Last offseason, the Green Bay Packers decided to tweak their defense by flip-flopping B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett when they line up in their base 3-4 personnel.
Raji moved from nose tackle to defensive end, and Pickett from end to nose, back to the positions they played in 2009.
It was a subtle change but still a minor surprise only because the Packers were one of the NFL’s premier defenses in the second half of 2010. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers and defensive line coach Mike Trgovac made the change to improve a run defense that finished last season No. 18 in the NFL in yards allowed, though it’s also worth noting the Packers’ run defense improved in the second half of ’10 after the team acquired defensive lineman Howard Green.
The Packers’ defensive problems this season have not been against the run, but their overall decline in performance at least raises the question of whether the move was a good one.
“I don’t think (the flip-flop) has anything to do with what’s happening now,” Pickett said Wednesday. “I think it’s helped us a lot. What are we (ranked) now stopping the run? Higher than we were last year. That’s the reason for it.”
Statistically, Pickett is correct. The Packers after eight games rank No. 8 in rushing yards allowed per game and No. 22 in yards allowed per carry. Last year, they were Nos. 18 and 28, respectively.
But the Packers also are a notably worse defense overall. Halfway through 2011, they rank No. 30 in the league in yards allowed, No. 31 in passing yards allowed and No. 17 in points allowed. Last year they finished Nos. 5, 5 and 2, respectively. Also, Raji hasn’t been as disruptive as he was the second half of last season.
It must be noted that the Packers’ problems have been against the pass, and much of that when they’re in their nickel personnel, with only two defensive linemen and no nose tackle on the field, than against their base scheme. They play base personnel only about one-third of their defensive snaps, and on the other two-thirds, Raji and the other defensive lineman, sometimes Pickett and sometimes someone else, line up like defensive tackles in a 4-3 scheme.
Still, Raji’s play last season at nose when the Packers were in their base personnel after lining up at end as a rookie suggested he’s at his most disruptive when lined up directly over the ball. Raji said he hasn’t thought much about the change and agreed he might play better lined up over center, but said he has not and will not bring up his position in the base alignment with Trgovac.
“No, that would be insinuating that what we’re doing now isn’t good enough for me,” Raji said. “I’m not trying to make it a me thing, I’m just trying to play what they ask me to play and trying to help us win games.”
Capers deploys his base defense only on downs when the opponent’s personnel or down-and-distance suggests it’s probably going to run, so moving Raji back to nose wouldn’t have a major impact on the Packers’ pass rush, which has been the defense’s biggest problem this year. But teams sometimes pass against the base personnel. For instance, San Diego last week threw on nine of the approximately 17 snaps on which the Packers played their 3-4.
“Last year we weren’t 8-0, so it’s one of those things you don’t want to rock the cradle,” Raji said. “Obviously (last season) we had a little bit better defense statistically. It’s only the halfway point of the season, it wasn’t like this time last season people were picking us to win the Super Bowl. We’ll be fine. That’s life in the NFL. Sometimes things aren’t going to go your way, you just have to keep pushing and think this is — I’d like to believe this is the week we break out.”
Capers likely will end up playing a fair amount of base this week against Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson, who probably is the NFL’s best running back. Peterson ranks No. 4 in the NFL in rushing (798 yards, 4.8-yard average per carry) even though defenses know he’s the focal point of an offense that’s had quarterback issues and is starting a rookie, first-round draft pick Christian Ponder.
When the Packers defeated the Vikings at the Metrodome three weeks ago, Peterson gained 175 yards on 24 carries (7.3 yards a rush). Five of those runs were for 10 yards or more, including runs of 29, 25 and 54 yards.
“We watch tape and the defense does everything perfect and he still goes 50 yards, or he’ll still break a 15-yard run, he’s that good,” Pickett said. “He runs angry. You can’t just tackle him with one person.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.