Thursday, July 16, 2009

Capers: No Play-Calling for You, Nick....

Back on July 4th, Lori Nickel over at JSOnline penned a very nice article which featured Dom Capers talking about how encouraged he was with the implementation of the 3-4 defense. Certainly, I am among the many who feel that Capers was our best free agent acquisition of the offseason (and frankly, probably of any offseason since 2006), and that his expert hands on the steering wheel will make a potentially difficult transition smoother.

But, he did make one comment in regards to OTA holdout Nick Collins and the safeties that made me take notice, especially in the face of those of us who are highly concerned that shirking his role as the free safety will impact the communication of this developing defense.

Safety Nick Collins, who skipped most of the organized team activities and most of minicamp, does have time to make up, and Capers said the staff will try to help him do that. But Collins is not the so-called quarterback of the defense anymore, so his absence doesn't hurt the Packers there. That responsibility is shared now.

"We don't put it on one guy. At practice you hear a lot of communication. We do that purposefully to get everybody involved," Capers said. "Everyone has some type of communication responsibility before the snap. We think that mentally keeps them involved as opposed to, just go out there, once the ball is snapped, I have to keep my assignment."

Now, I don't want to come off as a conspiracy theorist, but I'm guessing that if some of the Collins Critics like myself didn't take notice of that quote, Nick Collins sure did.

If you are a student of the game and study the traditional roles of the safety positions, you will note that the strong safety generally plays closer to the line and provides more run support. The free safety plays back, makes most of the adjustment calls, and provides more over-the-top support in pass coverage.

The perfect example of these roles was watching LeRoy Butler play strong safety back in 1996, while Eugene Robinson played free safety. Butler was the hard hitter, the guy who would occasionally rush the quarterback. Butler himself praised Robinson for doing his job so well behind him that LeRoy could disrupt more at the line of scrimmage. Robinson was, quite literally, the safety the freed up Butler.

Robinson didn't have to be the hard hitter. He was the quarterback of the defense, smart, observant, and having the instincts to take the right angles to help in his over-the-top coverage.

Collins doesn't particularly fit that Robinson mold. He's a heavy hitter with some liabilities in his pass coverage, but he can stick a runner and has developed some good ball instincts.

I've long been critical of Ted Thompson's approach to the safeties he brings in, mainly because he tends to bring in the same kind of athletes to play both positions: Nick Collins, Mark Roman, Marquand Manuel, Atari Bigby, and Aaron Rouse all fit that strong safety mold. They were/are all strong run support players and they all struggled in their pass coverage. Some of them, like Roman and Manuel, got run out of town on a rail for their poor play. I think, to a degree, that is unjustified. You're playing one strong safety out of position, and no one is back there to provide that smart leadership for the other.

Kind of like running out of the backfield with two fullbacks. You're limited in what you can do, and you miss the gifts a true halfback brings to the table...and in fact, the complimentary skills of a halfback and fullback and how they make each other better.

What makes Capers' comments above intriguing to me (as a student of the game who believes strongly in such complementary skill sets for the safeties) is that he appears to be going against the traditional grain in the scheme as well. If the ZBS has taught us anything, you have to believe that the scheme in and of itself is not what makes you successful. Most non-traditional schemes require certain skill sets in order to make them work.

Now, as I checked some of the basic writeups that explain the 3-4, none I saw say safeties sharing the responsibilities is a tenet of 3-4 defenses. Of course, that's like saying all 4-3 defenses will try and generate a pass rush with only their front four. Bob Sanders' 4-3 is a lot different than everyone else's 4-3.

But, this kind of "shared responsbility" is apparently somewhat of a trademark of Capers' version of the 3-4.

[Anthony] Smith's main strength from the Packers' perspective is his familiarity with the 3-4 defense. While the switch to the 3-4 is a major change for defensive linemen and linebackers, it also affects the safeties.

In Capers' version of the 3-4, the traditional strong and free safety positions aren't as well-defined as in other defensive schemes, and safeties are required to switch assignments on the fly. link

Now, when did this lack of definition take place? Could have been anytime, but the first time Dom Capers was a defensive coordinator (back in the early 90's in Pittsburgh), the safeties were given the titles of free safety and strong safety. If you check some of the news articles from the Jaguars defense in 1999, when Capers was the DC there, they also refer to the safeties as free or strong. So, this re-defining of the safety positions has taken place sometime between 1999 and this offseason.

The shoe: Now, it seems to be mentioned more and more often that Capers is going to be sharing the communication responsibilities the more Nick Collins wasn't around for OTA's. While it may not be the direct intent of Capers, it may be an indirect way to deflect some of the panic that Collins isn't going to be prepared to take on his role as free safety this year.

And that's not a bad thing. Coaches aren't the ones in the negotiating room, and they don't like to get their hands dirty with holdout drama (which is why the dual position of GM/HC is often ill-fated anyway). Capers knows the pressure is going to be on his Pro Bowl safety and this is a way to diffuse it a bit with the media and bloggers that are griping about Collins' absence.

The other shoe: Conversely, this may also be sending a message to Collins, who has to believe much of his value as he strives for a contract extension is based on his ability as a defensive leader, assuming those communication duties that a free safety traditionally is supposed to do.

Quite a blow for Collins, isn't it? He holds out, holding the team hostage from his role as the defensive play-caller, then Capers announces that it isn't in his job description anymore. Oops.

I will admit to a degree of skepticism when it comes to the roles of communication not in the hands of a free safety. These defenders couldn't communicate very well with each other at all last season in a scheme they were used to. It doesn't bode well for those same players to be responsible for sharing more communication now while playing out of their element. There are days I'm excited about the transition to the 3-4, and days that I feel trepidation; when it comes to assuming the scheme will create better communication, I feel the latter.

This is where Capers' veteran and savvy hand comes into play. And when it comes to Collins, I have a feeling he's going to be mightily well-served to report to training camp on time and with no sign of attitude. After all, if what Capers is saying is true, Collins is going to be the one with something to prove.


Anonymous said...

Lots of moving parts here during the transition from a 43 with the MLB making the calls, to a 34 with a safety making the calls.

Capers himself suggests the change is to keep everybody involved.

Perhaps he has learned in his travels that depending on one player is a risky move from both the contract and the injury point of view.

Spreading the "defensive QB" role out may or may not have anything to do with Collins current status.

But with the League allowing a limited number of miked defensive helmets, somebody has to be in charge.

Thanks for another fine effort LA

stick56 said...

I dont understand the continued, unrelenting Collins hate.

Looks to me be to be just another made up out-of-thin air justification to continue with TT's failed philosopy if in fact he even has one except to remain in power at all costs even winning seasons.

And as another self-fullfilling excuse for the Packers to have another poor season ie this year just blame it on Collins.

When does the pressure to "have something to prove" fall on TT, MM and Capers?

Ive seen not one iota of similar critical analysis of those three just fluff.

Read Collins achievements at every bit as good as Barnett, Jenkins, Poppinga, Grant Jennings and Rodgers among others who have received extenions/Big contracts yet his treatment by Packer management and its fawing fans is 180 degrees different.

Something stinks big time here.

C.D. Angeli said...

Anon, everything sounds good in theory. Heck, we could be switching to a new 4-3 and the DC could be talking about the new cool blitz packages he's putting in, and we'd be fawning over them. I'm not buying the ideas that spreading the responsibility is great idea until I actually see it work. Kind of like the ZBS, which is going on, what, four years now?

stick, my friend, I have been highly critical of TT's lack of drafting or signing a true free safety for years, and am also critical of MM's adopting "schemes of the moment", like the ZBS and now the 3-4, without having the talent in place first.

But, that doesn't mean I'm going to absolve Collins, either. I think he's going right down the Javon Walker road unless someone gets in his ear pretty quick.

stick56 said...

"But, that doesn't mean I'm going to absolve Collins, either. I think he's going right down the Javon Walker road unless someone gets in his ear pretty quick."

Absolve him of what?

To be treated equal to the other palyers mentioned and some I didnt but have in other discussions?:

His accomplishments speak for themselves.:

Put you like others totally dismiss them at best if not totally denigrate them at worst.


He deserves to at least to have talks on a new contract. TT simply refuses.

Its beyond understanding.

If you think the pick-up of Smith form Pittsburgh is any kind of answer I have a coupla bridges for sale you will be interested in.

And in the first place why would you want to replace a four year starting All-Pro with never-has-been anything?


Comparing him to Walker is also nonsensical.

Actually its the Cory Williams scenario kicked up a coupla notches.

I expect the packers to haceve a 12-4 season but not if TT coontinues to throw monkey wrenches into the process.

If you think the other players in the locker room dont see the constantly changing, inconsistent, double standards TT uses for grantng contract extensions/Big Contracts your going to soon be sadly mistaken.

And the Packers will not have success on the field Capers or no Capers.

I find this contract talk intrangience is beyond belief and the fact that so many fans agree with TTs reprehensible, immoral and unethical methods deeply disturbing.