Certainly, one of the biggest concerns we had with the Packers' defense this offseason (and after last Saturday's preseason game against the Browns) was generating a pass rush capable of putting a decent quarterback off kilter. Against the Cardinals in the playoffs last year, only Clay Matthews seemed capable of getting into the backfield. Last week, with Matthews out, no one on the first-string defense seemed able to put any pressure at all on the quarterback. The results in both games were chillingly clear: the quarterback had ample time to stand steady in the pocket and go through his reads. I don't care if you have Al Harris/Charles Woodson or Deion Sanders/Rod Woodson back there...if you give any quarterback that kind of time, he's eventually going to find somewhere to pass to.
Now, while I've been critical of the 3-4 schematic switch, I do have faith in Dom Capers because he does something near and dear to my heart: he is willing to adjust the scheme to fit the players. He's willing to experiment, putting Chillar in as an extra safety in the Big Okie package, or getting the deeper set of linebackers on the field while going with Ryan Pickett as the sole down lineman in the Psycho package.
Now, the success of these packages are up for debate, but you can't fault the man for not taking his scheme so seriously he's afraid to mess with it, a la Bob Slowik.
However, the scheme and how Capers coaches it are only two parts of the puzzle: we still have to look purely at the talent on the field. Aaron Kampman became a casualty of the switch to the 3-4 as he simply didn't have a natural fit in the new scheme. As a pass rush still seems to be something we're missing, I am going to propose a switch to help make it work: Brady Poppinga at ILB, and Nick Barnett at OLB.
This is nothing new, of course, as putting Barnett outside or Poppinga inside has been brought up before, though not necessarily in the same fell swoop. Jersey Al Bracco brought up the idea of moving Poppinga inside last year, but the motion failed among Packer fans because we knew that McCarthy (and Thompson) are not going to sit down AJ Hawk. And many have propositioned before that Barnett might be a more natural fit outside, but fretted about who could replace him.
What is changing the paradigm is Poppinga's solid training camp. No, he hasn't been a monster out there, but for the number of times that Brady has been written off, he keeps his roster spot. He's a hard worker, a big body that was the "tweener" DE/LB. In his own words when he was drafted, he a "malleable piece of clay"...wherever the Packers wanted to put him, he would happily do it. Aaron Nagler over at CHTV notes his attention to detail in camp and how he outshone Brandon Chillar in the Browns game.
Now, the basic premise of the 3-4 changes things considerably for the linebackers used to a 4-3. In a 4-3, the two outside linebackers have some rushing responsibilities, but more often than not, they are often covering tight ends and backs out of the backfield. It's the MLB in the 4-3 that is the "glory position", the playmaker in the middle of the field, and often, the extra rusher on a blitz. Barnett has served that role well when the Packers were in the 4-3.
But the 3-4 is different...it places some of the responsibilities of the missing lineman on the linebacking crew. The outside backers go from coverage guys guarding a side of the field to the extra pass rusher(s). But, most importantly, the inside backers end up with a large responsibility for absorbing linemen on running plays and helping opening things up for the designated rushers--ideally the defensive ends and the outside linebackers.
This doesn't mean that the ILB's are completely taken out of the picture, but simply by the nature of where they line up on the field, their responsibilities are going to be focused in controlling their gaps and shedding blockers. Ray Lewis bemoaned the Ravens' choice to switch to the 3-4. When the returned to the 4-3, he remarked on how excited he was to play football again. He was a playmaker, used to being a playmaker, who had to adjust to being the guy who set the plate for others.
Now, there are folks who point out that the traditional roles of the 3-4 are no longer set in stone, and certainly, Dom Capers has proven that there doesn't have to be anything traditional about the 3-4 or anything on our defense. But, when it comes to maximizing the talent we have, I think that we might be able to fix our pass rush with a simply change of position.
* The odd man out (whether you agree or not) wouldn't be AJ Hawk, but Brad Jones. Yes, I know we like him, and he may indeed be our OLB of the future, but it is a good idea to not completely rely on him (especially with the quiet training camp he has had). There's certainly time to groom him into a role, and he has a lot of potential. But if the goal is to put your best four guys out there (the same rationale as playing Bryan Bulaga at LG along the offensive line), both Chillar and Poppinga have outplayed Jones this preseason.
* While Poppinga's drive has never been questioned, his pass-rushing skills have. McCarthy seemed insistent that Poppinga might be the missing link with the pass rush (hattip: Total Packers) , and while he's been serviceable this preseason, we should know better than to believe he's suddenly going to become a monster pass rusher.
The traditional role of inside linebackers has been to be flexible, speedy guys that eat up blocks, and better yet, shed them to make plays. As we know, that doesn't always happen, as pass defense is indeed the weakness of the 3-4. Poppinga, the malleable piece of clay, may thrive on the inside doing some of the things he does best (well, better than pass rushing): engaging blockers and holding his ground, opening the door for playmakers to get in there.
No, it's not a glorious position, but as any nose tackle in the 3-4 can tell you, there is no glory for a defense if those point men don't do their job well enough. Poppinga may have size, speed, and strength to take on that role.
* Most importantly, Nick Barnett is a vocal leader of this defense. He also had a career-high four sacks last year from the inside linebacker position, a testament to both his pass-rushing ability and Capers willingness to change up the scheme to allow Barnett to make plays like a 4-3 middle backer. However, his tackles went down to 82, the second-lowest of his career (discounting 2008, when he only played 9 games).
The man who declares "Super Bowl or Die" and has some of the best pass-rushing ability on the team should be put into a position to make those plays. Instead of trying to find someone to do the job adequately, why not find someone who can excel at it? Other than Matthews, Barnett is the best-equipped pass-rushing linebacker on the team. Could you imagine having those two up near the line every single down?
Face it: the rush isn't getting there, no matter who we've put at the other OLB position. About the only guy we haven't tried there is Barnett.
* Finally, depth almost dictates this move. There are two OLB positions, and we have one proven player there. Brad Jones, Brandon Chillar, and Brady Poppinga are not consistent pass rushers, and the lack of depth at OLB has been bemoaned all offseason.
But the depth at ILB is relatively solid. AJ Hawk may not be a superstar, but he holds his own in at a spot that is not a glory position in the 3-4. Brandon Chillar and Desmond Bishop have both been called upon as replacements for Hawk, giving us three relatively stable players at the position.
So, if you went with: Poppinga/Hawk at ILB with Bishop/Chillar backing up, you'd have to think that was a pretty deep field.
At OLB, if you start Barnett/Matthews and back them up with Jones/Chillar, you have a much more solid starting two and some decent depth.
Now, if Poppinga ends up struggling or unable to do the job, you at least have some solid guys like Chillar and Bishop to plug in behind him. But the payoff is having your two best pass-rushers in the positions where they need to be to make plays.
And if the pass-rush is consistently disruptive, the "Super Bowl or Die" talk can find its footing again. If it continues to be invisible, so will the Packers chances of going deep into the playoffs.