Back at the beginning of camp it was reported that the Packers were planning to move Ryan Pickett back to the nose tackle position that he had played back in 2009 and that they planned on moving B. J. Raji over to Cullen Jenkins' old spot at defensive end. I was excited for the move then and remain so, but I wanted to take a closer look at exactly what Capers has been experimenting with over the last few preseason games in regards to what he calls his Eagle and Okie alignments for his defensive line
Eagle is constituted as follows:
The end to the strong side is head-up on the tackle in a 5-technique, the nose tackle is in a shaded position just off the strong-side shoulder of the center, and the weak-side end is in a 3-technique position on the outside shoulder of the guard.
As the Packers are trying to do things, Mike Neal and/or C.J. Wilson are the strong side end, Ryan Pickett is the nose and B.J. Raji is the weak-side end.
Of course, NFL offenses rarely just break the huddle and set up anymore. Most of them feature some kind of motion or wholesale changes in formation prior to the snap of the ball. This is why you will sometimes see the defensive line shifting around along with the offense. The defensive line is waiting to see where the offense lines up so it can read which side is the "strong" side. (Traditionally this is the side where the tight end lines up, or the side where the fullback is sometimes offset) Once the strong side is set, the defensive line lines up according to the guidelines above if they are running Eagle. There was a perfect example of the Eagle alignment on the second play of the game against the Cardinals.
Notice how Raji and Wilson switch sides while Pickett changes which side of the center he is shading to.
The Packers want to allow Raji to work against guys in space, hoping to single him up in more one-on-ones, and allow him to shoot gaps when called upon. This is where he excels and I expect Raji to cause all sorts of problems for offenses from this position. I also like moving Pickett back to nose for one simple reason - he's a much better "two gapper" than Raji is. Raji's strength is in his quickness off the ball and his ability to get through gaps quickly and be disruptive, much like Cullen Jenkins. Pickett, on the other hand, is best suited to the traditional two gap responsibilities of a nose tackle.
What is two-gapping? Quite simply, it's where the defensive lineman are asked to play two gaps. They are asked to engage with the offensive lineman, read where the play is going, get off the block and make the tackle. It's a very old-school way of playing defensive line in a 3-4 and its becoming rarer and rarer in today's NFL, which might be why Capers and company decided they were wasting Pickett at defensive end. It's almost criminal when you realize what a natural Pickett is at two-gapping. Now, the Packers don't ask their nose to two gap very often (in fact they rarely asked it of Raji) but when he's been asked to do it Pickett has excelled.
For a textbook example of this technique, take a look at the play below:
Notice how Pickett stands his man up, reads the back, disengages from the block and makes the tackle. Absolutely textbook.
That's not to say that Capers is keeping Pickett strictly at the nose. On at least one snap where the Packers ran their Okie alignment, Pickett was lined up at defensive end. In fact, it came on the play where he got the sack of Kolb.
Okie is constituted as follows:
Both ends play a 5-technique head-up over the tackles while the nose tackle is head-up on the center.
One would think that this would be more of a traditional run-stopping set, but notice how Capers sends a corner blitz. The alignments for the line are just an ingredient that goes in to each and every defensive play. There is the line's alignment, there's the coverage and there is the pressure aspect, if any is called for. Capers has literally hundreds of combos to play with in this regard and its why younger quarterbacks in particular have such trouble with his defense. Notice how Kolb keeps waiting for something to develop that never does. Most likely he's seeing something he never expected. (He completely misses Fitzgerald, who breaks off his route after he sees the blitz)
I have no doubt Capers and defensive line coach Mike Trgovac will look at several more combos as preseason goes on. (It's interesting to see Howard Green lined up at nose in the Okie front) The biggest beneficiary of the move, in my mind, will be the Packers run defense. While the Cardinals were able to make some hay on the ground, I think a lot of that was due to the Packers still trying things out up front (not to mention a couple of poor plays by Erik Walden on the outside where he completely lost contain) But having Pickett in the middle should really strengthen the heart of the run defense.
Overall, work remains to be done but I am very excited about the direction things are going on the defensive line.