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Tundra Vision: The Phillips Brand of 3-4 Could Be Recipe For Success

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Tundra Vision: The Phillips Brand of 3-4 Could Be Recipe For Success

The rumor going around is that BJ Raji, the massive former first-round defensive lineman, declined an $8M-a-year offer from the Packers to stick around. From that point on, a suddenly-critical fan base began focusing on Raji and put him under the "Are You Really Worth $8M-a-year And Oh By The Way Screw You For Turning Down An Offer With The Packers" eyeball test.

The results were overwhelming. He sacked the quarterback, stripped the ball, picked it up, and ran it in for a touchdown on 0% of the snaps he played; therefore, he's a waste of space and we should let him go.

Not that there's any rampant emotion going around or anything.

But, let's take a more serious look at Raji's impact in the 3-4. There has to be a reason a shrewd general manager like Ted Thompson would make such a sizable offer to Raji, especially if he's as completely useless and invisible as many fans would like to believe. And a lot of it has to do with the scheme the Packers run.

As further criticism has rained down on the defense this season, there's been calls for an entire schematic shift. I, myself, made a call to return to the 4-3 a few weeks ago. But in the end, Both a 4-3 and a 3-4 do pretty much the same thing: it puts seven guys up front to fill all the possible gaps on the offense. But the traditional 3-4 ends up being the most passive in the area that the Packers have had the most trouble: the middle of the field.

In Capers' (and most traditional) 3-4 schemes, players in the middle of the field have the responsibility of eating up blockers in order to open up opportunities for the players on the outside. Ray Lewis, a middle linebacker, vocally expressed his displeasure with the Raven's switch to the 3-4 multiple times, because it took him out of his normal role as a playmaker and put him in a more passive role of a blocker-eater.

His stats also took a major hit. More importantly, he made less of an impact in the backfield. The Packer who has taken on that role has suffered similar charges: AJ Hawk has been the guy doing the thankless job in the middle of the field. His job in the 3-4 is to eat up blockers.

In the traditional 3-4, it is also the job of the nose tackle to read the center's block, control him, and play off him to the ball. This is where the term "two gap" comes from, and why we call Caper's scheme a "two-gap" 3-4 defense.

In reality, a 4-3 wouldn't change all that much for a player like Raji, especially if it continues to be a "read-and-react" defense. My guess is if Raji is hoping for greener pastures elsewhere, he's probably looking for a 3-4 defense in the Wade Phillips style down in Houston, where he would be allowed to do more attacking than reading.

In the end, perhaps that's not a bad idea overall for this defense for next season. The idea of converting back to a 4-3 comes with the concerns that we've already "built" this defense to fit within the scheme, and (like the failed attempt at a zone blocking scheme) would require a near-complete overhaul of personnel to make it happen.

But Phillips' version of the 3-4 is as much a change in attitude as it is a change in schematica. Phillips doesn't run it as a reading scheme. He runs it as an attacking scheme. All of the down players have a specific assignment and violently attack it with speed and power.

In other words, the players spend less time thinking and reacting, and more time just playing football. Sounds intriguing for any kid who grew up playing football and wound up in the NFL having to go through mental checklists on every play. And I think you can easily make the case that reading-and-reacting has, over time, made the Packers' defensive more passive, maybe even more unsure of itself without the impact of a smart free safety to keep everyone in line in front of him.

In a Phillips-style 3-4, Raji isn't going to be asked to control and dominate the center, allowing others to have opportunities to make plays. He's going to have his gap assigned that he needs to fill with his strength, speed, and agility. He's going to jump off the ball and attack. And we all know that for a big man, BJ Raji is blessed with some amazing athletic talent.

It also stands to reason that the Packers defense is looking at some major turnover this offseason. If the Packers were to re-sign Raji at the contract he previously turned down, it closes the door on some of the other free agents the Packers might be interested in re-signing. Ryan Pickett is almost a foregone conclusion to leave an open starting spot along the defensive line, and players like Sam Shields, CJ Wilson, Johnny Jolly, and Mike Neal will all be considering other offers, particularly after a season in which their defensive unit was much-maligned. If you're the "worst defense ever", why stick around?

It offers an opportunity for the Packers to enact such a change in philosophy, as well as an opportunity to bring in the talent that will compliment the scheme. If the Packers were to switch to a Phillips 3-4, let's take a look at who would fit the scheme.

Outside linebackers - In the Phillips 3-4, the WOLB will have the sexier role, playing not unlike a 4-3 DE, usually rushing from the edge. The SOLB would have the more difficult (yet important) job of reading the play based on the coverage, usually playing the TE but sometimes backing up into coverage on the flats. It would be nice to have Clay Matthews in the sexy WOLB spot, but that means we would need to find a smart, savvy, dynamic guy to play on the strong side. Since I have a hard time seeing Brad Jones on this team next season, the Packers may look to continue to develop Mike Neal into that position, though the thought of him covering a tight end scares me. Wouldn't Nick Perry living up to expectations be a great addition here?

Inside linebackers - Both will have gaps to crash on run plays, but will have varying assignments on pass plays. I think that this would be one of the most important transformations of the defense. The ILBs need to become more aggressive, with less to think about and more to hit and intimidate. Unlike most, I've long been in AJ Hawk's corner. For the exact reasons I mentioned earlier, think his lack of impact isn't because of a lack of talent, but because of scheme assignments that are supposed to enable others to make plays. There's a part of me that wonders how Hawk would fare in that outside position opposite Matthews, but I realize if it would have worked, the Packers would have likely tried it by now. There's nothing I would love more than seeing Hawk on the downside of his career getting an opportunity to make plays and prove to everyone that he just needed those opportunities. The Packers have a lot of projects to put next to Hawk, including Jamari Lattimore, Robert Francois, and Andy Mulumba. However, it might interesting to upgrade  the SOLB spot in the draft or FA and see if a revitalized Nick Perry could move inside.

WDE - This player is going to play a charging 3 technique (outside the guard). I could see Johnny Jolly taking this position and dominating it. He's really brought any spark this defense has had this year, and should be rewarded with the starting spot vacated by Pickett.

NT - Instead of eating up blockers, the Phillips NT charges, usually shading the strong side or playing a tight 1 technique. Look for BJ Raji to stay and take off in this role.

SDE - This player plays a charging 5 technique. Again, simply the change in attitude will upgrade this position. Obviously, you'd pencil in Datone Jones in this position, but with his rookie struggles, you might be better off having Mike Daniels hold the spot for now until Jones matures into the position.

The Packers have players to fill each position, and quite frankly, won't be able to address additions to the front seven this offseason though free agency (salary cap) or the draft (higher priority needs in the secondary, tight end, and offensive line).  As I've mentioned in my Kitchen Analogy, a defensive coordinator might have to take the same ingredients and use a different recipe to make it work.

Changing over to a Wade Phillips-style of 3-4, replete with a change in attitude from passive reacting to aggressive attacking might just be the recipe for success this defense needs.

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (40) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

lmills's picture

I would like to see them run this to see what players would stand out in their new roles. It seems that the current version restrains players abilities. Or, maybe they're just not that good. Unfortunately...we'll probably never see this version with Capers here.

steve's picture

CD, another great article. Since everywhere you look in the Packer's organization, people are defending Capers, so what are the chances an old dog can learn some new tricks?

tundravision's picture

Tried to avoid that in the article. Too hot-button as would distract from the larger point I was trying to make.

But, no. I don't think he can do it. Team needs a shake up and new authority to make them accountable

Stroh's picture

Thanks for saying what I have been for the past month. Saying that Capers should be replaced w/ a different 34 DC is exactly my thinking. I don't particularly think Phillips 34 is best either, since far as I know it hasn't won a SB.

Either way more accountability and leardership from the DC is EXACTLY what I've been saying! I don't know why Capers D's seem to regress over time, but I do know its very much a trend and personally I attribute it to lacking both accountability and leadership from the DC.

Once again thanks for listening to my advise and writing an article on it, even if you don't credit me! Tho that would be nice too.

Nick Perry's picture

Wow, could a person make a more self serving, self centered statement? You're right Stroh, nobody has made any comments except you for different defenses.

KennyPayne's picture

CD, take a good, long look at Mr. Hawk. McGinn has an article out today highlight the lack of speed among Hawk and B. Jones.

There is NO WAY Hawk can attack anything with a slow-footed LB corps.

tundravision's picture

And you may be right. Just see Hawk as consistent, but not a disruptor. Will be interesting.

RC Packer Fan's picture

Have you looked at the differences between a Capers 3-4 and a Rex Ryan 3-4 defense?

Ryans Defense's seem to be a more aggressive/attacking 3-4 then Capers.

ArodMoney's picture

A linebackers job is never just to 'eat up blockers'

ben's picture

Hawk is the best at eating up blockers

The TKstinator's picture

I'm pretty good at eating up hamburgers.

Stroh's picture

Actually in the Packers current version of the 34 it is one of the bigger responsibilities of the Strong ILB. But don't allow a HOF ILB to dissuade you from your uninformed opinion!

Surely you know more about NFL defenses w/ your outstanding experience, of what is it? How many years have you been playing/coaching in the NFL?

Maybe you outta listen and learn occasionally!

ArodMoney's picture

No I'm saying no linebacker is ever supposed to stay on a block unless they're playing force. Yes the SILB has to take on more blockers, but they are also expected to stand them up in the hole and work off them to make a play. They aren't just supposed to stay on the block ala AJ Hawk. Ray Lewis most certainly didn't stay on blocks for long.

Lewis also never said he was a block eater so maybe you outta read and learn occasionally!

Stroh's picture

You said...

"A linebackers job is never just to ‘eat up blockers'."

Don't know how you expect different! You did say a LB job is NEVER to eat up blockers. You DIDN"T say that its a LB job to get upblocked and make a play. Be realistic, LB weigh in the 240 to 250 range and OG in the 300 to 330 range. How do you honestly expect a LB to take on the OG stand him up AND still make the tackle? Ray Lewis couldn't even do it consistently which is why his numbers went down when Balt played a 34 D.

duker's picture

Exactly. The down linemen eat up blockers in a 3-4 so ALL linebackers can run to the ball.

4thand1's picture

Its been said many times in here and elsewhere. There's to much thinking going on that's leading to mistakes and blown assignments. There always seems to be a player out of position to make a play. But, the tackling has been an issue again. There's no scheme in the world that makes a player a better tackler.

D B H's picture

Maybe the players tackle better if they are being the aggressors instead of waiting flat-footed for the ball carrier to come to them because we're giving up another big play due to mental mistakes.

I think a lot of our tackling problems relate to our defense's mindset - one where most of our players are simply trying not to be the guy that is so out of position that they are responsible for the big play (looking at you, #42). You can see it in the attitude of the defense, and it's not pretty.

lebowski's picture

took the words right out of my mouth

The TKstinator's picture

Attacking is exciting and long been a buzz word in the NFL, but it also provides greater opportunities to get gashed.

"Bend but don't break": boring but intended to limit big plays. 13 play, 8 minute, 80 yard drives.

"Attacking": more sacks, tackles for loss, but also 3 play, minute and a half dives with a 57 yard TD pass included.

Catch 22, but, give me better players on D and watch the D improve. Mix things up. Nothing works ALL THE TIME, but players make the difference before, during, and after all the X's and O's get moved around.

tundravision's picture

Problem is with AR and CM3 pushing the cap, an influx of talent isn't coming. Better off at least maximizing what talent you have until then

The TKstinator's picture

Yes the cap is unavoidable. It really makes high to even mid priced FA's out of the question, but TT has never done much of that anyway. I would have no prob if they went D heavy in the next draft like they did 2 years ago...but those picks have to pan out.

On offense, it seems all we need is health. Maybe a TE, depending on what I think is the unlikely return of 88.

The TKstinator's picture

Oh, and your guys have to tackle, whether they're in man to man, zone, 2 gap, attack, or whatever the hell else you wanna throw in there.

ben's picture

Our middle linebackers are already in a playmaking role, Hello! The Dlineman in our current defense are to maintain gap control and eat up blockers freeing up the 2nd level LB's to make plays. The problem with this approach is that hawk is not a play maker. & Raji is not worth 8 million a year in any scheme.

My solution....Neal at LLB, Perry at RLB, and Matthews to ILB where he can shore up our soft middle against the run, blitz the QB's face, and as one of the best cover LB's in the game can cover somebody. Also let blowjob walk, and sign UFA Paul Soliai a true nose tackle who fits our scheme and personnel needs. Hawk is liability in any scheme period.

We also need to play more man to man coverage. The Zone blitz is a nice way to change it up on the opposing QB sometimes, but for the most part you have to man it up, especially with our personnel.

Stroh's picture

Brilliant... Lets take our best pass rusher out of pass rush. Yeah that makes a lot of sense doesn't it?

Please tell me you don't need me to answer that for you!

RC Packer Fan's picture

I agree with this a little bit. I don't want to see Clay become the starting ILB. But what I don't mind seeing is him getting moved around and moved to the ILB in pass rush situations. Just like he did yesterday.

It gives the offense another look and they have to try and block everyone else. If the OL try's to turn its attention to Clay up the middle it will open up the outside for Neal/Perry or Daniels/Jones. If the C goes to double team one of the DE's that should open up a clear lane to the QB for Clay. Just like yesterday.

I'm not saying every Nickel defense to do this, but do it as a change of pace type of thing.
Just move Clay around to get him the best matchup possible. Also by doing that they have 3 of their best Pass rushers on the field at the same time. Perry at ROLB (his best position), Neal at LOLB, and CM3 free to rush from anywhere.

Clay's picture

Well done CD. Seems without any facts to prove what I am about to say, every time I see Philips he is on the losing end of a debacle. Last year Rodgers torched his Houston D, and the commentators were astounded at his awful game plan against Rodgers.
Seems to me the D that stops these spread high tempo passing offenses is the two deep safety plus excellent pressure with only four a la KC and the
Giants of a couple years back.
Lastly I don't see mentioned much that a big deal was made of the Pack moving Raji to D End I believe in his third season. Can't remember which. It made no difference. At the position his numbers were supposed to improve. Nothing happened. I'm pretty ignorant but I just don't know if this guy really has the true grit.
The book "Take Your Eye off the Ball", written to educate fans about football has an entire section devoted to Raji as a miscast player, saying he is suited for a four three. Apparently he's too short.
Regardless I don't see him going anywhere and turning into Warren Sapp. I appreciate your hopeful outlook, but a position change has been tried with him. Every excuse in the world has been made for him. Remember when it was " too many snaps"?
I'll forever thank him for his moment in the NFC Championship game, but I would NOT overpay him. Draft a guy there. Bye Raji unless you come cheap and humble.

Stroh's picture

Raji looked pretty F'in good as a NT in his only full time season playing NT didn't he? I'm not saying that is the total answer but it surely seems a part of it!

BradHTX's picture

A slightly subversive thought...

Many have observed that Capers' defenses follow a pattern of being great when they are first installed, and then trailing off in effectiveness in subsequent years. Is it possible that Capers' scheme works well when the layers don't actually know how to execute it properly, and when they do learn, its ineffectiveness becomes apparent?

Mostly joking, but there actually could be something to it. Maybe his scheme is simply too cerebral to actually work.

The TKstinator's picture

Maybe.
"Tackle the man with the ball" seems like a good place to start.

Hank Scorpio's picture

The 3-4 needs really good LBs. The Packers have one, Matthews. Neal and Perry are making some impact but they could do the same as DL, probably. Hawk is what he is, a solid but unspectacular player. Jones is playing at the level to inspire people to wonder about Lattimore.

If they do fire Capers, I see no personnel-based reasons to not look at 4-3 guys. In fact, I'd say just the opposite. The roster is better suited to a 4-3 defense now, IMO. Pickett, Daniels, Neal, Boyd, Perry, Raji, Worthy, Jolly, Jones and Wilson would make a heck of a DL unit, even if one or two goes this offseason.

Idiot Fan's picture

This may be total coincidence, but Dallas just switched to 4-3 from 3-4, and Ware - one of the top pass rushers of the last 5 years or so - has completely fallen off the face of the earth. I do wonder what would happen to Clay if a switch to 4-3 was made.

Hank Scorpio's picture

If they were to make the switch to 4-3, I'd want to see Matthews at LB, probably the middle. I think he'd be much more disruptive there than at DE, where he'd be a little lacking in bulk.

Moving Matthews away from rushing the QB every down is the biggest downside of going 4-3. But they have a strong enough DL group they could do it with minimal transition issues. And I can see Matthews being a great MLB. He's got the instincts, motor, athleticism and playmaking ability to do anything, IMO.

The TKstinator's picture

Man, what a thought; possibly brilliant, possibly the opposite.

I can't ignore the fact that CM3 is BY FAR our best pass rusher and as MLB his opportunities in that regard would be greatly diminished.

Hank Scorpio's picture

lol, I'm still trying to decide if I'm making myself look like an idiot with the suggestion. But the more I think about the idea, the more I like it. Maybe I'm talking myself into it.

No doubt, CM3 is the Packers best pass rusher. That is the biggest conflict in the notion of going to 4-3. He's also their best LB, by a long shot. Nobody else comes close to his skill set as a LB. I would call the gap at LB larger than the one as pass rusher. Daniels is tied with CM3 for the team lead this year. If Datone Jones makes a normal jump from year 1 to year 2 for DL, he might pass up Daniels and close the gap further.

Here's another part of it: Since the Packers made the switch, more teams have also gone 3-4. That means less available LBs and more available DL. And the Packers current roster clearly has a surplus of DL and lack of LBs.

One thing is absolutely certain: That stupid 2 DL formation is keeping poor ILBs on the field at the expense of better players along the DL. That alone is reason to dismiss Capers, IMO. The absolute first job of a coordinator is to get his best players on the field and Capers fails at that every time Hawk & Jones line up behind 2 DL.

jOHJN's picture

Wade Phillips still insists on playing man with safeties down against elite qbs. rodgers 6td game? the texans were the only team not to line up and play 2 man against the packers.

I feel the nfl may have passed him by, as well as capers and lebeau

COREY's picture

Why is everyone so low on Perry? I get that he has trouble staying healthy, but after less than two years in the league, I don't think you can say he hasn't lived up to expectations necessarily. We have another OLB that has trouble staying healthy also. And come to think of it, most of the damn team has trouble staying healthy. And Neal, conversely, is waaaay overrated by most fans. He disappears for long stretches, can't play the run, and is the worst OLB in coverage. The first change I would make to this defense is to move Perry to ROLB on at least 50% of the defensive snaps. I get that takes away from Matthews a bit by moving him to the LOLB, but I think overall it maximizes the potential of your linebackers. Matthews could also play some middle with Neal in at LOLB at times. Check out Perry's pass rush efficiency on PFF. Prior to this past week he was in the top 5 in the league for 3-4 OLBs...

Robbie Henges's picture

I just don't see why you think brad Jones couldn't be inside, (he's been injured) and I like latimore health better than hawk. Also, I don't see why you think Perry should be written off he broke his foot, twice. I've seen datone Jones make impact plays he's a rookie DL. Rarely even very talented rookie DL make any impact.
And honestly if were staying in the 3-4 why would you not just want Matthews after the qb every single time idk

Chris's picture

Yes. Dallas switched to a 4-3.But so did another team in which I loath… the Patriots. The NFL is all about trends… and the teams that can adjust to those trends. Bill was asked why NE switched... He said something to the extent of "We decided to go in that direction to put an end to the high school read option."

The current trend for the last couple of seasons… run run run, screen, read option, run run, token long ball pass. You will never see Wilson or Kaepernick throw for 4200 yds in a season.

In the past, SB teams would spread you and pass pass pass with a Token run. The 3-4 was perfect for this. But the 3-4 is not built to stop the run, let alone the read option or stopping double tight end sets… there just simply isnt enough weight on the line of scrimmage for it.

I am hard on capers, because he uses 2 dl, 4 lbs and 5dbs aganst strong running screen teams which is dumb. The Ravens run a 3-4 and they are much better at shutting down a run game… even without Ray Lewis. They also umderstand the need for strong safety play and how critical that is to a functioning 34. I Love my packers and i dont think there needs to be a drastic change just yet… unless the read option is here to stay and mobile qbs are here to stay but i think Capers needs to go.

Evan's picture

I thought the 3-4 was better at stopping the run.

C's picture

You would be correct. It's built to stop the run, create favorable down and distance and then disguise blitz packages/pressure.

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