The Packers could possibly be facing new starting quarterbacks on all three division rivals. It is a perfect time to do a complete defensive makeover. And that is exactly what they are doing.
In 2008, the Packers' defense got worse as the season wore on. By mid-season, the Packers were missing three key starters in middle linebacker Nick Barnett, defensive end Cullen Jenkins, and cornerback Al Harris.
They could not get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. They wore down and could not defend the run late in games. Their once vaunted passing defense gave up big plays at bad times.
Something needed to change.
After 14 seasons of the Packers running the 4-3 defensive scheme exclusively, coach Mike McCarthy gutted his defensive coaching staff. He then interviewed a number of defensive gurus before hiring the respected, defensive-minded Dom Capers. McCarthy made the call to switch the defensive scheme to the 3-4.
With no Brett Favre soap opera to deal with, and with a potent offense led by up-and-coming Aaron Rodgers, Coach McCarthy could now focus squarely on improving the defense, knowing the unit will be in the very capable hands of Capers.
This will be the third time Capers will be converting a defense from the 4-3 scheme to the 3-4 scheme. The results from his other two conversions were quite positive.
In 2005, he took over the 18th-ranked defense in Miami and in 2006, his first season with the Fish, they improved to No. 4 overall.
And this does not even count how Capers was one of the architects of the Pittsburgh Steeler 3-4 defense that has been among the league's best for years.
The theory of the 3-4 defense is to disguise blitzes and coverages and confuse opposing quarterbacks and blockers. With blitzes coming from a number of different defenders, opposing running backs will have to attempt to guess which defensive player he must focus on to pick up and block the blitz.
By shifting formations and having both linebackers and secondary players moving around constantly, it is a real challenge for the opposing offense, particularly if they haven't seen much of a 3-4 defense.
The Packers are one of only three teams in the entire NFC that will use the 3-4. The Packers will also be the only team in the NFC North to deploy this scheme. As Capers has pointed out, when opposing teams prepare to play 4-3 defenses for 13-14 of the 17 weeks of the season, it becomes very difficult for teams to prepare for a 3-4 alignment in only three or four days.
The question before the Packer fan court is, "Can the Packers' personnel transition quickly?"
To help in the transition, Capers has a couple new coaches he added to his staff that have great experience in the scheme. New outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene brings a great career as a 3-4 player into his first full-time coaching job.
Greene thrived in his playing career as a pass-rushing outside linebacker on some great Steelers and Panthers teams. His energy, knowledge, and sheer passion for the game should inspire the Packer players.
New secondary coach Darren Perry brings both years of playing experience as a safety in the 3-4 as well as being a secondary coach under Bill Cowher in Pittsburgh. Perry was credited with developing Steelers star safety Troy Polamalu into the Pro Bowl player he is today.
Capers also has to be pleased with the recently completed Packers draft in which they picked nose tackle/defensive end B.J. Raji with the ninth pick in the first round, and then added versatile OLB Clay Matthews III later in the first round. Both players appear to fit the new scheme very well.
So what exactly are the big differences between the old scheme and Capers' new 3-4 scheme? Quite a bit.
With a three-man defensive line, the players must be able to read and adjust exactly how they wish to line up. The nose tackle is in the middle and may, on some plays, line up directly over the center.
Other time, he may line up on either shoulder of the center. The defensive ends must also follow the defensive calls and can line up anywhere from the guard's outside shoulder to outside the tackle's outside shoulder.
Their main job is to close gaps and tie up blockers so the linebackers can pursue the ball.
In veteran Ryan Pickett and rookie B.J. Raji, the Packers have two players who appear to be excellent nose tackles. I look for these two to rotate and both will see time at both nose tackle as well as left defensive end.
With each player over 325 pounds and possessing good quickness, it should improve the Packers' ability to stop the run, as ball carriers will find little room between the two. The nose tackle is the key position in this scheme as their ability to get a push, hold their ground against multiple blockers, and wreak havoc can make or break the scheme.
On the right side, defensive end Cullen Jenkins could thrive.
Last season in New England, defensive end Richard Seymour had a stellar season. Capers thinks Jenkins can be a similar player. Though not as big as Raji and Pickett, Jenkins is stout versus the run and is the best pass rusher of the three.
Depth will be a key for the defensive line. The ability to rotate the three starters in and out of the game without a large drop off will ensure that the best players are on the field in the fourth quarter, which was the Packers' Achilles heal in 2008.
Third-year player and former first round draft pick Justin Harrell has the ideal size to be a good defensive end in the 3-4. But after two lost seasons of injuries and disappointing play, he is a total question mark.
In the 4-3 scheme he played defensive tackle and had simple gap control responsibility, but in the new scheme will he be able to read offensive linemen and running backs and adjust where he lines up to be effective?
Will arm and back injuries be healed? Will he be in shape for training camp? All are legitimate questions that won't be answered until training camp.
Johnny Jolly, a former 4-3 defensive tackle, will probably play defensive end in the new scheme.
Rookie Jarius Wynn is a bit undersized at 6'3" and 277 pounds, but has experience in the 3-4 in college and has room on his frame to grow. He has a solid chance to make the roster.
The play of the linebackers is what can make the 3-4 scheme special.
The single biggest change on the Packers defense evolves around Aaron Kampman, who shifts from being a Pro Bowl-caliber left defensive end into an outside linebacker. At 6'4" and 265 pounds, Kampman will play "standing up" for the first time.
An elite pass rusher, Kampman will be counted on the get constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Though the Packers will attempt to keep it to a minimum, Kampman will have some pass coverage responsibilities.
This will be new for Kampman as well. The key is keeping the coverage for him to a zone close to the line of scrimmage.
But make no mistake about it: Kampman's main job will be to rush the passer and provide run support on the left side. Kampman will also move up to the line and put his hands down and line up as a traditional 4-3 defensive end at times as Packers will deploy different formations.
Nick Barnett appears to be nearing 100 percent as he recovers from a knee injury he suffered in the seventh game last season. He will man the "mike" inside linebacking spot.
The mike linebacker is mainly a "chaser" who moves side to side across the field in pursuit of the ball. He does not engage blockers as much as the other linebackers. Barnett appears to have the speed and the smarts to be effective. This is a vastly different style than the prior 4-3 formation.
A.J. Hawk will man the "jack" linebacker spot. The jack position is expected to move forward to play against the power runs. This position also takes on blockers to free up the "mike" to chase plays. Hawk appears to have the tackling ability and athleticism to thrive in this spot.
Ted Thompson selected Clay Matthews III specifically to be his right side outside linebacker in the new scheme. Matthews possesses both the pass rushing skills needed as well as the athleticism to be effective in coverage.
This position requires the most versatility of all the linebacker spots. Veteran Brady Poppinga should also see time at this position. Brady Poppinga possesses the skill to rush the passer and provide run support.
The Packers appear to be loaded with depth across the board at linebacker. Jeremy Thompson, another converted 4-3 defensive end, will back up Kampman. Third-year player Desmond Bishop showed flashes last season and should back up both inside spots. Brandon Chillar has experience and versatility to play all the linebacker positions.
With the emphasis on the pass rush and run pursuit, the secondary's responsibilities will be changing as well. Though there will be man-to-man coverage in some areas, the Packers will use zone coverages much more than in the past.
Elite CB Charles Woodson should have no problem adjusting.
Aging cornerback Al Harris will be watched closely. Harris has thrived lining up right in front of opposing receivers and getting contact at the line and playing man-to-man. He will be asked to line up a couple yards back and play more zone this season.
Should he struggle, young Tramon Williams appears to possess all the skills to be a good cornerback and could replace Harris if he has a good training camp. With the many blitz packages used, the cornerbacks must quickly cover their zone and stay there and allow safeties to provide backup.
The two safeties have very different responsibilities as well. The free safety stays back and patrols deep, acting as a "ball hawk." Nick Collins seems to be a great fit here. A natural playmaker, Collins can flow to the ball and help the cornerbacks.
The strong safety can line up close to the linebackers. In fact, in some of the formations, the strong safety can act as a fifth linebacker.
Atari Bigby may benefit from this, as he is at his best close to the line providing run support.
Anthony Smith, acquired from the Steelers, can replace Bigby on passing downs. Smith has experience in the scheme with Pittsburgh and could work well with Collins to defend the pass.
Much like at linebacker, the Packers have an abundance of youthful depth in secondary. Cornerbacks Pat Lee, Will Blackmon, and rookie Brandon Underwood will fight for playing time. Safeties Aaron Rouse, Jarret Bush, and Charlie Peprah will probably battle for one or two roster spots.
This defense relies on pressure, disguise, and tight execution. Whereas the old 4-3 scheme didn't use a lot of stunts and movement, the new 3-4 scheme has many blitzes, and a lot of player movement. In a nutshell, it requires smart football players who must be disciplined in their responsibilities.
The Packers have a seasoned coaching staff that knows this scheme. They also have youth and athleticism on the roster. If the players transition quickly, this defense could be vastly improved in 2009.
With the acquisitions and changes, their division rivals have made, it is critical for the players to learn quickly if the Packers hope to reclaim the NFC North crown this fall!