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Kampman, Packers make progress in 3-4 switch but far from done

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The backdrop created a blur of what Aaron Kampman's new life as an outside linebacker must look like at times.

The canvas, across the street, was legendary Lambeau Field, empty but still imposing, the backbone of this community. Cars whizzed down Oneida Avenue, slowing down to catch a glimpse -- between pedestrian onlookers -- of the Packers' recent minicamp workout on an uncustomary 94-degree afternoon. With coaches hustling to different stations and players scrambling to locate helmets or get doused with water, the scene looked like midtown Manhattan at 5 p.m.

This snapshot of chaos is what it's like for Kampman and most defensive ends who are moving to outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme -- a scheme being adapted by more and more teams. The Packers, Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos join the ranks of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets, New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins, San Francisco 49ers and others to use the linebacker-friendly, turnover-causing system.

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Specific personnel is needed to play the system, and players such as Kampman, a seven-year NFL veteran, and Broncos rookie Robert Ayers have been forced to move from defensive end to outside linebacker -- the prize position in a 3-4 defense. However rewarding the change is in the long term, the initial shock can be overwhelming and frustrating.

Stepping out of the comfort zone of being in a three-point stance and solely rushing the passer when the situation dictates and instead having to play from a two-point stance and dropping into coverage is frightening -- and potentially miserable. The only time ends tend to move backward is when they're being blocked, not voluntarily sprinting to a mark on a hash mark to protect against a 10-yard out route.

"When I went through it, I felt like I was in military school," Seattle Seahawks defensive end Patrick Kerney said. "I hated going through it. It was the worst. But I am glad I went through it. I learned so much about how to see the field. And trust me, the first time I got my hands on the ball (via a pass breakup), I loved it."

When the Atlanta Falcons shifted to a 3-4 defense under coach Wade Phillips, Kerney's stint at outside linebacker didn't last for long as injuries forced him back to end, where, in a three-man front, he pretty much served as a moving speed bump to occupy blockers instead of as an edge-pressuring, gap-collapsing 4-3 end.

"The bad part about that was I had lost weight and dropped to about 265 (to play linebacker)," Kerney said. "I had to survive that season when I went back to end. It wasn't easy."

Though Kampman hasn't said he dislikes the change in positions, he hasn't championed the switch. Like several of his teammates, he has taken the wait-and-see approach. He has been a model student and done what's asked. But having to chase tight ends and slot receivers 20 yards downfield while they're trying to shake him with double moves is a little different than masterfully leveraging an offensive tackle to where he can draw a bead on a quarterback. Keep in mind that Kampman is one of the league's toughest pass rushers (50.5 career sacks).

"When you're talking about a guy like Aaron Kampman, who is a great pass rusher and has done it a long time, any hangups have to be with playing in space," said Jets outside linebacker Calvin Pace, who successfully made the move from defensive end. "It's not easy, but every 3-4 is different. When I was with Arizona, it was more of a hybrid style, where we went back and forth from defensive end to outside linebacker. When I got (to) New York, coach (Eric) Mangini's 3-4 was completely different. There were a lot more drops into coverage, and that took some time to get."

Part of what has taken place since the Packers hired Dom Capers as their defensive coordinator this offseason was the intentional installation of an abundance of 3-4 components. Green Bay's coaching staff overloaded players to see what part of the transition they could handle. Kampman and fellow starting outside linebacker Jeremy Thompson -- a converted end who has segued so well into the role that he could start ahead of rookie Clay Matthews -- were asked to do things they won't do during the season.

And despite the struggles that some players have had learning their responsibilities, Capers and outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene said Kampman, Thompson and the rest of the Packers' defense have surpassed expectations. With that, there is still a ways to go, Capers said.

"All my young men are smart, so they know where they're going to fit in the scheme of things," said Greene, who recorded 160 career sacks with the Rams, Steelers, 49ers and Carolina Panthersduring a 15-year career that ended in 1999. "They are all athletic. The thing is increasing your vision. You can't just look at one or two eligible receivers. You got to look at No. 3, where No. 4 is aligned and have an awareness of where the fifth guy is. It sounds pretty complicated, doesn't it? It is."

It won't be as difficult, though, when players report to training camp July 31. Besides the players' increasing familiarity of the scheme, the Packers' coaching staff will streamline things based on what took place in offseason workouts.

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Kampman chased receivers 20 yards downfield in man coverages during minicamp, but when training camp and eventually the regular season arrives, the depth of his coverage could shrink and he will be protected by schemes in which help from corners or safeties are provided. And there is no way the Packers will take away from Kampman's strength as a pass rusher. He will be turned loose in passing situations, often in sub packages, where he will play as an end in a three-point stance.

The big difference between now and then -- which Kampman, Thompson, Matthews and anyone else who plays the position will realize -- is that while they will be taxed more mentally and physically, playing outside linebacker could be one of the best things to happen to their careers.

"For a guy like me, it makes all the difference in the world, because at my peak, I could get to only 270 (pounds), and as the season went along, I would lose weight," Pace said. "So when I was a end, I would be at a disadvantage sometimes. At outside linebacker, it turned into an advantage for guys like myself, Shawne Merriman, DeMarcus Ware and Jason Taylor, guys who've done some 4-3 end stuff at some point in our lives but moved to outside 'backer.

"You get to rush against backs and tight ends -- that's why you see guys rack up numbers from outside linebacker because you don't have to go against big offensive linemen all the time. Why do you think Julius Peppers was talking about wanting to play in a 3-4?"

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