Two weeks into the NFL season, there's a very obvious difference between the Dom Capers led Green Bay Packers defenses of the past and the current reincarnation. In 1992, Capers received his first job as a defensive coordinator in the NFL. With it, he installed a 3-4 defense with a "fire zone" concept that generated pressure while dropping more players back into coverage than a typical blitz.
In 2013, surprisingly, he began to use defenses that looked more like 4-3 under throughout the season. In 2014, though, the team has full-blown gone into the direction of a 4-3 front through two games.
Against the New York Jets, the starting lineup was Mike Neal at right end, Mike Daniels at under tackle, Letroy Guion at nose tackle, Julius Peppers at left end, Clay Matthews as the SAM backer, A.J. Hawk as the MIKE backer and Jamari Lattimore at WILL backer.
While the players moved around to various positions on the field, the front mostly stayed the same. Now, you might ask why Dom Capers suddenly had a change of heart in 2014, but the answer is simple: Green Bay's defensive line personnel.
In the spring, Mike Daniels was named as the fourth-best 3-4 defensive end by Bleacher Report, an impressive feat by a second-year player. Still, he was miscast from his optimal role. Of the top-15 players on the list, only he and Buffalo's Kyle Williams were listed under 6'3", the preferred height for a defensive end on an odd front.
Mike Daniels came out of the University of Iowa in 2012 at 6'0" and some change. When looking at Bleacher Report's top 1000 list for defensive tackles, there's a stark difference in prototypical size.
Shorter players such as Brandon Mebane, Jurrell Casey and Geno Atkins all rank in the top 10. Mike Daniels, ideally, is better suited as a penetrating under tackle in a 4-3, where he can get into the backfield.
Last season, he proved as much, netting 6.5 sacks, nine tackles for losses and 10 quarterback hits. Over the two-game sample size of 2014, he's had a sack, two tackles for losses and two quarterback hits. Extrapolating that data, he'd be in for a projected career high in all of those categories with eight sacks, 16 tackles for losses and 16 quarterback hits on the season. The transition to a 4-3 has treated him well.
But he's not the only Packer that looks better on paper in the new scheme. Julius Peppers, listed at 287 pounds, makes more sense as a defensive end than an outside linebacker. Only two 3-4 outside linebackers weighed as much or more than Peppers and made it on Bleacher Report's NFL 1000 list for the position.
Defensive end Mike Neal was drafted out of Purdue in 2010. At the combine, he came in at 294 pounds, heavier than all but one outside linebacker on the list. CBS Sports/NFL Draft Scout even listed him at defensive tackle. He's now "down" to 285 pounds, but he is still very, very heavy for a 3-4 outside linebacker, a spot he had played for several seasons.
The list goes on and on. If given simply the measurements of the key players on the defensive side of the ball, one would have guessed this was a 4-3 team all along. The reason it wasn't, though, was because of two additions the team added in 2009: B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews.
In 2009, Capers' first season with the Packers, the team doubled down on impactful defensive players during the first round. Sitting at pick No. 9, the squad selected B.J. Raji, a defensive tackle out of Boston College, who was added to hopefully be the nose tackle of the future. Green Bay then traded up to pick No. 26 for Clay Matthews, who would play outside linebacker for the team.
In the past preseason, Raji went down with a torn bicep, a huge blow to the already shallow nose tackle depth on the roster. The team had to get creative. Green Bay had two options at nose tackle in a 3-4 base. They were Mike Pennel, an undrafted rookie, and Letroy Guion, an offseason addition who played only one snap against the run in total in the preseason.
Capers was limited. He could either move to a 4-3 defense, removing the stress from the nose tackle position, or stick with the 3-4. With every action, though, there's an equal reaction. Clay Matthews, a four-time Pro Bowl 3-4 outside linebacker who had received a $66 million extension in 2013, would be removed from a feature pass-rushing role.
Only a handful of 4-3 defensive ends played at a high level at his size, meaning he'd likely move to a "true" linebacker spot. The issue of relieving emphasis on unproven players becomes a different conversation when you're also effecting the cornerstone of the defense.
In the original defense Matthews had played in Green Bay, he was able to move around more. He was able to come at a quarterback with his ears pinned back from different angles. That's where he wins on a football field.
Mike McCarthy even confirmed so on Monday. As a true linebacker, Matthews' impact as an edge-defender weakens. If he's sent to the quarterback, it's on a blitz, which he'll see less of now.
When looking at the performance of the defense over the first two games, it's a rough task to formulate a case that the team is better for the change. After 32 games of the NFL season, only five teams have allowed 60 or more points. The teams are Jacksonville, New Orleans, Indianapolis, Green Bay and the New York Giants.
In the 10 combined games played between them, the only victory was Green Bay's come from behind win at home on Sunday.
No one allows that many points and wins consistently. In the running game, only one team has allowed more rushing yardage against them: the Oakland Raiders. They, too, haven't won a game in 2014.
No teams consistently win by allowing the ball to be ran down their throats like that. What's the issue then? If the personnel dictates this scheme, why hasn't it improved tremendously? When Capers came to town and switched the scheme and built around their personnel, the team made the jump all the way to the Super Bowl.
The issue is that the team is learning the scheme on the fly. They didn't practice this in the spring or summer, at least not often. Pete Doughtery of PackersNews.com covered this well:
But that secrecy also meant the Packers hardly practiced their 4-3 at full speed, and never against another team. Yeah, they worked on 4-3 assignments all camp in jog-throughs. But anything approaching game speed? Only on two days in camp when they closed midweek practices to fans.
How much learning is there to do? On the 39-yard read option by Jets quarterback Geno Smith, the Packers only had 10 men on the field. At one point in the game, two pass-rushers ran into each other liked "bumper cars."
Packer fans shouldn't fret too much, though. At least not yet. The team has made crucial improvements in just one week, like the amount of missed tackles they've had. Another improvement might be linebacker Jamari Lattimore, who started for the injured Brad Jones and per Pro Football Focus graded out with a score 8.2 points higher than Jones' Week 1 performance.
The issues on the defensive line still continue, though. Guion and Josh Boyd had the worst Pro Football Focus ratings for the Packers' victorious performance. In 2010, the Packers had an issue on the defensive line.
They signed Howard Green, who had been cut by the Jets midseason. Added into the rotation, the Packers made a deep run into the playoffs. In the Super Bowl, Green forced a pick six, a play equally measuring in points as the margin of victory for the Packers that day.
If Green Bay can creatively move Clay Matthews around, so he's not just a simple linebacker, then there's really only one issue that can be addressed in 2014: the defensive line.
Still on the market are Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly, two former Packers looking for work after becoming free agents in 2014. Isaac Sopoaga and Ogemdi Nwagbuo are also free agents who could give a veteran presence on a defensive line that is currently one injury away from starting an undrafted rookie.
The 4-3 defense works better for Mike Daniels. It works better for Julius Peppers. It works better for Mike Neal. Now it just needs to work better for the Packers.