Reaction to Bob McGinn’s report that the Packers are considering a shift in their base defense has largely been met with enthusiasm from what I’ve seen.
My impression is that people are excited to see B.J. Raji taking over the one-gap responsibilities Cullen Jenkins used to have that generally equate to more opportunities for making plays. It’s hard to blame them either. Raji showed last year that he can be a solid interior pass rusher and is on the cusp for being one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL.
Couple that with a move by Ryan Pickett back to nose tackle where he was in 2009 when the Packers were no. 1 in the league against the rush, and it sounds like a recipe for success.
There’s a catch, however.
By moving B.J. Raji to the weak side of the defense, McGinn suggests Mike Neal would be playing in Ryan Pickett’s old spot on the strong side, which is on the left side of the defense next to Clay Matthews a majority of the time.
While an opportunity for Raji might be opened on the weakside, the pairing of Neal and Matthews on the strong side could perhaps be a risky proposition.
Matthews is considered one of the best pass rushers in the NFL, though defending the run is not his forte. It’s a facet of the outside linebacker’s game the Steelers tried to exploit in February’s Super Bowl.
I’m not a member of the camp that’s going to call Matthews a liability against the run, but in terms of relative weakness, it’s exactly that.
As for Neal, the physical tools are there––notably the strength––for him to be a good player. As for this moment, the health and his experience are question marks, as is his 295-pound frame, which is significantly less than Pickett, Raji and even Johnny Jolly, as McGinn points out.
Bear in mind, I only present this concern about Matthews and Neal as a potential pitfall and not a full-fledged recipe for disaster. Like any level-headed person, I’m willing to reserve judgement until I see this formation in action. And what better time to start forming an opinion than the exhibition season when the games don’t count.
Perhaps my concerns will turn out to be unfounded. After all, the Packers only used their base 3-4 defense on roughly 25% of their snaps in the pass-first NFL.
And since I did point out the Steelers’ success running the ball against the Packers earlier, it’s only fair that I acknowledge Matthews’ forced fumble of Reshard Mendenhall that helped turn the tide of the game. Matthews helps make up for any perceived deficiency by making game changing plays.
Coming full circle, however, I might also point out that it was Pickett who spilled the play out to Matthews in the Super Bowl to begin with. In the new configuration, Matthews would no longer have the benefit of lining up next to the mammoth defender.
If there proves to be a legitimate reason to be concerned about Matthews and Neal, though, one way for the Packers to fortify their run defense is by using Howard Green instead of Neal on typical running downs, whereby they get a little more beef on the field.
In any case, it’s worth watching how Matthews and Neal hold up against the run.