The Green Bay Packers just rode their defense to their first Super Bowl appearance since 1998.
Though Aaron Rodgers and the Packer offense accounted for the pregame headlines, it was Dom Capers’ 3-4 defense that earned the trip to Dallas.
The defense continued the stifling play it displayed during the regular season.
As this is a copycat league, what makes Dom Capers’ version of the 3-4 so effective, while the version in Dallas was so ineffective?
The place to start looking at the differences between the two defenses would be the personnel on the field.
Green Bay’s secondary really stands out among all 3-4 defenses. Charles Woodson and Trammond Williams comprise one of the best cornerback tandems in the league. The big difference, however, is the secondary’s ability to blitz effectively.
Multiple times in tonight’s NFC Championship game, Sam Shields came in on a delayed blitz to create sacks, turnovers and pressure. Previously this season, Charles Woodson has played that same role.
In comparison, the Dallas secondary is shaky in coverage. Mike Jenkins and Terrence Newman are inconsistent from one play to another.
No one in the Dallas secondary can tackle, much less blitz effectively.
Green Bay also has two big differences in the front seven.
Green Bay’s front seven are able to create pressure while rushing only three defenders. They do it in different ways, both by rushing the three down linemen or by rushing two linemen and sending a linebacker.
That last sentence illustrates another big difference in the defenses. Green Bay’s front seven is very versatile.
Tonight’s game saw 338-pound BJ Raji drop into coverage and come up with the game-winning touchdown.
When is the last time you saw Ratliff, Spears, Bowen or Olshansky drop into coverage? The question itself is almost absurd. Ratliff is the only one even remotely capable of the feat.
Aside from being able to get pressure with three, the Packers get pressure from the middle of the line.
Even in 2009, unless Ratliff breaks free, all of Dallas’ pressure comes from the edges.
Bradie James and Keith Brooking are largely ineffective at rushing the passer.
For all of his success, DeMarcus Ware must come off the edge to be effective.
Anthony Spencer has only been effective as a rusher for half of a season, and his pressure comes from the edge as well.
The biggest difference between the two defenses, which is between the lines of the areas mentioned previously, is the versatility that the players give this defense.
The secondary can cover, tackle and blitz. The linebackers can do the same. The line can create pressure without help or drop into coverage to help create confusion with zone blitzes.
Heading into the offseason, the championship teams of one season set the trend for the following season, as coaches and general managers look to copy the success of other programs.
Based on these differences, here is a blueprint to the Dallas Cowboys offseason.
Dallas needs more playmakers on the defensive line. One option would be to move Jay Ratliff to defensive end and find a big, athletic nose tackle.
If Ratliff will stay in the middle, they need to find defensive ends that can win one-on-one battles on passing situations.
Sean Lee should add athleticism to the middle of the linebacking corps.
New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan should look to find ways of getting Lee to bring pressure from the middle, utilizing more stunts and twists involving Lee or using James to come in to take blockers off of Ratliff.
The biggest changes must come in the secondary, where the biggest deficiency is the poor tackling that plagues every defensive back on the team.
Finding a free safety who is adept at coverage could free up Gerald Sensabaugh to play closer to the line and blitz more often.
Ideally, a veteran free safety can act as a stabilizer in the backfield. With both starting safeties set to become free agents, Dallas will likely have to sign at least one free agent safety. One name to keep an eye on is Abram Elam, who was Ryan’s safety in Cleveland and is set to hit the market.
The overarching theme to the defense has to be versatility. Every player brought into the mix has to be versatile.
Whether it’s Rob Ryan, Dom Capers or Dick Labeau, all of the most successful 3-4 defenses are versatile enough to create the confusion that makes the 3-4 so successful.
Creating and using that versatility will be the most important job for Rob Ryan in bringing Dallas’ defense to the championship level found in Green Bay.