Packers' 4-3 look needed more work, less secrecy
Score one against the secrecy culture of the NFL.
Coach Mike McCarthy's grand plan for training camp included not showing the Green Bay Packers' new 4-3 look on defense. Camp's open public practices meant it would have been reported by the media for all the league to know, and preseason games would have put it on film for regular-season opponents to see.
But that secrecy also meant the Packers hardly practiced their 4-3 at full speed, and never against another team. Yeah, they worked on 4-3 assignments all camp in jog-throughs. But anything approaching game speed? Only on two days in camp when they closed midweek practices to fans.
It was all an effort to keep the Seattle Seahawks in the dark about the 4-3 heading into that regular-season opener. It's one of those calls coaches have to make, weighing secrecy against readiness. But considering how much coaches value full-speed, contact practice, it's a surprise McCarthy thought that on balance withholding the 4-3 was the way to go.
The result? The Packers clearly have made the 4-3 a huge part of their defense, and for the first six quarters of this regular season, they played bad defensive football. Finally, in the final 30 minutes against the New York Jets on Sunday, the defense gained its footing playing predominantly that 4-3 look and held the Jets to only 100 total yards and three points in the Packers' 31-24 win at Lambeau Field.
"Once we got into a rhythm, we got to calling some pretty good stuff and it began to work," cornerback Tramon Williams said of the second half. "It wasn't rocket science. We just called some basic stuff and went out there and executed."
No, it wasn't rocket science. But it did show the value of coordinator Dom Capers and his defensive assistants getting an extended look at his players in the 4-3 to figure out what calls and personnel combinations work better than others. Until you see it over and over on the field, it's mostly theory. And some of that could have been done in daily camp practices and preseason games.
Yes, the Seahawks would have known what was coming. But the Seahawks put up 398 yards and 36 points in their blowout win over the Packers anyway. And it's hard not to think the lack of 4-3 practice in the fast-tempo team drills in camp and preseason games contributed to the communication issues, including 10 men on the field on one of the Seahawks' touchdowns that convinced McCarthy and Capers to drop the 4-3 in the second half.
Of course, all's well that ends well, and the most important thing for the Packers is they won Sunday. Whether they were competitive or not at Seattle doesn't matter much now. They're 1-1 and tied for first place in the NFC North Division after two weeks.
It also matters that the defense improved as Sunday's game went on against a quarterback, Geno Smith, who is a far better player in his second season than he was as a rookie. For it's clear the 4-3 isn't some change-of-pace in the Packers' defense. It was their base defense against the Jets and the personnel they used on the majority of their defensive snaps.
In essence, the 4-3 puts three of their outside linebackers on the field instead of two. One, Clay Matthews, lines up as a true 4-3 strong-side linebacker. The other two — usually Julius Peppers and Mike Neal, though Nick Perry had his share of snaps in place of one or the other — line up as defensive ends. One of them, usually Peppers, has his hand on the ground; the other plays standing up.
The Packers even have changed their nickel defense. In their nickel as they'd run it under Capers since 2009, the defensive front was four players, but two of them (the outside linebackers) lined up standing up. In this season's nickel, one of those outside linebackers, again usually Peppers, had his hand on the ground.
To some degree, it's semantics. Are guys such as Peppers, Neal and Perry outside linebackers or defensive ends? Six of one … . But the change still matters, because the view of the game from a standing position is different than with a hand on the ground. Plus, the Packers have remade their defensive line, and are smaller and more athletic than the last few seasons with Mike Daniels, Datone Jones and Josh Boyd getting the bulk of the snaps instead of Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly and the injured B.J. Raji. That changes assignments and techniques.
Whether the Packers are a better team defensively this season because of the 4-3, only a larger sample of games will show. Maybe there will be games they bring back their 3-4 because of specific opponent matchups. But they used the 4-3 the entire first half against Seattle, got out of it in the second half because of communication mishaps, then used it from start to finish Sunday against the Jets.
So it looks like it's going to be a major part of their defense this season. And knowing that, they'd have been better off showing their hand in training camp. Yeah, they would have lost the element of surprise. But they also would have had a better feel for what they were doing.
"The first couple weeks things don't always go well," Williams said. "But I think it's a good package for us."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty