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Point of Veau: Signs Point to Packers Running Hybrid Defense

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Point of Veau: Signs Point to Packers Running Hybrid Defense

After a season in which the Green Bay Packers finished dead last in the NFL in total defense and gave up the most passing yards in league history, something has to change, right?

The Packers couldn't maintain the status quo. They have one of the most dangerous offenses in the NFL and have a roster stocked with some of the most talent in all of professional football. The window is open for them to be Super Bowl contenders for the next several seasons.

So for the first time since 2006 when they signed cornerback Charles Woodson and defensive lineman Ryan Pickett, the Packers are getting heavily involved in free agency.

In addition to adding center Jeff Saturday, the Packers appear to be attempting to bolster their pass rush. They reportedly signed Tony Hargrove on Thursday and Daniel Muir the week before. And they've got Dave Tollefson in for a free agent visit as of yesterday.

The names of those defensive players got me curious, however. They didn't seem like they fit the prototype the Packers look for in defensive coordinator Dom Capers' 3-4 system.

Hargrove's strength seems to be as a one-gap penetrator, whereas the Packers typically ask their defensive linemen to be two-gap read-and-reactors.

Muir has the size to be a 3-4 defensive lineman, but he's played in a 4-3 defense his entire five-year career. The same goes for Tollefson playing in a 4-3 throughout his career. He's been a defensive end, but his size would seem to indicate he'd have to play outside linebacker if he were to play for the Packers.

While there's potential for these players to be effective contributors to a floundering Packers defense, it's difficult to see how they fit in Green Bay's scheme.

After pondering about these free agent-targets for the Packers, I took a step back and thought about what the Packers are doing. Are they looking for players to fill niche or specialist roles?

Then I remembered hearing about the New England Patriots' hybrid defense and started to do a little cursory investigation. A quick Google search brought me to an article written by's Chris Brown at ESPN's Grantland that he wrote on the Patriots' defense prior this year's Super Bowl.

Brown is one of the country's best minds regarding football Xs and Os, and as such, I've asked him to write for the now defunct Maple Street Press Packers Annuals in the past.

In his article at Grantland, Brown introduced the innovative defense being run by the Patriots under head coach Bill Belichick.

"Aside from discussions of its general mediocrity (or worse)," writes Brown, "the hottest topic about the Patriots' defense has been how hard it is to define. Is it a 3-4 defense (the three-defensive linemen, four-linebacker defense that Belichick has run for two decades)? Or is it a '4-3' (the four-defensive linemen, three-linebacker set that New England has favored this year)? The truth is that they play a bit of both."

After reading through the whole article, which I highly suggest doing, I thought the Packers might be setting themselves up to do something similar based upon their personnel decisions and the need to do something to improve upon last year's performance.

In a nutshell here's how Brown describes the Patriots' hybrid defense: "The Patriots run a 3-4 to one side of the field and a 4-3 to the other, all on the same play. The key to all this is (Vince) Wilfork. He lines up over the center and assumes his traditional spot of run-stuffing, blocker consuming, two-gapping war daddy. Belichick fills out the rest of the pieces based on the strengths and weaknesses of his other defenders."

Certainly, there's a danger in trying to emulate what the Patriots are doing. The Packers may have finished No. 32 in the NFL in total defense in 2011 by giving up an average of 411.6 yards per game, and the Patriots finished No. 31 by allowing 411.1.

However, consider that the Patriots advanced to the Super Bowl and have been one of the league's most dominant teams for the past decade or more. There are far worse places to look for inspiration.

"Of course, nothing Belichick does will transform the Patriots' defense into a great one; they don't have the talent," writes Brown. "But coaching is about more than talent. It's about taking the talent that's available and giving it the best possible chance to succeed. And that's something Belichick does incredibly well."

That kind of sounds what the Packers will be trying to do in 2012. There's obvious holes on the defensive line, at outside linebacker and perhaps at safety if Nick Collins retires. Even though the Packers have the Draft to try and improve their defense, they're not going to construct a perfect roster. They'll have to make due with what they have and hope for the best, and maybe a schematic change will help.

Given the similarities between the Patriots and the Packers and the direction the Packers seem to be headed this offseason, I contacted Brown via email to ask him about the Packers defense. He concurs that the Packers are probably making some changes on defense.

"What I think the Packers are likely doing is what a lot of teams have been doing," said Brown, "which is moving to a hybrid 3-4/4-3 type front where your defensive line has a true defensive end (who usually lines up to the strength of the formation or to the field), a nose type defensive tackle, a three-technique defensive tackle, and then a hybrid DE/LB guy."

So what does this mean for the Packers? It means a return to the discussion about where B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett are best suited. As Brown noted in relation to the Patriots, Wilfork was the key to running the Patriots' hybrid defense. And who is the Packers' version of Wilfork? Is it Pickett who's greatest strength is his ability to two-gap? Or is it Raji, the up-and-comer?

It makes sense that one of them would play the nose in the Packers' hybrid defense and the other play the two-gap five-technique defensive end position.

Meanwhile, a guy like Hargrove would seem ideally suited to play the three-technique defensive tackle position where he has one-gap responsibilities and can penetrate like he does best.

As for the defensive end/linebacker hybrid, maybe that role falls to Clay Matthews, but perhaps the Packers are already looking forward to the NFL Draft and see all the defensive end/outside linebacker hybrids that will be available in the first round.

It's anyone's guess whether guys like South Carolina's Melvin Ingram, Alabama's Courtney Upshaw, USC's Nick Perry and Illinois' Whitney Mercilus are better suited for end or outside linebacker. But in a hybrid defense like this, they can essentially be both.

"This kind of thing is becoming very prevalent in college and more and more common in the NFL," said Brown. "The advantage it (can) give you is that you can have a four-down front for purposes of stopping the run but your defensive end to the weak side is athletic enough to drop into coverage in man or zone blitzes and so on. In fact, he might be less of a defensive end than just a big linebacker."

The odds that the Packers select Ingram, Upshaw, Perry or Mercilus––or trade up to grab one of them––aren't exactly far fetched. Or maybe Tollefson or Mike Neal plays in that spot too.

That would also allow Matthews to play the weak-side outside linebacker in a role that's not much different from what he already does. Playing the weak side might include dropping into coverage more often, but that's one of Matthews' strengths.

Looking at all the pieces of this puzzle, it's not hard to be intrigued by what Mike McCarthy, Capers and the Packers have in store for 2012.

There's no guarantee they're going to run a hybrid-type defense this season. Maybe their draft board doesn't fall the way they expect  it to, or maybe they're just adding new pieces to their defense now and figuring out how those pieces best fit later.

In any case, all the new blood the Packers are bringing in via free agency and will bring in through the draft is exciting. It will be interesting to see how it all works out.



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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (32) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

Kparis99's picture

Thanks, officially pumped up again. Go Pack Go !

FITZCORE1252's EVO's picture

Yeah, interesting thought. That would make sense with the Hargrove signing and the talk of bringing Tollefson in. But this hybrid that the pats run didn't exactly make their D anywhere close to good. I think the Pack has more talent on that side of the ball than they do though, so it could work I suppose. Should be cool to see what Dom unveils come September.


Oppy's picture

This is a great slant, and, I think, better addresses the question of where these new FA acquisitions such as Hargrove fit into the future of the PAckers' defense. That said, the Packers already played more nickle than base last season, partial a testament to the pass-happy movement in the NFL, and also a nod to the fact our current 3-4 LB personnel is somewhat lacking.

My take on the hybrid DE/LB guy(s)?

That's where Tollefson would fit in if he's signed.

Oh, and that other guy who would VERY nicely fit that DE/LB role? Vic So'Oto.. He's stronger than many NFL OL, and he's as fast as the most productive 3-4 OLB's.

Keep Clay doing what Clay does best- that's being a monster 3-4 OLB.

CSS's picture

Writing is on the wall as offensive units continue to spread the field, you have to have good nickle personnel that can run in the back 7 and get after the passer from un-expected angles (personnel mismatches based on down-and-distance) in your front 7 and out of your nickle/dime coverage.

I"m hopeful with So'oto, but doubtful. He looks so uncomfortable in space that, at this point and in the future, I can't see him being part of what you would deem 'flexible' personnel. He feels like a guy you can only place in one position and ask him to get up-field. There is no other dimension to his game where a coordinator would be left to wonder; is he dropping into coverage, stunting inside the 4 hole, etc.

You see him on the field and you know he's just pinning his ears back.

Good article, but I doubt (outside of the strict Tampa/Cover-2 squads) that there are many clubs that even play 40% out of base. It's only going to decline.

Primary reason: 40% of DB's on the field for most NFL teams in nickle don't belong on an NFL roster. 80% of the dime backs don't belong on an NFL roster either. Biggest mismatch, talent deficiency in the NFL.

Oppy's picture

So'oto freely owns up to being a one-dimensional player coming out of college- he flatly stated during training camp that he never really bothered refining his technique or learning much in the way of moves, hand drills, etc, simply because he had always gotten by on his raw strength advantage.

He also said he's going to bust his hump to absorb and learn all those things to become a complete player. He was a one-dimensional DE in college who has the physical talent to be something special. His ceiling is huge, he is undeveloped talent, and he knows he's nowhere near a fully competent NFL player.. That's more than half the battle. He's eager to learn, and has the tools. That gives him huge upside, and an actual shot of maybe being able to pull it off.

I'm rooting for him.

CSS's picture

I'm rooting for him too. Just saying, there's not much to the imagination if I'm an opposing offensive coordinator. I can look at his number and know he's going to show us option A on every snap. He just might give it more umph on try #2.

lebowski's picture

This is a great article, thanks Brian.

Chris K's picture

Terrific, Terrific article man! This is why I follow you.

Officially hyped and ready for my day

Chris K's picture

One other note: This may be a reason Mike has mentioned moving Jamari Lattimore inside as well as Brad Jones......

Oppy's picture

good call.

madden07's picture

Let's copy the great Patriots defence, awesome plan

lebowski's picture

Patriots' personnel on defense, especially the back end, was pretty weak this year. Our DBs didn't play up to snuff, but they were also being asked to cover for 12 seconds while the QB sat and patted the ball. Just a little more push up front could make a world of difference.

FITZCORE1252's EVO's picture

12 seconds??? Quit being So dramatic. It was only like 10.

FITZCORE1252's EVO's picture

Been years since I've "two gap'd"... Ahh, the old single days....

Oppy's picture

Once I got drunk, passed out at a party, and woke up with a split end.

FITZCORE1252's EVO's picture

You too?

BLACK HAWK's picture


PackersRS's picture

Didn't they do the same thing with Jenkins, in base? Lining him up at 5 playing 1 gap while Pickett was the nose and Raji the 3? Could be wrong but I swear I remember it. And I know for a fact that Jenkins rarely played with 2 gap responsability.

Mike's picture

I think that's the correct write up of Jenkins role in the 3-4. He would get double teamed, but not because he was a tank that had to be road blocked, but because he was a quick penetrator that could create havoc in the backfield.

jeremy's picture

"Packers typically ask their defensive linemen to be two-gap read-and-reactors."

I don't think this is what the Packers want their linemen to be two gaping. They just didn't have the personnel to do what they wanted in 2011.

McCarthy spoke about the differences between the old 2-gap and newer 1-gap 3-4 when he brought in Capers, and said they were not planning to 2-gap a lot.

If they are moving to a hybrid alignment, I would support it. I was hoping they were going to play that way when Capers came in. It's hard enough to find one player like Matthews. Drafting two within a five year period is very unlikely.

PackersRS's picture

I've only seen Pickett play 1 gap on dime and quarter packages.

Adam's picture

What a great read, the idea of a 3/4 4/3 hybrid would be awesome. Sounds like it would get the most out of every player on defense and give the Pack the flexibility to pick on of the top tweeners defenders in the upcoming draft.

pkrNboro's picture

I wonder if heart/desire trumps schemes/techniques

Mel's picture

Love this move. Just wish they could have done this right away when Capers took over then we would still have my favorite of all time Aaron Kampman.

petr's picture

I don't agree that we will see more 4-3 looks. I think the signings are to provide some interior pass-rush on 3rd down plays. With Raji playing snaps on 1st and 2nd down, and Pickett having little pass-rush, there is nothing challenging the QB in the 2-4-5 nickel formation as Matthews is doubled often.

Also a 4-3 would mean Matthews would play defensive end? Or purely coverage 3-3 linebacker?

Maybe a question would be are we going to play 4-2-5 nickel instead of 2-4-5 nickel.

Oppy's picture


over the last 2-3 seasons, packers have run 2-4-5, 3-3-5, 1-5-5 as well as 4-2-5 nickle packages.

It has often been due to entering a game with thin numbers at DL that has forced Dom to get creative, and there have also been times where one of those DB's is actually an extra LB (we used to see Chillar play a S position in some nickle packages), or on the other hand, sometimes safety personnel playing in a LB position (rare).

Dom Capers is all over the board. The popular sentiment is that he's a wild, mad scientist. I personally think it's been more a matter of Dom entering games/seasons saying to himself, "With all these injuries/lack of the right personnel, how am I going to stay in the game?"

Nononsense's picture

The signing of Hargrove and Tollefson would give you the impression that they plan on running some kind of hybrid scheme.

Those two guys can just as well play as the 2 down lineman in the nickel defense that we ran so much of the last 2 years.

Tollefson was primarily a inside pass rusher for the Giants when he got on the field so its not out of the question that he does that for us also. Everyone assumes hes being looked at as an OLB here but im not convinced of that.

Whatever the case may be, these players should help improve our pass rush when we need it most. When teams are down and they are forced to pass to catch up or keep up.

Bearmeat's picture

I just saw something on JS quoting MM: "We got too far away from our base 3/4 principles last year"

Doesn't sound like a coach that wants a hybrid D to me...

Jake's picture

Agree. I don't think Hargrove and Tollefson mean more 4-3. I think they're just a couple of cheap vets who might help out a bit in the nickel.

Brian Carriveau's picture

It's not a true 4-3 that's being hypothesized here.

Bearmeat's picture

Brian, I'm not slamming your analysis. As a matter of fact, I think the whole piece is excellent. And it would explain the 2 FA's (soon to be 3) signings on D.


Remember 2009, when Capers said "I'm not going to do anything our personnel doesn't fit. If 4/3 is the way we have to go to win, then we'll do that."

It was obvious (with the exception of CM3) our whole D would have been better in 2009 with a 4/3. Yet, there was nothing but solid 3/4 the entire year.

I don't know if Capers would be comfortable running a hybrid scheme. It doesn't sound like MM is at any rate....

Or this could all be smokescreen from him. We'll find out come September.

Bohj's picture

Hybrid. No hybrid. New free agent signings. Blah blah. As long as we remedy that whole raji playing every snap thing, I'm totally happy.

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