After several decent showings over the past month, the Green Bay Packers were eliminated from playoff contention due to a lackluster defensive effort against the Carolina Panthers. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers shouldn’t be required to put up over 31 points every contest just to compete. There has been scrutiny with this 3-4 defense and coordinator Dom Capers for years, with many thinking this may be his final year with the team. And since the NFL community loves to speculate, let’s take a look at the current scheme and how the Packers base defense would stack up in a 4-3.
Should the Green Bay Packers Base Defense Change?
Base 3-4 Defensive Alignment
The Packers have been thinner along the defensive line than in years past but there is talent at the top. Daniels has been the best player on this defense for a few years now. What he lacks in stature he more than makes up for with strength and raw tenacity. Clark and Lowry were rookies from the Packers 2016 draft class. Clark has played the most snaps along the line and is the team’s primary nose tackle. Although his stats don’t jump off the page (49 total tackles, 2.5 sacks), Clark has a quick first step that allows him to consistently redirect the flow of opposing offenses. Lowry has come on of late and has accumulated two sacks of his own. He also made one of the plays of the year when he snatched the ball from Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston and returned it 62 yards for a touchdown in week 14.
Dial was a rare free agent import from the San Francisco 49ers. He is a big body at defensive tackle and provides depth and experience in a 3-4 system. After signing just a one-year contract with the Packers in September, his status for 2018 is unknown. Adams has yet to see much playing time after beginning the season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list. The Packers would be wise to showcase Adams more in the final weeks to see what they have in their third round draft pick.
Matthews and Perry have been the tandem at outside linebacker over the past five years. The two are tied for the team lead with seven sacks and have had dominant games this season. Both are primarily used as pass-rushers but Matthews also has solid coverage ability. These are versatile players that could transition to many different spots in the front seven.
Fackrell has started to see more playing time as the season has progressed. He has matched his sack total from 2017 which is just two, but he has been a better all-around player in his second season. Brooks was signed to a one-year contract after he was released by the 49ers. He’s played a third of the team’s snaps but only has a sack and a half. He shouldn’t factor into the team’s plans moving forward. Biegel on the other hand is a fourth round draft pick that has played well after starting the season on the PUP list. He has ability to cover and rush the passer but he’s a bit undersized to play outside linebacker in the 3-4.
Martinez has taken over as the leader in the middle of this Packers defense. He’s one of the top tacklers in the league and was a total snub for the Pro Bowl. The Packers need to give him some help but Martinez could be a future star in this league. Ryan was the week one starter last year but has seen his snaps heavily decline this season. He looks powerful when making contact but is a liability in coverage.
Thomas has clung to the active roster the past two seasons and sees the field fairly often in nickel and dime packages. He may still be the Packers best cover linebacker without receiving the accolades of many of his teammates. He provides solid depth and the Packers would be wise to keep him in his current role.
House returned to Green Bay on a one-year deal after spending the last two seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Packers play a lot of press man coverage which suits House’s strong size and physicality. He’s simply not fast enough to be a consistent presence on the outside moving forward. Randall has had an interesting year. After being burned for seemingly every touchdown against the defense the first three weeks, he was benched against the Chicago Bears in week four. Since then he has regained his role as the team’s top corner, leads the team with four interceptions, and has done a good job in recent weeks when facing the opponent’s top receiver. The Packers planned to move him into the slot, but he might have just taken awhile to get going on the outside.
King had an up and down rookie season before ending up on IR. He should get every opportunity to enter 2018 as this team’s number one cornerback due to his impressive size, speed, and physicality. Hawkins has been forced into action due to injuries and poor play. He has shown flashes at times but has physical limitations of his own. Rollins’s season was cut short due to an Achilles injury but he wasn’t playing well at the beginning of the year.
Clinton-Dix has had a down year for his lofty standards. After making the Pro Bowl in 2017, Clinton-Dix’s tackle and interceptions totals dropped and he just doesn’t show up as much each week. Burnett has continued to be a stable presence for the defense, lining up both at middle linebacker and his usual strong safety spot. He’s a versatile leader on this team but may be tough to keep as he hits free agency this off-season.
Jones has played a lot this year and looks like he could be the future at strong safety for the Packers. He’s had his share of rookie miscues but has the rare ability to impact almost every play. Brice actually started the season at strong safety when Burnett was playing linebacker. He packs a punch and delivers the most vicious hits on the team. Fellow 2017 undrafted free agent safety Evans has played well on special teams and has shown range on the back end but hasn’t gotten much time to showcase his abilities on defense.
A Look at the 4-3
Daniels would thrive in a 4-3 where he wouldn’t have to face double teams at the line each play. He’s too good of a playmaker to continue being just a gap-eater. Clark has played nose tackle in the 3-4 but could play either on the interior or at end in a four man front. He’s equally strong and agile so he has the versatility to line up across the line. Lowry currently plays end but doesn’t have the length to guard the edge in a 4-3. He could switch to defensive tackle. The final end spot would go to Perry who played in a four man front at USC. He practically plays 4-3 end as is so a change in scheme would potentially be the best thing for Perry’s production.
Importance of Linebackers
The linebacking corps for the Packers needs retooling no matter the scheme. There aren’t enough proficient pass-rushers at this level to create enough pressure for a 3-4 system to thrive. The 4-3 brings more pressure from the front line, leaving Martinez, Matthews, and possibly Thomas to work in space more. Matthews would ideally work as the strong side “Sam” linebacker who still gets plenty of blitz opportunities. The “Will” role could be filled by Thomas because of his coverage ability but he’s still too slender to be a three down player against the run.
Perhaps the only reason to even consider the switch to a 4-3 is the outstanding play by Martinez lately. The top defenses in the league have star players at middle linebacker. Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner are the gold standard and they both play in the 4-3. If Martinez can improve in coverage he could become the league’s next great inside linebacker.
Young Future at Secondary
If the Packers fail to re-sign Burnett in the off-season, it will be interesting to see how Mike McCarthy manages the safety position moving forward. Clinton-Dix would be perfect playing over the top in a cover two base defense. Jones has been utilized more in the box and in man coverage but showed good range and vision when playing deep in college. Jones and Clinton-Dix would make a solid duo on the back end while King and Randall man the boundary. The Packers already play a lot of press coverage because of their tall corners so a switch to a 4-3 base shouldn’t affect their ability much.
The Packers could really utilize more of a base defensive look that doesn’t need as many exotic blitzes as under their current scheme. The creativity that once sparked a turnover-driven sacking machine has led to many blown coverages and missed assignments lately. This team has been built around the 3-4 for almost 10 years now. Such a dramatic shift would have some serious growing pains but the current scheme just isn’t working. Unless the Packers bring in an experienced 3-4 defensive coordinator to right the system, they should consider making such a drastic move.