I’m not a fan of schemes. I’m particularly not a fan of schemes as a silver bullet to fix obvious shortcomings on an NFL football team. And, most of all, I’m so not a fan of jumping late on a scheme’s bandwagon, after everyone else is already doing it.
But, along the line, the Green Bay Packers have done this twice, with at best marginal success. Oh, certainly, the Pack won a Super Bowl a few years ago, but I don’t know if anyone would say it was because of the Zone Blocking Scheme or even the 3-4 Defense. Quite honestly, they won a Super Bowl because they were talented and hungry, and had one of those charmed streaks where they managed to force a turnover at just the right time, whenever they needed it.
Since those days, the timely turnovers have disappeared, and players have openly questioned the hunger of the team. Change is on the horizon, and naturally, some of the conversation has turned back to the same one we’ve had before: “Maybe we should change the scheme!”
However, any change in scheme needs to be done for the right reasons, and I’m not sure the Packers have always chosen their schematic overhauls because it was the best idea at the time. In fact, I would guess it might have been to give General Manager Ted Thompson an opportunity to target tweener players that drop down the charts because they don’t fit the traditional 4-3 mold. And, there’s nothing Thompson loves more than drafting a guy he likes later on draft day rather than sooner.
Following the hiring of coach Mike McCarthy in 2006, he decided to implement the Zone Blocking Scheme, a simple idea that the Denver Broncos worked to perfection in the 1990′s with Terrell Davis. The concept was straightforward: get a bunch of guys who all block one direction (with the end tackle laying a chop block on the back of someone’s leg), and run the ball with a running back who merely had to make one cut and charge upfield.
It worked great….for the Broncos. But by the time the Packers decided to opt into the ZBS, not only had the idea been copied throughout the league, many teams (such as the Atlanta Falcons) were already trying to phase it out: a painful process, as the entire OL personnel needed to be overhauled. Seems that the “ZBS body type” wasn’t conducive to a traditional scheme.
But it allowed Thompson to quickly draft the three offensive linemen of the future: Daryn Colledge, Jason Spitz, and Tony Moll, all ZBS-style bodies that would be projects in a traditional system. Instead, they were all plucked into the starting lineup as rookies.
In the end, none of the three wear the green and gold anymore, and the ZBS has slowly been changed out for a more traditional, pulling-guard offense that features “mean-and-nasty” linemen like Josh Sitton and TJ Lang. Oh, for a time the ZBS seemed functional, particularly when Ryan Grant (perhaps the only true ZBS-style back the Packers have had in the backfield) slashed his one-cut-and-run for a couple of 1,000-yard seasons.
But, in the end, it was never anything near what the Broncos had achieved with Terrell Davis, and for good reason. The Broncos tailored the offense to maximize the talent they had on the roster. The Packers chose an offense, then searched for talent that might fit into it.
The 3-4 defense, installed after the debacle of 2008, was perhaps an attempt to modify the defensive schemery around the talent they had at the time. At that point, the Packers were struggling to keep healthy defensive linemen on the field, while possessing a deep stable of young, promising linebackers. The 3-4, originating with the Steelers, had proven to be an effective counter to the West Coast Offense’s shifty misdirection, and by 2009, a cadre of NFL teams had already adopted the scheme.
Not coincidentally at all, Thompson used his draft position to take on two ideal 3-4 defensive bodies: defensive tackle BJ Raji and linebacker Clay Matthews, both in the first round. They would go on to play integral roles in the Packers’ Super Bowl drive in their second seasons.
But the Packers’ defense appears to be faltering, falling to a league-worst in 2011 and following it up with yet another playoff embarrassment in 2012. The calls have gone out far and wide for the firing of defensive coordinator Dom Capers, which doesn’t appear likely. Nor should it: simply firing someone out of anger or frustration without a viable plan to improve upon it is foolish business.
But no truer words have been spoken than the words uttered by Thompson recently, who said that “If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.” Every element of this team will be under scrutiny, but the main question is “How is it going to get better?”
My advice would be to return to a 4-3 defense, but not for the reasons you might expect. I don’t believe that the 4-3 in and of itself is going to be a silver bullet that will turn this team around. It is the kind of move, however, that is going to allow the Packers to start looking for talented football players to stock their roster, not guys who fit a particular scheme that can be drafted further down the board as value picks.
Case in point: whenever I mention the idea of returning to a traditional 4-3, the first response I hear is “But, what are you going to do with Clay Matthews?? He’s a 3-4 linebacker? You’d be limiting our best defensive player by making him a 4-3 outside linebacker or a 4-3 defensive end!!! What about his sacks??”
Seriously? Yes, Clay Matthews is our best defensive player, perhaps head-and-shoulders above the rest of the team this year. My colleague John Rehor once said he’d grade out CMIII this season as an A, while he’d give the rest of the defense an F. But just because he’s our best defensive player doesn’t mean that you handicap the rest of the defense in order to keep him in his A+ position.
Would you rather have a dominant, playmaking Clay Matthews playing on a defense that keeps giving up 200+ yards on the ground to a running back or a running quarterback, or a less dominant Matthews contributing on a defense that can stop opposing offenses in the playoffs? Which do you think Matthews would rather be on?
The idea of keeping Matthews in his always-pass-rushing-playmaker role as a higher priority than the necessities of playing defense in today’s NFL is ridiculous. The Packers have Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, and RGIII all as possible opponents in the playoffs next season. We’re going to continue to play the way we have been, with no adjustments (as usual), hoping eventually that the opposing quarterback will just get so tired of running for so many yards that he’ll eventually give up?
As the Falcons and the Packers discovered with the Zone Blocking Scheme, stocking your roster with limited range and skill to fit that scheme will come back to bite you when it doesn’t work, and you have to switch back to something else. The Packers are at a crossroads, and the time has come to evolve the defense into something that can handle the read-option offense. And the West Coast Offense. And an Adrian Peterson-power-led offense. And any other offense that comes along.
In other words, we just need to put the best men we have out there, and adjust the schemes to fit the best talent we can find balanced against the opposition we’re facing. No more looking down the draft charts for the “would be a good 3-4 linebacker” or “could be a playmaker in the right scheme”. Let’s get the “can be a dominant player in any scheme” guys whenever we can.
And, I personally don’t believe that Clay Matthews is that limited in a schematic change anyway. He’s a monster out there, able to hit and find the ball. Yes, he’s a great pass rusher. The problem is that he’s presently our only pass rusher, and he can’t get there every time. So, instead of continuing to try and find 3-4 players to surround Matthews, surround him with great football players. Allow the talent on the field to dictate what kind of defense you are going to run. And if that 3-4 isn’t going to cut it, go with what works.
If Matthews gets only four sacks and loses some endorsements, but the Packers’ defense puts them in a position to take on any offense in the playoffs and come out on top, it’s worth it for everyone involved, particularly the fans. If Matthews gets 15 sacks, is featured in every commercial during the game, and the Packers continue to lay eggs in the playoffs…well, what are you watching football for?
The Cowboys are switching to a 4-3 this season. So are the Dolphins and the Jets (partially). Meanwhile, the Saints are switching to the 3-4, and the Panthers and the Browns may be close behind. There’s no hard-and-fast rule here, gang.
Except that if you keep doing what isn’t working, there’s a whole lot of people that may end up on the unemployment line. Let’s quit chasing the perfect scheme and start chasing the most talented players and design the scheme around them.
After all, isn’t that how schemes are created in the first place?
C.D. Angeli is a lifelong Packer fan and feature writer for CheeseheadTV.com. You can hear him on Cheesehead Radio on BlogTalkRadio and co-commands the Packers Talk Radio Network. Follow him on Twitter at @TundraVision.