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.