Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Communication The Key For the 3-4 in 2009

I go back and forth on how excited I am about the 3-4 defense. Some days, after reading a rousing article about Dom Capers, I see the light at the end of the tunnel and think the Packers are on to better days. At other times, like when I read about Aaron Kampman's silence or Nick Collins holding out, I wonder if this is a long-term project that won't yield any benefits for a couple of years.

But, Mike McCarthy gave us a nugget last week during OTA's that may prove to be the lynch pin as to the success of the 3-4 this year, one that may prove to be the "why" it works, not simply "whether" it works.

In discussing the various scheming and personnel of the 3-4 (and particularly, the 2-4-5 scheming of the nickel defense), McCarthy noted that the defense will have multiple options in who drops into coverage and who rushes. Defensive backs might be rushing, while the linebackers drop, or vice versa, all from the same look.

“What it gives you is more flexibility,” McCarthy said. “When you identify that, (it becomes) ‘Is the guy rushing or is he dropping.’ So it’s the uncertainty of that position as far as the alignment. It gives that particular individual – the defensive end if it’s a four-man line, or the outside linebacker the opportunity to play with more vision as far as what the offense is giving you with formations and motions and things like that.

“So it basically plays into the base concept of the defense – you’re not really sure who the fourth rusher is.”

So, after watching last year's debacle of a defense, the question might be asked, who isn't going to be sure who the fourth rusher is...opposing offenses, or the Packers' defense?

That critical component of "why" the 3-4 will fly or flounder in 2009? Right here.

“With that being said, missed assignments are really the responsibility of the coach and the player. The coach has to get the players on the same page. We don’t take the attitude that if a player makes an error out there on the field, then, ‘Heck, I showed him that two times. He should have that.’ It doesn’t work that way.

“Good coaches make sure that their players know exactly what they need to do, and that’s the phase we’re in right now.”

In other words, it’s still very much a work in progress.

“It’s a scheme that is definitely challenging our defensive players because it’s more volume schematically,” McCarthy said. “There’s more communication involved.” link

The communication on the field is critical, and something that the Packers were lacking much of the year in 2008. The question becomes, then, was the lack of communication a symptom of the players on the roster, or a symptom of the old defensive coaching regime?

The very things that McCarthy mentions--players not being in the right places, missed assignments, and not fixing repeated mistakes---were hallmarks of what went wrong last year with the Packers.

So, it begs the question: is installing a defense that is even more convoluted and dependent on clear communication a good idea? Or is it like forcing a dyslexic person to cure themselves by reading Anna Karenina?

Now, in defense of the players, it was pretty clear that there were some issues among the defensive coaches last year, and that seemed to spill out onto the field. Returning coaches and players have made comments to the effect that the Bob Sanders defensive coaching squad was not on the same page last year, and that can have clear repercussions during a game.

I am as excited as anyone about bringing in a veteran coach like Dom Capers, who should be able to take his head coaching experience and translate that into some instant credibility and direction on the field. This isn't a young guy getting his first chance to try and be a defensive coordinator. Capers knows not only how to implement a scheme, he knows how to coach and how to put players in the best position to succeed.

So, if the communication problems were entirely on the shoulders of the coaching last year, it would stand to prove that the road to a successful implementation of the 3-4 will be that much easier.

However, I noted a few months ago that some of the communication and discipline issues weren't limited to just Sanders' crew.

Our offensive line was the most penalized in the NFL this year. McCarthy had to repeatedly discuss simplistic execution errors like "pad level" and "gap control". Missed tackles along our defensive front (and particularly our linebackers) were glaring. And our secondary seemed to allow a huge (and critical) pass play each week when they needed a stop most.

This teamwide lack of discipline is obviously going to spill down to the special teams. If your starters can't play with discipline, why would you expect your special teams to play with discipline? If the special teams was the only squad on the team to play undisciplined ball, there'd be a problem. But, if you are going to fire Stock, shouldn't James Campen be let go for the repeated holding penalties along the offensive line? Shouldn't Winston Moss be let go for the substandard play of his linebackers in gap control?

So, another consideration is that the lack of communication wasn't just a Sanders issue, but a team issue, and that may be a larger problem than what Capers can fix single-handedly.

But specific to defense, there are some other considerations that will impact the effectiveness of communication this year:

Players learning new positions: If you really think about it, almost every player on the defensive side of the ball is learning a "new position". Our cornerbacks, who have lived and died by bump-and-run coverage, are now playing predominantly zone coverage. The linebacking roles have switched, with the OLBs taking a more rushing role, and the ILBs taking on more of a run support role. And, of course, the defensive line moves to only three positions, in which all three tend to play more like interior linemen in a 4-3.

As if that weren't enough adjustment for an entire squad, several players are moving completely out of position, most notably Aaron Kampman and Jeremy Thompson, who move out of their DL positions to OLB positions. Other adjustments along the line, with Jenkins playing primarily end instead of inside and Pickett taking on the responsibilities of a nose tackle means there is still a big learning curve before we get to everyone truly understanding this defense and their assignments.

This year's OTA's was a crash course in the 3-4. No, the OTA's are not physical, smash-mouth football, but a lot of cerebral walk-throughs and playbook digesting. Which, of course, brings us to...

Nick Collins Unwise Holdout: I have never been on the Collins Bandwagon, but his holdout not only hurts his own cause, but hurts this defense. Collins, the free safety, has been the one responsible for making the calls and adjustments from the back of the defense. In some ways, he is the "quarterback of the defense". But with an entirely new set of plays and a cornucopia of assignments to keep track of, Collins is putting himself (and the team he is supposed to be guiding) into a hole.

Personally, I would be concerned about Collins even if he was here. He doesn't rank particularly high on the intelligence chart. Do football players have to be rocket scientists to play this game? No, football doesn't involve quantum physics or aerodynamic theory. It's a game of crunching and running and throwing and blocking.

But Collins (like Javon Walker and LeShon Johnson before him) possesses a rather low Wonderlic score approaching single-digits. Can a player be dense and still succeed? Absolutely, but as we've seen with all three of these guys, the learning curve takes a little longer. LeShon Johnson never got it quite together until he was in his late 20's and playing with the Jets and Cardinals. Walker took until his third season before he began "catching on". And of course, Collins didn't stand out as anything more than an serviceable starter until last year, when the light finally went on in his fourth season.

Collins is going to struggle with a complicated defensive scheme, and I fear that his learning curve is going to take a while to get it down. The fact the he has missed all of the OTAs, not even showing up to take in the mental part of the game means that he's going to be that much further behind.

Tom Pelissero penned an article over the weekend claming that Anthony Smith may find a role in our new defense. Wishful thinking, as this is a guy of the caliber that is fighting for a backup slot. Which is better as the quarterback of the defense: the lesser athlete who understands the scheme, or the better athlete who is going to be struggling with it?

That's the position that the Packers may be in, and Collins isn't doing team communication any favors.

Question Marks and Interchangeable Players: There a lot of questions heading into this year, especially as it deals with how players can handle the responsibilities of the new scheme.

Justin Harrell: Can he contribute at all at DE?
AJ Hawk and Nick Barnett: Do they have the build for handling offensive linemen in the middle LB spots?
Aaron Kampman: Can he contribute as an OLB?
Al Harris: Does he still have the speed and ability to play zone?
Ryan Pickett: Does he actually have the bulk to play a Gilbert Brown nose tackle?
Atari Bigby and Cullen Jenkins: Can they come back from injury and play at their old levels of play?

The one thing that Mike McCarthy loves is also his double-edged sword. He loves having versatile players, and he now has that on the defense just as he does on the offensive line. Now, when injuries hit, versatility is a great thing. But having interchangeable parts also tempts you to keep moving them around, to keep trying new combination until you get it "right". We know how that has worked for the OL the past few seasons, and McCarthy himself admitted that it is time to get the OL into his set starting five...if he can figure out which guys to put there.

If Pickett doesn't pan out at NT, you can bet the BJ Raji will be substituted in there, and Pickett will be forced to rotate in or play a DE spot. If Hawk can't handle the inside, they will likely substitute Chillar or Poppinga and try to move him outside. And we can only guess at the substitutions that will be going on with the safeties as Bigby returns from injury and Collins eventually shows up.

Look, I love having players that are interchangeable. I think that it is great to know someone can slide over in the event of an injury. But the offensive line was pretty darn good when we had, in order, Chad Clifton, Mike Wahle, Mike Flanagan, Marco Rivera, and Mark Tauscher playing in their set spots, week after week (incidentally, I remembered that order without even looking it up).

But interchangeable players can be a negative, too....sometimes, those players don't get to develop at one position well enough to master it. In a new, complicated scheme, is it better to have them all over the field, or to know their position?

My hope is that Dom Capers is able to figure out quickly what players need to go where and allow them to master their position and their roles. Sometimes, the idea is that if you make players play all the positions, they understand the scheme better. But, if you're talking about players who have come off a season of missed assignments and miscommunications, that plan could backfire in a hurry.


I realize this may come off being a bit negative or pessimistic, and that is normally frowned on at this time of year, when we like to believe every player is bound for the Pro Bowl.

Take it as a dose of objective reality, and for what it's worth: as we debate whether or not the 3-4 will work or not, communication is going to be one of the reasons "why".


stick56 said...


"But the offensive line was pretty darn good when we had, in order, Chad Clifton, Mike Wahle, Mike Flanagan, Marco Rivera, and Mark Tauscher playing in their set spots, week after week (incidentally, I remembered that order without even looking it up)."

You cant bring that up without being labled as a "TT hater" by the good people at PC which suppossedly stands for {Packer Chatters) but actually is a cover for(Politically Correct).

Another point contradictory in nature:

The excuses for a failed season have already begun so your article will fit right in at PC

Sherman must really wonder why he didnt get any "love" like TT and MM get.

C.D. Angeli said...

I actually kind of liked Sherman. I was as critical of him as anyone, and while he had flaws a-plenty, especially as a GM, you really can't fault him for what he did with Ahman Green and that offensive line. No, maybe he didn't assemble that talent himself, but he sure did the best with the ingredients.

I think that what we've traded for flexibility among our offensive linemen is that cohesiveness that the early 2000's group had. It's time to get five guys, put them in their spots, and let them become masters instead of jacks of all trades.