Switch to 3-4 Looms as Biggest Question Heading into 2009 for Green Bay Packers
Prior to the 2008 season, Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy declared the defense was going to be the strength of the team.
In reality, the defense was the weakest link, continually allowing late-game scores that led to a dismal 6-10 record.
The Packer defense ranked 20th in the league in total yards given up, a woeful 26th against the run, and 22nd in points given up.
Is it any wonder that all but one defensive coach were served pink slips after the season?
Former NFL head coach Dom Capers was hired to take over the struggling defense. The hiring of Capers meant that the Packers would switch from their familiar 4-3 defense to the 3-4.
Without question, this move serves as the biggest offseason change and the biggest question mark for 2009.
The move to the 3-4 will significantly impact the defense. The team's best defensive lineman, Aaron Kampman, will move from defensive end to outside linebacker, and there is plenty of debate on how he will handle this change.
Kampman has yet to comment publicly about the switch, so his thoughts on the move to outside linebacker are still unclear.
Capers has said he will mix in both the 4-3 and the 3-4 to help smooth the transition, but questions still abound on whether Kampman has the speed and ability to drop into pass coverage. Many argue that the strength of Kampman's game is rushing the passer from a three-point stance with his hand on the ground.
The defensive switch also means that former outside linebacker A.J. Hawk will move to the inside, along with Nick Barnett. Hawk and Barnett will be asked to take on offensive guards at the point of attack.
Hawk got some experience playing in the middle of the 4-3 last year when Barnett was lost for the season, but the consensus seems to be that he fits in best on the weak side of the 4-3.
Cornerbacks Al Harris and Charles Woodson will also feel the effects of the switch to the 3-4. Both corners are very physical and play bump-and-run coverage at the line of scrimmage to disrupt timing between an opposing quarterback and receiver.
The move to 3-4 will require them to play more zone coverage, an area where neither of the aging players thrive.
Despite the shortcomings on defense last year, pass coverage was an area where the Packers had success, ranking in the top half of the league. That was largely due to the play of Harris, Woodson, and safety Nick Collins, who led the team with three defensive scores.
Woodson and Collins both had seven interceptions and represented the NFC in the Pro Bowl.
Changing up the pass defense may weaken what many consider to be one of the best secondaries in the league.
Another concern for the defense is the defensive line. The poor play against the run last year was due in no small part to an inadequate defensive line. The perennially injured Justin Harrell was a non-factor, and the loss of Cullen Jenkins to a season-ending injury in week four hurt an already struggling defense.
General Manager Ted Thompson addressed this area in April's draft, selecting Boston College nose tackle B.J. Raji with the ninth overall pick. But moving Jenkins to defensive end in the 3-4 may be playing away from his strength, which is stopping the run.
With the success that teams like the New England Patriots and the Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers have had running the 3-4, it's not surprising that more teams are jumping on the 3-4 bandwagon.
The Packers will be the only NFC North team to run the 3-4, which might give them a slight edge in divisional games, yet the change is bound to come with some growing pains.
The Packers open the season at home against the Bears, travel to Minnesota on Oct. 5 and face the Lions two weeks later, so there won't be much time for them to work out the kinks before playing some big divisional games.
If the Packers have anything on their side, it is that Capers has had success running the 3-4 as a defensive coordinator and should be as good a teacher as anyone.
Former NFL linebacker Kevin Greene was also hired as outside linebackers coach.
Greene played linebacker in the 3-4 under Capers in Pittsburgh and Carolina and is the all-time sack leader for linebackers. His experience and guidance will also work to the Packers advantage.
While the switch to the 3-4 defense presents many questions and challenges, it also brings the chance to drastically improve the porous defense from last year.
With a high-powered offense that ranked near the top of the league in most categories in 2008, the Packers are an adequate defense away from a deep playoff run in 2009.
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