Unleash the Claymaker!
By COLIN ANDERLE
It's easy to forget just how bad the Green Bay Packers were on October 26. That was the day the New Orleans Saints rained down on the Packers' defense with a torrential downpour of yards and points.
Of the Saints' 10 offensive drives that Sunday night, eight resulted in scores. New Orleans generated nearly 500 yards of offense and enough points to hit 80 percent of the game's over/under by themselves. Mark Ingram lugged the rock 24 times for a jaw-dropping 172 yards, while Drew Brees picked apart the Packers' secondary with ease, completing nearly 85 percent of his passes. The Saints achieved a frightening level of offensive efficiency that night.
So, how did New Orleans manage to do it? It was large due to Green Bay's predictability, with a 3–4 setup was outside-heavy with superstars Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers manning the bookend spots. They're both big and scary dudes who can make plays by the bucket if you give them an opportunity to do so. The Saints countered by taking away those opportunities.
In the run game, the Saints attacked the middle. Of those 24 carries for Ingram, only three went off end. The rest of his work was done between or off the tackles-away from Peppers and Matthews, and aimed squarely at nose tackle Letroy Guion and inside linebackers A.J. Hawk and Sam Barrington. On passing downs, New Orleans did the opposite - effectively double-teaming Peppers and Matthews, allowing Brees to utilize quick releases and play-action to buy extra time in the pocket. The Packers' pressure never materialized.
For Green Bay, it was worse than a loss. It was total demoralization. Not only had the team been beaten senseless by an opponent that, on paper, should have been inferior, but in the process, they had been exposed.
Luckily, the coaching staff had the bye week to figure out a solution.
Watching Green Bay rebuild from the disaster in New Orleans? That has been fun. The defense is playing like a hungry unit again, and it's largely owed to the resurgence of Matthews, who's been unleashed by the Packers' new defensive scheme to wreak his special brand of havoc.
Proponents of the 3–4 defensive alignment will argue its merits all day. It is like a particularly sharp and dangerous chess opening - fraught with traps and catches if you're careless, but capable of driving opponents mad when deployed correctly.
The 3–4 works through the timeless principle of deception. To put it simply, you can only identify three definite pass rushers instead of the traditional four. The strength of this alignment is in its ability to use this deception - bringing one or more unknown second-level blitzers - to take away the offensive line's coverage advantage during pass plays, and to overwhelm run-blocking schemes with overloads and stunts.
During the first half of the season, the Packers had largely neglected the concept of deception, even though they deployed a 3–4 in name. As a result, that Saints game was merely the last straw in what had been a mediocre defensive performance over the first two months. Green Bay entered its bye week dead last in the NFL against the run. The Packers were actually employing something of a hybrid base 5–2 alignment with the defensive ends standing-and the dispersal of talent was heavily weighted towards the ends, too.
So, how do you fix a broken pass rush and an ineffective run defense in one move? As it turns out, it's pretty simple when you commit to relying on your best player.
The history of the "elephant end" position - a linebacker who serves more the purpose of a defensive end - dates back to the San Francisco 49ers of the 1980s. Those 49ers had a linebacker of similar build and playing style to Matthews in Charles Haley. The "elephant" role maximized his utility in pass-rushing situations, while leaving him less helpless at the point of attack against oversized run-blocking linemen.
Matthews took over as the starter at "elephant end" during his senior season at USC, and from 2008 until this November, that was his only position. And why not? He was, and still is, extremely good in that role. The four-time Pro Bowler tallied double-digit sacks when healthy, and anchored a Super Bowl-winning defense.
Thing is, Julius Peppers has been extremely good in that role, too. Peppers came into the league as a mildly undersized defensive end who was able to turn his smallish-ness into an asset instead of a liability. His athleticism and pass rushing ability were reminiscent of Reggie White in his prime - perhaps the highest compliment you can give an NFL defensive end. As he aged, he grew out of the criticism he had faced early in his career, that he oversold on the pass rush and neglected his run-stopping duties.
Doubting Peppers' ability to transition into a successful elephant remains to this day one of the most boneheaded thoughts I've ever entertained. In hindsight, perhaps "will Peppers work?" was the wrong question. Perhaps we should have been asking, "why didn't somebody think of this sooner?" An athletic, undersized defensive end who specializes in disrupting pass protection, but can physically withstand an overloaded zone blocking system? That's your definition of a prototypical elephant end.
The Packers had a second, simpler problem compounding things. In a 3–4 scheme, the nose tackle is arguably the most irreplaceable player in the lineup. Guion - though he has done an admirable job pressed into action - is listed at a full 39 pounds lighter than B.J. Raji, who was placed on injured reserve before the season even started. Although he is fundamentally solid, fills the right holes, and has a great nose for popping the ball loose in piles, Guion's lack of girth makes him an awkward fit in the Packers 3–4 defense. The nose tackle has one job, really - to be big and make the offense waste resources to keep you from moving the line of scrimmage. Guion, who weighs in under the 300-pound mark, predictably struggled to hold down the middle singlehandedly for the Packers.
Something had to change in order to dissuade opponents from gut-punching the Packers to death in the second half of the season. Since moving Peppers was out of the question, and without any real upgrades available for import, it was time to think outside the box.
Few NFL players could adapt to a positional change on the fly, but Clay Matthews is not a typical NFL player. He's been a student of the game since he wasn't old enough to know any better, and you can count on one hand the number of players in the league with his athleticism.
Taking the positional handcuffs off its best player has worked wonders for Green Bay's defense. Before the team's Week 9 bye, the fewest rushing yards the Packers had allowed all season was 108. Since then, opponents have only topped 100 yards three times. Combine that with a high-octane offense led by the league's premier field general and you've got a recipe for success.
In those seven games since the bye, Matthews saw snaps from a multitude of positions and, statistically, he produced at a level not seen since the Packers' Super Bowl-winning 2010 season.
Moving Matthews from position to position has freed a caged beast.
His 11 combined tackles in the Chicago game were a welcome sight, but the real game-changing difference has been in the pass rush. Matthews is still lining up outside at the "elephant" for a number of snaps, even on the occasional rushing down, but the effect has been similar to a pitcher in baseball adding another out-pitch to his repertoire. Watch as these highlights demonstrate exactly what I'm talking about.
There's Matthews, making Matt Forte dance and hesitate from the middle. Notice the refreshing contrast to above-Ingram had his choice of holes to run through; Forte looks like the littlest puppy getting squeezed out by its bigger siblings at meal time. There's Matthews back at the outside, moving through the line like a duck through water. There's Matthews on the outside again and you thought you could catch him with his pants down on the end around and ... oh, dear, that was not a good idea. Should we watch it again? Here, let's watch it again.
The ability to bounce inside makes Matthews twice as difficult to game plan against, which has the domino effect of making him even more effective in both positions. Matthews may never be the sideline-to-sideline presence that someone like Carolina's Luke Kuechly is, but he's toughened up the interior run defense admirably while returning to a world-class level of quarterback annoyance. The 3–4 allows Capers to blitz Matthews liberally from the middle, too. Fueled by this multi-layered threat, the Green Bay defense has well enough to catapult the team to the NFC North title.
Before you give Capers too much credit for his original thinking, this isn't actually the first time he changed his defensive alignment by letting his best player roam free. The 2010 Super Bowl-winning team truly hit its stride defensively when Charles Woodson stopped lining up as a true cornerback, and started lining up as a hybrid defensive back-part slot corner, part safety, all wrecking ball. Capers' smartest decision that year was to simply let a living master of the defensive craft do his thing unencumbered, as Woodson became the multi-threat force that could change the course of a game.
If Matthews keeps playing at this level, we could be looking at a case of deja vu at Lambeau Field this year.
Jimmy, meet world!
NBA draft showdown: Towns v. Harrell
What I won't be celebrating this year
For more sports coverage, visit The Cauldron and follow Colin Anderle on Twitter: @BaseballGuyCAA