Defense won't scrap 4-3 look after Week 1 issues
This offseason was all about less scheme and more personnel for the Green Bay Packers' defense.
Coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers tossed around terms like "elephant" and "hybrid" to describe a confidential change in philosophy designed to get the most out of the current defenders on the roster.
However, a problem has surfaced only a week into the regular season — actually getting that personnel on the field.
The communication issues McCarthy alluded to following Thursday night's 36-16 loss to the Seattle Seahawks were partially a byproduct of the Packers' new 4-3 defensive look, Capers confirmed Monday.
By his own admission, there were two or three situations in the first half in which the defensive coaches were late getting a play call to the field because they were trying to match Seahawks' personnel waiting near the huddle.
That's why you might have noticed a stark difference in the amount of times the Packers lined up in the formation in the first half as opposed to the second, when they mostly operated out of the nickel and dime subpackages.
"We played a lot more of it in the first half," said Capers, who deployed the package upward of 12 times in the first 30 minutes. "One of the reasons that we didn't play much in the second half was because of the substitution issues that we had in the first half. I just didn't want to take a chance after that happened. I didn't want that happening again."
That doesn't mean the package won't resurface Sunday when the Packers host the New York Jets in their home opener. The coaching staff spent the past six months quietly scheming for the shift. Capers isn't giving up on it that easily.
For starters, the 64-year-old defensive coordinator has had success in the 4-3 before. He ran a variation of his 3-4 zone blitz during his two seasons as Jacksonville's defensive coordinator in 1999 and 2000. The Jaguars ranked fourth and 12th in total defense during those two seasons, respectively.
The Packers' model has many of the same qualities. Plus, the organization feels the formation is better suited for tweener pass-rushers such as Julius Peppers, Mike Neal and Nick Perry, and geared toward allowing Clay Matthews to either sit back with the inside linebackers or double team alongside either Peppers or Neal.
Matthews didn't have a sack Thursday, but had four tackles and a forced fumble of Seahawks receiver Percy Harvin.
"One of the reasons is you get different combinations of people on the field and I think it fits some of our personnel when all of a sudden you got Julius, you got Mike Neal, Clay out there," Capers said. "It gives us ability to move Clay around a little bit more. So I'd like to continue. There might be games where you might not see a lot of it. There could be games where you could see a lot of it."
There are downsides to venturing into uncharted territory, though. The Packers scrapped their 4-3 defense when Capers was hired in 2009 and rarely have looked back. The new approach saw the Packers having more difficulty matching Seattle's substitutes.
The most noticeable gaffe came on Marshawn Lynch's 9-yard touchdown run in the second quarter when the Packers had only 10 players on the field after defensive lineman Josh Boyd exited and wasn't replaced.
McCarthy and Capers have assumed blame for the errors over the past few days, but defensive back Micah Hyde said Monday the players are also at fault for failing to execute the sweeping changes following their months of preparation.
After all, it wasn't the scheme's fault that defenders missed 16 tackles. According to Pro Football Focus, Seattle had 79 of its 207 rushing yards after contact with 117 of its 191 receiving yards coming after the catch.
Defensive linemen Mike Daniels and Datone Jones used words like "embarrassment" to describe the defense's performance. Now, they have a week to correct it.
"There's only so much the coaches can do for you as a player," Hyde said. "They can put you, they can give you certain plays to get you in the right position, but at the same time we have to go out there and play. We know with what Seattle had we were going to have some personnel problems, putting Harvin in the backfield and putting him out at receiver, we knew that they were going to do that.
"I think that the coaches, they're trying to take the responsibility, but I feel like as a player it's definitely on us to go out there and compete against the other team no matter what personnel they're in, no matter what defense we're in."
Not every road game is going to be as difficult to play in as CenturyLink Field. Not every offense will be as efficient as Russell Wilson and his multidimensional arsenal. Still, you can bet the other 12 teams on the Packers' regular-season schedule took note of what happened in Seattle.
Sound familiar? On the opposite side of the ball, the Packers are trying to run a no-huddle offense that produces in excess of 75 plays per game by feeding off opposing defense's inability to change personnel.
"That's the balancing act you have to have," Capers said. "If you're going to play more personnel groups and match them up against their personnel, you just have to be aware. You have to get quick substitutes and they have to happen fast."
Capers wouldn't rule out possible personnel changes, either. Inside linebacker Brad Jones played all 70 defensive snaps against the Seahawks, but struggled in the run game with three missed tackles.
Whatever the alignment, the Packers have the Jets to deal with this Sunday. It's tough to draw many conclusions from Chris Ivory and Chris Johnson putting up 170 rushing yards on a woeful Oakland defense, but Green Bay will be challenged to respond.
There was excitement in this offseason's overhaul. One shaky performance against the NFL's reigning Super Bowl champion isn't going to change that.
"We still feel like we can go out there and compete against anybody," Hyde said. "Yeah, we had a rough day. I think Coach said it best, 'You can't go out there and play a really good team and play your B game.' You have to play your A game, and we didn't bring that into Seattle. We still feel like we're a very good defense. We just have to put it on tape."
— whodkiew@pressgazette media.com and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.