Editor's note: This is the second in a series of occasional offseason stories following the progress of the Green Bay Packers' installation of a 3-4 defense and the challenges facing teams that switch base formations.
Stage II of the transition is under way in Green Bay. The draft supplied the Packers with the nose tackle (B.J. Raji) and the outside linebacker (Clay Matthews) they need to expedite their switch to the 3-4 defense (three linemen, four linebackers). Proper personnel is required to make the trendy, successful defense work and the Packers may have put themselves ahead of the curve by selecting two talented young players who fit the blueprint.
Drafting for a 3-4 scheme
The Broncos, Chiefs and Packers are all former 4-3 teams built on speed looking to change to a 3-4. The secondary is similar in both packages, so it really is the configuration of the front seven that counts. As Bill Parcells once told me, don't make the switch until you have enough of the parts.
The Broncos selected only one player, first-round linebacker Robert Ayers, for their front seven. Denver has a long way to go this year to make the full switch. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will be in some hybrid looks.
The Chiefs grabbed two defensive linemen, LSU's Tyson Jackson with the No. 3 overall pick and Purdue's Alex Magee in the third round. These guys will help construct the front line, and even though defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast is a hybrid-style coach, the Chiefs are closing in on a full transformation.
The Packers hit the 3-4 idea pretty hard in the draft with a nose tackle, Boston College's B.J. Raji, and an outside linebacker, Clay Matthews, in the first round, and two more players for the front seven in the later rounds -- Georgia defensive end Jarius Wynn (sixth round) and Colorado linebacker Brad Jones (seventh round). I would guess that the Packers are the most ready for the move.
-- Pat Kirwan
"In any defense you try to project how a guy is going to fit in to the things you're trying to do, no matter what defense you're playing," Green Bay's new defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "Good football players will normally end up playing, but there are certain areas you might emphasize a little more depending on the scheme qualities you need to have."
That's why Kansas City bypassed a standout player like Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry for LSU defensive end Tyson Jackson and San Diego replenished its outside linebacker stock with Northern Illinois' Larry English instead of taking an inside linebacker like USC's Rey Maualuga. Jackson and English fit the 3-4 scheme those teams play.
Jackson, at 6-foot-4 and 295 pounds, is a prototypical 3-4 end, like Pittsburgh's Brett Keisel, who stifles tackles and sometimes tight ends, so linebackers can clean up the ball carrier or get to the quarterback. English (6-2, 274) is put together like Baltimore outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and possesses the versatility to play on the line against the run or in coverage. He can capitalize on the freedoms the three brutes on the defensive line provide him.
They are scheme-specific players, much the way Mississippi's 6-2, 298-pound defensive tackle Peria Jerry is an ideal fit for Atlanta's 4-3 front. In that scheme, the emphasis is less on massive lineman holding up blockers so linebackers can make plays and more on the quick, agile linemen making plays themselves.
Raji (6-2, 337) is the mold for a 3-4 nose tackle. Matthews (6-3, 240) has the size and ability to play outside linebacker in any scheme. They were chosen in the draft at No. 9 and No. 26 overall, respectively. Five of Green Bay's eight draft picks came on defense.
"There's been a lot mentioned about the guys we took in the first round being prototype 3-4 players," Packers general manager Ted Thompson said. "I believe that they could play in any defense or scheme. They are that talented and versatile. The fact that they look a little more prototypical for a 3-4 is fine with us, but you have to be more well-rounded than that."
"We like the guys," Thompson added. "We think they are good players and they'll play well in our system."
The Packers, like Denver and Kansas City, are switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4. The moves are being made, in part, because coaches or management have used the schemes before. They're also being implemented because of the success of 3-4 teams like Super Bowl-champion Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Dallas, Miami, New England and the New York Jets.
For Green Bay, the change also was made because what it was doing didn't work. The Packers allowed 23.8 points per game, 334 total yards and 131.6 rushing yards in 2008.
The 3-4 is alluring, because of it allows defensive coordinators to mask coverages and blitzes –- in a 4-3, the safety or a linebacker tends to tip those before the snap –- and because it gives athletic linebackers more freedom to make plays. Three of the top four sack leaders from 2008 were 3-4 outside linebackers. Harrison, one of two Steelers outside linebackers to finish among the top 10 in sacks (LaMarr Woodley was the other), was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year, followed by Dallas' DeMarcus Ware, who like Harrison, is a 3-4 linebacker.
"There is a transition but our guys are pretty excited about it," Thompson said. "We have, for a number of years, tried to add and keep as many versatile players as we could. Guys like Cullen Jenkins, who is an untypical body type but has tremendous ability to play defensive end, he moves down inside in (substitution) packages."
It's hard to make a blunt transition from one scheme to the other because it takes time to get the proper personnel in place. The Packers are making quick headway.
They plan to move former 4-3 defensive end Aaron Kampman to a 3-4 outside linebacker on the left side, Capers said. Matthews is projected to work his way into the rotation or into a starting spot at right outside linebacker.
"He's got a little height to him, some suddenness," Capers said of Matthews after the Packers' non-contact, rookie minicamp. "He has the build of a pass rusher but he's physically tough enough to play the run. He is going to do nothing but continue to get better. He made a lot of strides during his time at USC. He is a motivated young man. He'll leave no stone unturned in terms of trying to get better."
Raji, meanwhile, could be the key to the defensive front. The cog in a 3-4 is a massive, space-eating, tough guy (Pittsburgh's Casey Hampton or Baltimore's Haloti Ngata, for example) who can hold up a center and a guard without giving up ground. If there is too much give at that spot, then the defense is vulnerable. Guards and lead blockers (fullbacks or H-backs) can blow through a hole, swallow linebackers and force safeties to make tackles.
Raji, who played in a four-man front at Boston College, boasts the skill set to play the unglamorous position. He will initially rotate with Ryan Pickett (6-2, 330), with the starter being determined during training camp. Capers said both are athletic enough for the non-starter to be moved to defensive end.
That is a whole lot of beef up front.
Raji "gives us really good flexibility," Capers said. "We're going to have to see how fast he picks things up and comes along. I sure like what he brings in terms of size and ability."
While many rookies will struggle with learning a new scheme or adjusting to the NFL lifestyle, Raji and Matthews are pretty much on equal footing with their veteran teammates in terms of learning the new defense.
Capers said their development will become evident during OTAs, which leads to Thompson's point of the best football player emerging, regardless of the scheme.
"The defense offers a few more things in the packages to get your blood flowing," Thompson said. "Dom and his staff have been very good about showing what we can do if we do this thing right."