GREEN BAY – When Dom Capers arrived in January 2009 as the Green Bay Packers’ new defensive coordinator, he wanted to make one thing clear: In his 3-4 scheme, all good football players would be welcome – even ones who seemed more suited to the 4-3 defense.
“I think you fit your defense and have enough flexibility in your defense to fit it to the personnel you have, and you evolve from there,” Capers said at his introductory press conference. “I think the No. 1 thing you do is you try to adapt what you are doing to your good football players. If a guy is a good football player, we're going to find a way to use him. You say, ‘Hey, if these are our 11 best football players, let's adapt what we are doing to get those 11 best football players out there because they give you the best chance of winning.’
“It's about players and scheme, but it's probably more about players than it is any scheme. You put good players out there in any scheme they are probably going to be successful. Now, if you can get a combination of good players and the scheme matches up and guys are into it and they understand their responsibilities and the other guys around them, now you've really got something.”
Don’t look now, but as they prepare for Year 4 of Capers’ defense in Green Bay, they may just have evolved into something that isn’t entirely the 3-4 defense that’s so often talked about. While personnel changes are inevitable in the Packers' draft-and-develop approach, and Charles Woodson's possible move to safety has been the most talked-about adjustment this offseason, the changes figure to go beyond those.
For starters, the Packers’ draft picks aren’t exclusively, ideally suited for the 3-4 scheme. First-round pick Nick Perry is set to play outside linebacker in the 3-4, but before the draft he talked about wanting to keep his hand “in the dirt” and was viewed by many as more of a 4-3 defensive end with his 6-foot-3, 270-pound frame. Second-round pick Jerel Worthy played defensive tackle in the Spartans’ 4-3 scheme and appeared well-suited for that role in the NFL, but he instead is set to play defensive end in the Packers’ 3-4. And fourth-round pick Mike Daniels, who is listed at 6-feet, 291 pounds, seemed to fit as a 4-3 defensive tackle because of his lack of height. Instead, he’ll be a defensive end in the Packers’ scheme.
There’s also the question of just what direction the defense will go in after finishing ranked dead last in the 32-team NFL in yards allowed and giving up the most passing yards in a season in NFL history. Coach Mike McCarthy, speaking at the annual NFL Meetings in Palm Beach, Fla. on March 28 said he thinks the defense may have played too much nickel last season and may need to line up in its base scheme more often.
“The two things that jump off the charts … The pass rush and pass coverage, if you’re looking for a statistical striking point, would be where we’re focused on. But I always go back to the fundamentals, (and) we were not a very good tackling team last year. That will change,” McCarthy said when asked at the NFC coaches breakfast what changes might be in store.
But then, he continued, adding: “Those are the things we’re clearly focused on, situation defense, how much you’re playing base and stuff. There’s a whole list of secondary things we want to change the vision of how we look and how we play. Frankly, we were so explosive on offense, maybe we weren’t ready, maybe we went to too much sub. These are the things we went back to… we played so much sub defense that last couple of years, we’d like to get back to playing more base and doing some of the things this defense was built on."
Capers, meanwhile, said during one of his press conferences during the three-day draft that with the game trending toward passing and opponents lining up three and four wide receivers on a consistent basis, playing more sub defense (nickel or dime) is becoming the norm..
“There’s so many variables that go into that. With the way the game is now … let me give you an example,” Capers said. “We played the Detroit Lions twice. You can count, just a handful of (snaps of) your base defense you’re going to play against them because they’re in a three-wide receiver set and when they’re not in a three-wide receiver set, their second tight end is like a wide receiver and they run the same package. You’re not going to be playing much of your base defense – and that’s two games in our division.
“We opened with the New Orleans Saints out here, (and) we did not play one snap of our base defense because (with) the style of play they play, they’re always looking for match-ups. The game has changed. You have to have those elements within your package, but the percentages are going to be based a lot on who you’re playing against.”
McCarthy estimated that the Packers played nearly 70 percent of their defensive snaps in a sub package last season. According to ProFootballFocus.com, the Packers played 1,182 snaps on defense in 2011, and they spent 732 snaps in nickel – eight snaps in their “Psycho” package (one lineman, five linebackers, five defensive backs) and 724 in their traditional nickel group (two down linemen, four linebackers, five defensive backs). That computes to 61.9 percent of the time.
In addition, the Packers played 80 snaps of various dime (six defensive back) alignments, accounting for another 6.8 percent of their defensive snaps.
Meanwhile, the Packers played 324 snaps in their base defense (three linemen, four linebackers, four defensive backs), or just 27.4 percent of the time.
No other NFL team used its nickel defense for as many snaps as the Packers, and no team was so imbalanced in terms of the amount of snaps played with extra defensive backs on the field. Only two of the Packers’ division rivals – the Minnesota Vikings (57.1 percent) and Chicago Bears (53.0 percent) – were in nickel or dime for more than half their defensive snaps last year.
Whatever the Packers end up playing, McCarthy said the defensive draft additions could lead to more players seeing action in various packages.
“It will give us more versatility in terms of how we play defense in terms of the different defensive personnel groups. Playing maybe more people than in the past,” McCarthy said after the draft concluded. “The fact that we did score so many points quite often put stresses on our defense that we had not had before, so that's something that we spent a lot of time looking as a coaching staff and feeling we could do a better job of being more creative.
“And (then there’s) utilizing our personnel in the sub packages. The ability to get more athletic and the ability to have the pass rush from inside and outside was a focus,and I think that was reflected in the people we acquired in in free agency and the draft.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.