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.