'Elephant' position gives Packers defense flexibility, unpredictability
This offseason, Mike McCarthy and Dom Capers vowed to look for ways to improve the NFL's 25th-ranked defense, and one of their answers was to add the "elephant" position to their scheme.
The notion is nothing new. Elephants and hybrids have been utilized in some form or fashion for more than 20 years under various monikers. Seattle and Jacksonville refer to them as "Leo" defenders.
Still, it's a relatively new term under McCarthy. Since the Packers' ninth-year coach first spoke publicly of the change in February, it's been unclear exactly how the defense will change under Capers, the sixth-year coordinator.
In short, it tries to exploit unpredictability. The experimentation began last summer when the Packers converted Mike Neal from a defensive lineman to outside linebacker. Recurring injuries and a lack of flexibility resulted in Neal playing more defensive snaps (730) than any other Packers outside linebacker.
The Packers' response has been to recognize their abundance of tweeners such as Neal, who is oversized for a traditional 3-4 outside rusher and also capable of rushing from a three-point stance. Besides Neal, the Packers have other potential elephants in 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry, free-agent addition Julius Peppers and fourth-round pick Carl Bradford.
"An elephant for us could maybe be in certain schemes an outside backer," Capers said. "He could be a defensive end in other schemes. You'll see an elephant align in a lot of different spots (along the line). When you have a number of different schemes, you could see a number of different elephants on the field in different spots based off what those schemes are. I just think in this day and age, with the injury factor and that type of thing, you've got to have a lot of flexibility because what you play one week you might not be able to play the next week because you have a couple of guys banged up."
The elephant position seems to be tailor-made for Peppers, whom the Packers signed in March after they committed to adding the new position.
Peppers is especially intriguing to Capers, who was the head coach of the Houston Texans in 2002 when they drafted Fresno State quarterback David Carr over the eight-time Pro Bowler with the first overall pick in the 2002 NFL draft.
Capers looked hard at Peppers during the draft process and got to know him personally as a speaker at the Rotary Lombardi Award banquet in Houston where Peppers was honored for being the best college lineman or linebacker.
Still, there were questions of how the 6-foot-7, 290-pound Peppers would fit into Capers' 3-4 defense. Although an exceptional athlete, he's at least 30 pounds heavier than typical 3-4 outside linebackers and appeared better suited to be a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme.
Capers always has felt Peppers "would fit into any defense," but never found out whether Peppers could excel in his scheme because the Texans drafted Carr instead.
Peppers went No. 2 to Carolina, where Packers defensive line coach Mike Trgovac coached him for his first seven years. With the Panthers, he occasionally played across the defensive line but mostly played end in Carolina's 4-3 defense.
Now, Capers has the chance to see if the 34-year-old can work within his system, albeit in a newly created role.
"We think Julius Peppers can be that same type of guy (as an elephant)," Capers said. "Julius has rushed inside. We're using him more outside (at linebacker) probably more than what he's played and we're standing him up some."
Neal and Perry also were important factors in adding the elephant. Last season, the Packers split Neal's reps between outside linebacker and inside pass rusher in the subpackages, but injuries to Matthews (broken thumb) and Perry (foot) required him to play almost exclusively standing up.
So far Neal and Peppers have mostly been lining up outside with the first-team defense because of Matthews' and Perry's injuries. Matthews and Peppers are the likely starters, but the threat of rushing any of them from other spots presents some mismatches and the unpredictably the defense desires.
"Those guys, both of them, are very versatile players and give you some flexibility," said Trgovac of Peppers and Neal. "They're both strong enough to do some different things for us and they have size to do some different things for us, so that will help."
Perry's conversion to a dual role has been slowed by his inability to do much during the offseason program outside of sitting in on meetings. He also has a new position coach, Winston Moss, who hasn't been able to accurately gauge Perry's progress because of the injury.
It's not a simple switch, either. Neal's pass rush was noticeable early in camp last year, but he's still learning how to drop back into coverage and read the offense.
The fact that neither Matthews nor Perry has been on the field during the offseason program is another illustration of why the Packers altered their scheme.
"Really, I don't think you ever make a big change ... but we have two very strong outlining issues: We're always going to be young, that issues challenges; Our availability hasn't been what it needs to be the last two years," McCarthy said. "So you can't keep sitting here talking about, 'Well, hey, shoot we had injuries again and it just didn't quite work out.' Not that I'm saying we're preparing that way. We're preparing that if we have 26 defensive players, hell, all 26 of them need to be prepared to contribute and we can maybe tailor it better to their abilities."
The rookie Bradford also could be an elephant. The fourth-round pick in May's draft is a 6-foot-1, 260-pound outside linebacker after playing mostly as a hand-in-the-dirt rusher for the Sun Devils.
McCarthy says the Packers aren't expecting guys to get hurt, but the past few years have proven they need to plan for the possibility if they want to keep their best 11 players on the field. That's why they have introduced the elephant.
"We just tried to redefine (that position), so we could get more people basically in that role," Capers said.
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