reportedly been outplaying Hawk in camp so far. When Barnett went down with a knee injury last year, Hawk stepped into the middle linebacker position and began to look a lot more comfortable than on the outside. Barnett still isn’t cleared to return to full practice, and Chillar has filled in nicely with his pass rushing and coverage skills.

Hopefully we see more of this from his position at OLB

Hopefully we see more of this from his position at OLB

Green Bay’s outside linebackers are facing the most question marks, most notably surrounding former defensive end Aaron Kampman’s positional switch. The success of the entire corps will depend on Kampman’s ability to adjust to a completely different role. The closest comparison I can give is Greg Ellis’ switch with the Dallas Cowboys, where he registered 12.5 sacks in his second season in the 3-4. A lot of pressure is being put on the Packers’ best pass rusher, but his constant motor and willingness to learn the position can’t set him too far back. I don’t expect him to repeat his sack numbers from past seasons, but any type of consistent play will help the defensive unit as a whole.

As for the other outside spot, rookie Clay Matthews was penciled in as the final starter before training camp began. However, Jeremy Thompson, another converted end, has been the biggest defensive camp surprise and looks to be the starter as of late. Throw in Brady Poppinga, who plays a lot like Kampman, and Capers has to really like this unit.

The Packer secondary was probably the only consistent playmaking part of the 2008 defense, as they sent cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Al Harris, and safety Nick Collins to the Pro Bowl. If Atari Bigby can avoid his pension for accumulating injuries and return to his 2007 form, the secondary will be the least of Capers’ worries.

I LOVE Craig Newsome! Oops...I mean Charles Woodson.

I LOVE Craig Newsome! Oops...I mean Charles Woodson.

Woodson and Harris are used to playing predictable man-to-man coverage, which gave me enough headaches because it allows for a lot more big-play and game-winning opportunities (see: pass interference on third and long to set up Week 10 Vikings win). Now they are expected to play more zone and face the quarterback under Capers’ philosophy, which should cut down on pass interference tendencies while still allowing them to make interceptions. Nickle corner Tramon Williams will continue to develop into a solid player, and backups Patrick Lee, Will Blackmon, and rookie Brandon Underwood give the Packers a nice balance of developing youths and savvy veterans.

The fact that Collins is reporting to camp despite his contract issues shows that he understands the difficulty of learning a new scheme. Both Bigby and Collins will be expected to be secondary “quarterbacks” of coverage, and as long as they stay healthy there’s no reason to believe they won’t do their jobs well. Newcomer Anthony Smith, who was a very capable backup in Pittsburgh behind Troy Polomalu, is the only player with experience in the 3-4. Aaron Rouse is a big guy that made some key plays a year ago, and he should continue developing into a solid option should Collins falter at free safety.

The Packers definitely have the personnel to transition to the 3-4 scheme, and after last year’s terrible play and ungodly predictable packages, they can’t finish any worse with a guy like Dom Capers calling the shots. Green Bay’s 2009 success will once again hinge on the performance of the defense, and if Capers can just get them to close out games effectively while keeping the offense guessing, the Packers will be in the thick of the NFC North race.