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Point of Veau: Pairing Matthews & Neal On Same Side Could Be Weakness Vs. Run

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Point of Veau: Pairing Matthews & Neal On Same Side Could Be Weakness Vs. Run

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.

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (14) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

CSS's picture

Pro Football Focus graded Neal exceptionally well as a run-stopper during his limited snaps last year while noting Jenkins run defense tailed off at the end of the year.

Crazy how we now consider a 296 lb. defensive tackle in today's NFL to be 'light'.

Jake's picture

So Raji isn't going to be a nose tackle anymore? If I'm not mistaken he was used as an end most of his rookie year, but then they switched him to nose last season because it was his more "natural" position and it resulted in VERY positive results. I'm not following why they'd want to move him from there. Someone fill me in if I'm missing something.

Jake's picture

Ah, thank you sir.

MarkinMadison's picture

I don't think you're missing anything. I think that the problem is that they got zero sacks and very little pressure (if any) out of Pickett at the DE position last year. Whether Raji's jump was due to it being his second year at the NFL level or the position change is probably an unknowable thing. And I can't say if he had the 1-gap DE position in 2009 or the other (3-tech?) DE position.

I agree that long-term Raji will be a DT. Looking at the roster that Packers have today, they have three guys who are natural DTs - Raji, Pickett and Green. I think what the Packers have concluded is that of the three Raji is best suited to take advantage of the DE position. Maybe next year Pickett and Green will be aged out, and Raji will be back at DT with Wilson and Neal flanking him. But as Rummy once said, you go to war with the Army you have.

Bob's picture

Maybe the base 3-4 defense against the run will be Picket, Green, & Raji.

Johnny's picture

I believe they are just trying new things. Isn't that what camp and preseason is for? Not 100% sure but I think Dom kinda sorta in a way, knows what he's doing. Just sayin

FITZCORE1252's EVO's picture

Thank you, camp folks.


some guy's picture

i don't see the point of this article. Clay isn't weak against the run and Neal is a freak of nature. so...

Tommyboy's picture

Green, Pickett, and Raji lining up together on the defensive line may cue an audible or two out of the run.

Tommyboy's picture

"by using Howard Green instead of Neal on typical running downs, whereby they get a little more beef on the field."

Define "beef."

Nononsense's picture

Define "beef" = Poundage.

Tommyboy's picture

hehe...yes, thanks. I was referencing the perhaps loose use of the word "beef" as Green may have a few extra pounds of something other than that contributing to his healthy girth.

Oppy's picture

While Mike Neal doesn't have the mass of Big Grease, or the experience, he makes up for it with his combination of foot/hand speed and strength. Pickett is the strongest man on the team from most accounts, but I wouldn't be shocked if Neal has the best strength/weight ratio on the line. He is a monster in the weight room, and that coupled with his increased agility (compared to Pickett) could make him an equally effective though entirely different run stopper.

Don't discount the fact that Capers has proven time and time again that he is not afraid to alter his scheme and create entire defensive sets based around the specific personnel available to him.

The fact that Howard Green and Ryan Pickett were playing DE in our base 3-4 much of the year should tell you as much. These guys are prototypical NT's in a 3-4 D- Heavy, Squat. Prototypical DE's in a 3-4 are taller (6'4"-5"), lighter (305-ish), with long levers to fend off tackles.

If Dom puts Neal at DE, I wouldn't expect him to ask Neal to do the same job he was asking Pickett to do. There will be subtle or even overt changes to the scheme to fit the personnel.

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