Packers will embrace change on defense in '09
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Packers' shift to a 3-4 defense is either no big deal or a major adjustment -- depending on whom you talk to at this week's NFL scouting combine at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Ever since coach Mike McCarthy hired 3-4 expert Dom Capers as the team's new defensive coordinator on Jan. 18, the club has been emphasizing that the change in defensive philosophy isn't as overwhelming as one might assume.
"I think (people are) making maybe a little too much out of it," general manager Ted Thompson said, echoing McCarthy's comments in the aftermath of Capers' hiring.
But based on what Pittsburgh Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert and new Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz said Thursday, it sure sounds like the change is going to be harder than the Packers have been willing to admit.
Earlier this week, upon his arrival at the NFL's annual pre-draft talent search, Thompson downplayed the adjustment his personnel department must make in finding players who fit the 3-4 scheme now that the 4-3 has been junked.
"A good football player is a good football player," Thompson said. "At certain positions, you might see a little different body types, and we might line 'em up at different positions, but we're still trying to find good football players."
This fall, Thompson and his scouting staff did all their on-campus player evaluations under the impression that the team would still be playing its traditional 4-3 defense in 2009. But after McCarthy fired defensive coordinator Bob Sanders and several defensive assistants -- and the subsequent radical shift to the 3-4 under Capers -- the Packers suddenly have interest in players that perhaps didn't intrigue them during the college season.
"The actual ratings on some players will change some, but their body of work stays the same," Thompson explained. "The players I wrote reports on in September, those reports won't change -- the pros and cons might change (based on the new scheme), but the player is the same player. He's just more attractive or less attractive."
Had the scouting staff assumed the team wouldn't be interested in a player who was too small to play defensive end in the old scheme, Thompson said, the club wouldn't have the pertinent information it needs on a so-called 'tweener now. Thus, the Packers "evaluate everybody," just as they did during the 2005 draft, when quarterback Aaron Rodgers was in the discussion as the No. 1 overall pick, only to fall all the way to Green Bay at No. 24.
Thompson did admit that the 3-4 sometimes requires more projecting of where a player might fit at the NFL level, and that's where Colbert said the challenge begins.
Coming off their Super Bowl XLIII title, the Steelers are seen as the ideal 3-4 defense. But Colbert said it takes quite awhile for draft picks who played in a 4-3 in college to adjust, and it's tough for the team's personnel department to discern which players will play well in the scheme after working in a 3-4 in college.
"It's always a challenge for us. We're kind of used to it now," Colbert said. "When we look at the college kids and the 260-pound kid or the 255-pound guy, can they make the transition and be able to do the things they are going to need to do from a coverage standpoint? That's always our challenge. It limits your pool to a certain extent and it also reminds you that you're going to have to have a lot of patience with these guys as they develop.
"Everybody that's been in our system as an outside linebacker, it usually took them a minimum of two years, usually three or four years, before they were ready to contribute and a lot of those guys contributed a heck of a lot as they turned into starters."
As for players already on the Packers' roster, Colbert said players moving from defensive end to outside linebacker -- like two-time Pro Bowler Aaron Kampman -- face the hardest transition.
"Changing from a 4-3 to a 3-4, there's certain players that can make the change, (and) certain players don't have the physical characteristics," Colbert said. "The hardest transition is for the 'tweener' defensive end who's maybe 260, 265 pounds. It's harder for him to be able to project (where he'll play), because usually the ends are going to have to be a minimum of 290 pounds to be able to play in that scheme, and then the linebackers are going to have to be able to do certain things in coverage. So that defensive end that's really at 265, 270, they'll have the most difficulty."
Schwartz was asked Thursday if he was thinking about switching to the 3-4 with the Lions. While his background as Tennessee's defensive coordinator is in the 4-3 scheme, Schwartz sounded as if the difficulty of making such a change was a bigger reason to stick with the status quo.
"(The 3-4) is a completely different skill set -- and not just the linebacker position, which is what everybody sort of sees. It's the noseguard and the defensive tackles and it would probably take a pretty major overhaul," Schwartz said. "It's probably for the same reasons that when Mike Tomlin took over in Pittsburgh a couple of years ago - he had a 4-3 background, but he kept the 3-4 because that scheme best fit the personnel they had.''
Thompson, meanwhile, said that while there are ideal sizes in the 3-4 scheme for certain positions, scouts can't get caught up in measurables because none of them are absolute.
"The defensive player of the year -- James Harrison -- doesn't fit the `ideal' for an outside linebacker in the 3-4. And yet he's pretty good," Thompson said of the Steelers star, who is undersized at 6 feet and 242 pounds but still had 16 sacks and 101 tackles.
"What we're trying to do is play to our players' strengths. If we have a good player who's not the perfect fit for a 3-4, there's still a need for those players."
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