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GREEN BAY — The funny thing about a permanent association between Dom Capers and the 3-4 defense is that the modern version of football is pushing him away from the scheme synonymous with his name, a scheme he employs as defensive coordinator of the Green Bay Packers.
As the NFL continues its landslide toward spread offenses and quick passes, where four- and five-receiver sets have rendered the traditional running game all but extinct, the need for heavy doses of base defense has evaporated.
A year ago, the Packers played their base defense on just 17.7 percent of snaps. This year, they played exclusively nickel and dime in a win over the Detroit Lions.
“It’s kind of been like that since my rookie year,” said defensive lineman Mike Pennel, who plays as a 5-technique. “We haven’t used a lot of our base, and how the league is transitioning now, everybody usually is in nickel or some form of sub defense.”
Such a trend has lowered the threshold for overpopulation in defensive line rooms around the league. Instead of playing three defensive linemen on the majority of snaps, which would have been the case when power running was all the rage, the Packers instead are relying almost exclusively on two down linemen, with goal-line and short-yardage situations the obvious exceptions.
The cumulative effect is diminished snap counts for backup defensive linemen who would have cycled through more frequently in the base when an extra lineman is on the field. In reality, everyone not named Mike Daniels is fighting for a skinnier piece of the pie, which means fewer reps to go around. But even Daniels has seen his snap percentage dip slightly from 67.9 percent in 2015 to 64 percent this season. Everybody else is far behind.
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“Well, you like having competition, you like having depth,” Capers said. “What it enables us to do is keep guys fresh. That always helps your pass rush, especially when you get into these games when the ball is going to be thrown 40, 50 times a game. The toughest thing on you physically is rushing against those big offensive linemen. So I think we've been able to rotate and roll people through, and try to keep guys as fresh.”
Capers’ desire to rotate linemen produced a fairly steady apportionment of reps during the first four weeks of the season. Daniels, who signed a four-year, $42 million contract extension last December, averaged 41 snaps per game during that stretch, by far the highest total on the line.
The remaining reps trickled down to a second tier consisting of Letroy Guion and rookie first-round pick Kenny Clark, who averaged 25 and 27 snaps, respectively, during that stretch. Dean Lowry, another rookie, averaged eight snaps. Christian Ringo, in his first season on the 53-man roster, averaged 14.
Outside linebackers Julius Peppers and Datone Jones thickened the congestion by each playing at least 11 snaps per game as defensive linemen during the first month.
“It’s tough,” Lowry said. “I think it makes practice that much more important, especially the Wednesday and Thursday practice. I treat it like it’s a game day in terms of just showing the coaches and scouts what I can do.”
What had become a fairly steady distribution plan was revised and rewritten after the fourth game. General manager Ted Thompson activated Pennel after his four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, and playing time was watered down again.
Pennel had projected as a starter alongside Daniels and Guion in the base defense. He returned to the active roster in terrific shape and much leaner than he was last season. The coaches rewarded him with 12 snaps in his debut against the Dallas Cowboys.
Defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said the plan is to increase Pennel’s reps. It’s likely he and Capers want Pennel to be the fourth linemen in a steady rotation that already features Daniels, Guion and Clark.
Peppers and Jones also will receive reps on the interior during obvious passing downs.
“I want to gradually get better every year I’m in the NFL now that I’m having some playing time,” Pennel said. “My suspension this year kind of hurt my development a little bit but I eventually want to be meshed into a starting role. Me personally, that’s what I work toward.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum are Lowry and Ringo, the two players hit hardest by the reintroduction of Pennel. They have played a combined 23 snaps in the last three games.
Lowry, a fourth-round pick from Northwestern, offers the Packers a different body type from what they have among their top four linemen. At 6-5 ½ and 296 pounds, he is a true 5-technique with enough length to disrupt throwing lanes. Trgovac spoke highly of Lowry’s ability to break up passes and his playing time, small as it may be, is likely to continue.
“You want to get more reps to feel like you’re more in the rhythm of the game,” Lowry said, “but it’s important if you are doing that to stay warm and make sure your mind is in the game, take mental reps. It can be challenging but it’s something you have to get used to.
Lowry said more snaps allow defensive linemen to focus on “setting things up, especially in pass rush, or understanding the splits of the offensive line or stances or when he’s pulling, when he’s coming out, stuff like that. That’s stuff you have to really pay attention to on the sideline (if you aren’t getting a lot of reps), just so when you go in there you’re running full speed.”
With such depth, Ringo has found it difficult to earn a spot on the 46-man roster for game days. He was active during the first three weeks, playing 12 snaps, six snaps and 24 snaps, but then inactive for the next two games. He was up Oct. 20 against the Chicago Bears (nine snaps), but with each new week comes uncertainty.
If the defensive linemen in front of him are healthy, Ringo’s status on game day often is decided by injuries at other positions.
“For me it’s a learning tool,” said Ringo, a sixth-round pick in 2015. “I try to use it in positive ways. But at the same time it’s frustrating because, you know, you want to get out there. But you definitely have to wait your turn when you have guys that are having production and they’re vets, so they know what they’re doing.
“I’m a team player, though. As long as we get the win, I’m happy.”
With Capers in charge, the Packers always will be labeled a 3-4 defense. But in the modern era of football, it might be easier to argue that they’re not.