Editor's note: This is the first 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.
Bill Parcells once told me that jumping from a 4-3 base defense to a 3-4 isn't easy, and he was reluctant to do it when he first got to Dallas. In fact, he stuck with the undersized speed 4-3 until he gathered enough personnel to make the switch. It took him close to two seasons to build his 3-4 with the Cowboys.
When Eric Mangini left the Patriots' staff to join the New York Jets, he jumped right into the 3-4 package after the team had spent years in a 4-3, and a number of payers just didn't fit. Middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson were former first-round draft picks who struggled in the new defense and eventually were shown the door.
A tough transition
Now the Packers take on the conversion task, and they might be closer to a quick switch than some people believe. As it relates to Green Bay's current roster, here are the key issues in building a 3-4 defense:
1. The nose tackle
The expression that everything starts up front on defense is true, and a 3-4 scheme always starts with the nose tackle. Teams need a guy who is stout and commands a double team. The bigger, the better. Vince Wilfork in New England, Jamal Williams in San Diego and Casey Hampton in Pittsburgh are the models for this position -- guys somewhere between 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-4 and close to 350 pounds who understand they are sacrificing their bodies for the scheme.
If the center can block the nose tackle by himself, the 3-4 defense goes nowhere. That's because the 3-4 scheme wants the guard to help the center on every run play. Before Belichick drafted Wilfork, he used to look for older, heavier 4-3 tackles who lost their first-step quickness but had the bulk, technique and competitive spirit to work at the nose tackle.
The Packers will use this method as they try Ryan Pickett on the nose. The "Big Grease," as his teammates like to call him, is 6-2 and close to 340 pounds. His height is close to an issue when it comes to two-gapping the center and being able to locate where the ball is during a play. At 29 years old, Pickett really will need a young backup to rotate with him in this very demanding job. However, Pickett should be more than adequate to get the 2009 season rolling.
2. The outside linebackers
Pass pressure in the 3-4 comes from the outside linebackers. Look no further than James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley in Pittsburgh. It was amazing how fast Joey Porter returned to his old Pittsburgh-type production when Parcells went to Miami and installed a 3-4 defense after Porter had struggled in the Dolphins' 4-3. The Patriots used the draft to acquire their defensive linemen, but they went to free agency to find their outside linebackers -- Rosevelt Colvin, Adalius Thomas and Mike Vrabel all came from other teams.
The two outside linebackers need to generate in the neighborhood of 20 sacks, and the Packers hope they already have the players who can function in the scheme. The big experiment in Green Bay is taking pass-rushing defensive end Aaron Kampman and standing him up as an outside linebacker. Greg Ellis did it for the Cowboys, and Kampman looks even better suited for the job.
At 6-4 and 250 pounds, Kampman has the movement skills to drop into coverage occasionally and rush the passer from a stand-up position. He must learn how to defend his legs, which every conversion player struggles with early in the process. Keep in mind that an outside linebacker's whole body is exposed to the blocker, and he's out on air, where he's an easy target to find.
Expect Kampman to be the least of the Packers' issues in the conversion. On the right outside spot, someone must come through as a ferocious pass rusher. Right now, Brady Poppinga and Brandon Chiller are penciled in, but here's a spot that Green Bay's front office might turn to the draft for an impact player. The Chargers drafted Shawne Merriman and the Cowboys took DeMarcus Ware to fill this role in their 3-4 defenses. Expect the Packers to take a long look at Larry English, Aaron Curry and maybe even defensive end conversions such as Everette Brown and Brian Orakpo.
3. The 5-technique ends
The defensive ends in a 3-4 defense are known as the 5-technique players because they line up on the offensive tackles. The ends usually are the unsung heroes of the package. They set up the outside linebackers for the pass rush, hold the point of attack against the off-tackle run game and control the line of scrimmage.
Right now, Green Bay has Cullen Jenkins and Mike Montgomery penciled in at these two spots. The ideal player, such as New England's Richard Seymour, is 6-5 to 6-6 with long arms to lock out against the offensive tackles and work down the line of scrimmage. Jenkins is 6-2 and a productive football player, but he might not embrace the sacrifices that go along with being a 5-technique. Montgomery is 6-5 and has a lot to prove in this scheme.
4. The strong inside linebacker
Offensive formations can expose the strong inside linebacker. With a tight end to his side, the strong inside linebacker usually lines up over the right offensive guard, and if he isn't a big, strong player, he can easily be engulfed by the guard in the running game. It happened to the great Ray Lewis a few years ago when the Baltimore Ravens played a straight 3-4 defense. I will never forget a Monday Night Football game when Kansas City Chiefs guard Will Shields was able to get up on Lewis and tie him up. Vilma also struggled in this spot with the Jets.
The Packers' best linebacker, A.J. Hawk, is penciled in at this position. Hawk is a fine run-and-hit player and has benefited from being tucked in behind a defensive tackle. At 6-1 and 248 pounds, he has the size to play the spot. However, if the nose tackle doesn't come through with double teams, Hawk could struggle. I remember when the Steelers signed James Farrior from the Jets, and people believed he would struggle in the scheme, but he excelled. The same should be true for Hawk.
5. The weak inside linebacker
Teams can get away with a slightly smaller linebacker at this position as long as the opponent doesn't use a two-tight end set and force him to line up over a guard. Nick Barnett will man the weak inside linebacker spot for the Packers and should be fine. The more often the 5-technique player to his side crashes down into the gap in front of Barnett, the more he will be free to run and hit.
6. The back end
Whether the front seven is configured in a 3-4 or a 4-3, things don't change much for the back four defenders. When an offense has two backs in the backfield and a tight end in the game, a safety usually must get down in the box to play the run. When a team is in a one-back set, the defense is in some form of a four-deep shell.
The Packers have the cornerbacks and safeties to play the defense. It will be interesting to see if they re-sign Atari Bigby, but that should have nothing to do with the 3-4 conversion.
The bottom line
The 3-4 will create some advantages for the Packers. They haven't been very good up front in the 4-3 lately because of injuries to linemen such as Justin Harrell. This should help minimize how much they count on him. Also, no other NFC North team runs the 3-4, and that should help create an advantage for Green Bay.
With four people standing up in the front seven, there is more flexibility against all the exotic sets that offenses use today. And any offensive lineman will tell you that pass-blocking rules change against this front, which should help the Packers get to the quarterback.
If Green Bay can sign one front-three player in free agency, draft a capable pass-rushing outside linebacker early in the process and get something out of a backup such as 6-3, 250-pound Spencer Havner at inside linebacker, this transformation has a very good chance to succeed this season.