The Green Bay Packers, like about half of NFL teams, have utilized the 3-4 defensive formation for many years – though in the past few years they have varied things through various subpackages. Players in the 3-4 alignment simply can’t be compared to those in a 4-3.
As exposed by Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons, the pass rush in the Packers’ 3-4 formation has been slipping. We know the Packers aren’t about to make any big changes in scheme or strategy, so the question becomes: who, or what kind of athletes, do they need to have a better pass rush?
First, some preliminaries. Though the three linemen and four linebackers that make up the 3-4 format have both run-stop and pass-rush responsibilities, I’ll be concentrating here on the pass-rush role.
Starting in the middle, the nose guard position is usually manned by a 320+ pound widebody. The two defensive ends are usually smaller, around 280 pounds or so, as they have twin functions: run stop (primarily) and also rush the passer.
In the 3-4 scheme, it’s the linebackers who are supposed to dart through the gaps created by the down linemen and harass or sack the quarterback. The best pass-rush linebacker is typically the outside linebacker playing on the right side of the defensive formation (ROLB), as he attacks the blind side of right-handed QBs.
On some teams – but not the Packers – it’s the two inside linebackers (ILBs) who are most effective in getting to the QB. ILBs are often able to go right up the middle through gaps the defensive line has created. But ILBs also often have to drop back into pass coverage, and when blitzing they often have to battle through the block of a running back, while OLBs often do battle with tight ends.
There are endless options and combinations for getting to the passer in the 3-4 alignment, and defensive coordinator Dom Capers employs a great many of them in the course of each game.
The 3-4 has its drawbacks. It’s hard to find defensive line athletes. If you lack a premier nose tackle, you are vulnerable to the rush. Defensive ends also must be versatile, as they must be quick enough to get around blockers and into the backfield in a hurry, but they also have to out-wrestle offensive linemen who often have a 40-pound or so weight advantage. Without quality defensive ends, the defense has to rely on blitzing, including by defensive backs, to reach the QB.
Good quarterbacks can shred a defense that relies too much on blitzing, as it frees up receivers. ILBs who cannot fend off blockers, won’t be effective blitzers. More and more, both ILBs and OLBs need to possess a blend of speed and strength.
Green Bay’s Current Defensive Line Group
Includes the player’s size, age and where he was drafted.
NT Letroy Guion: 324, 6’4”, 29, Rd. 5
NT/DT Christian Ringo: 298, 6’1”, 24, Rd. 6
DT/DE Mike Daniels: 291, 6’, 27, Rd. 4
DT/DE Kenny Clark: 314, 6’3”, 21, Rd. 1
DT/DE Brian Price: 318, 6’3”, 22, undrafted
DT/DE Dean Lowry: 296, 6’6”, 22, Rd. 4
DT/DE Reggie Gilbert: 274, 6’3”, 23, undrafted
Notes: The team roster currently shows Reggie Gilbert as a linebacker, but he played defensive end in college. Gilbert and Price aren’t shown on the team’s depth chart because both spent 2016 on the practice squad. There’s no consistency by the Packers in referring to the non-nose tackles as either a tackle or an end, so I’ve grouped them all together.
Assessments and Questions
Guion, though he’s added 21 pounds since college, is still below-average size at NT. At age 29, he is in decline and no longer starter-quality. His performance already markedly dropped off in 2016.
Understudy Ringo is way too small – and he doesn’t have the height to put on much more weight.
Clark got off to a decent start, especially considering he’s only 21, and it’s expected he’ll add 10-20 pounds to his frame in next couple years. Expect him to shift over to nose tackle, especially while Guion is suspended. I’m optimistic the Packers’ hopes that this first-rounder will be the anchor of the defensive line for years to come will come true.
Though Daniels stats were down (sacks have gone from 6.5 to 6 to 4 to 4, tackles 30 to 27 to 25), he consistently puts pressure on opposing QBs. He’s in his prime and hopefully he has yet to peak.
Lowry is tall, heavy, and athletic for his position. He’s been referred to as quick, powerful, and explosive, with a good motor, and best in one-on-one battles. His two sacks in limited play show promise.
I like Clark in the middle, flanked by Daniels and Lowry, but the rest are basically practice-squad level. The Packers will need some better backups by preseason.
To show how things change, when the Packers last won the Super Bowl, B.J Raji, Ryan Pickett, and Howard Green were run-stopping linemen who averaged 339 pounds.
Tomorrow, I’ll take a look at the Packers’ linebacker group.