Green Bay has been playing a 3-4 defense for the past decade and a half, and the results have not been good. While mediocre (at best) coordinators and suspect talent have been more to blame than any particular alignment; maybe it’s time to try something different. After all, five of the top six and seven of the top 10 defenses in the National Football League this season are playing a 4-3. Much more importantly, the Packers’ personnel is actually better suited for that scheme.
The following is a look at the front seven positions in a 4-3 defense and which current Packers could fill them next season:
There are two defensive ends in the 4-3 scheme. Their primary role is to get to the quarterback and create pressure. The 4–3 DE’s are the smallest of all of the defensive linemen due to their emphasis on speed over strength. They still need to be strong enough to fight their way past tackles yet quick enough to pursue the running backs on runs to the outside. Ideal 4–3 ends are athletic, and their strength is getting up the field quickly. They usually weigh between 260 and 275 pounds.
Finding quality ends for a 3-4 isn’t easy. Just ask the Packers. They’ve had only two since installing the scheme in 2009 (Cullen Jenkins and Mike Daniels). Finding quality ends to play in a 4-3 is easier. Rashan Gary excelled at that position in college. Fellow first-rounders from the Class of ’19 – Washington’s Montez Sweat and Carolina’s Brian Burns – have been putting up big numbers in a 4-3 for the past four seasons, and neither is as talented as Gary. While Preston Smith and Kingsley Enagbare don’t fit quite as well, they’d likely be as good with their hand in the dirt as they are standing up.
There are two defensive tackles in the 4–3 scheme. The nose tackle is typically slightly larger and stronger and plays a shade or head-up technique which means he lines up on either outside shoulder of the center or in the middle of his body, depending on which way the strength of the play is going. The nose tackle’s primary job is to stop the run and take on the double team, thus freeing up the linebackers to make a play. The second defensive tackle is generally a bit quicker and faster than the nose tackle, ideally weighing about 300 pounds but quick-footed enough to shoot through gaps at the snap. He plays a three-technique, meaning he lines up on the outside shoulder of the strong-side offensive guard. The job of a three-tech is to prevent the run, keep the guard off linebackers, and rush the quarterback on pass plays.
Kenny Clark could line up at either tackle position, depending on the opponent. Against offenses that like to pound the ball between the tackles, he could play the three-technique alongside 330-pound T.J. Slaton. Against offenses that want to spread the field, Clark could play nose tackle next to Devonte Wyatt. Both youngsters would benefit from switching to the 4-3. The rapidly ascending Slaton could get on the field more often because he would no longer be stuck behind Clark, and Wyatt’s skill set is better suited to being a three-technique than a five-technique. He could use agility and first-step quickness the way he did at Georgia, the way that made him worthy of being taken 28th overall in last April’s draft.
There is only one inside linebacker in the 4–3 scheme, sometimes known as the “Mike” linebacker. He must be as smart as he is athletic, acting as the “quarterback of the defense.” The primary responsibility of the “Mike” is to stop the run, though he will often be asked to fall back in zone coverage in pass protection; man-to-man coverage typically has him assigned to the fullback. The “Mike” linebacker is often the largest of all of the linebackers, weighing between 235 and 250 pounds.
At just under 235 pounds, De’Vondre Campbell is slightly lighter than the typical “Mike” linebacker, but he played the position at times with Atlanta and Phoenix. While he’d be excellent in coverage, he would need protection versus the run. You’d like to think Clark, Slaton, and Wyatt would be up to the task. Another option would be to switch Campbell to outside linebacker – where he also played before coming to Green Bay – and use Krys Barnes or a newcomer in the middle.
There are two outside linebackers in the 4–3 scheme. They are known as the strong-side and weak-side linebackers. The strong-side, or “Sam” linebacker, is so named because he sticks to the strong side of the defense, across from the tight end. The “Sam” does his fair share of blitzing; however, he also needs to play the run and will usually be relied upon to cover the TE or a back out of the backfield. The weak-side, or “Will” linebacker, will play on the weak side and has more freedom, often blitzing or guarding against the screen. These linebackers usually weigh between 225 and 240 pounds.
While rookie Quay Walker has shown promise as a 3-4 inside linebacker, he has the skill set to be an All-Pro caliber “Will” linebacker. Minus the task of having to battle through traffic and make plays on runs between the tackles, the former Georgia standout could simply do what he does best – fly to the ball and apply pressure off the edge. He’d also benefit in coverage since his responsibilities would be simplified. It’s easier for an offensive coordinator to fool a 3-4 inside linebacker than a 4-3 outside linebacker. Walker could also play the “Sam” if needed. Right now, that position would best be filled by Tipa Galeai. The 230-pounder is too small for the 3-4, but he might fit in a 4-3. He showed the ability to neutralize tight ends and get after the quarterback at Utah State. If not Galeai or athletic journeyman Justin Hollins, the Packers should be able to find a quality outside linebacker in the draft. There are plenty of them available every April.
Do I expect the Packers to switch from the 3-4 to the 4-3 next season? No, It’s far more likely that coach Matt LaFleur will simply look to upgrade from current defensive coordinator Joe Barry and hire somebody like Vic Fangio or local hero Jim Leonhard. But that won’t change the fact that the personnel is better suited for a 4-3. Of course, that’s been the case for about a decade. LaFleur and his predecessor, Mike McCarthy, were determined to force square pegs into round holes. The results were as expected – mediocre units that rarely played up to expectations and often failed in January.
*Italicized portions courtesy of American Football Wiki
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Great article and something I’ve wondered about many times. This does a really nice job of laying out how the current personnel would fit in a 4-3. Any thoughts on available coordinators who could make the switch?
There are plenty of talented young assistants. As far as experienced options are concerned, Mike Zimmer, and if available, Vance Joseph (Cards), Steve Wilks (Panthers), and Gus Bradley (Colts) come to mind.
I’ve been reading you for a long time and remember you advocating for a 3-4 back in the day because the personnel matched it better. Amazing how we’ve spent the last decade drafting 4-3 type players to play a 3-4.
I think I first started writing about switching to a 4-3 in 2015 or 2016. Since finding good 4-3 ends is much easier than finding good 3-4 ends and because good outside linebackers are more plentiful than good inside linebackers, it just seemed logical. Maybe the success of 4-3 defenses this season will influence LaFleur, although I kind of doubt it.
The switch to 3-4 was driven by the salary cap. Jarrel Allen? Broke the bank as a DE, he changed everything about how defense money was spent.
hey Michael. i am writing post-draft and revisiting your piece here. based on the Packers 2023 draft results, i am feeling your idea more than ever. curious how the Packers align themselves in 2023.
Nothing will change until LaFleur (or the next coach) brings in a defensive coordinator who’s willing to adapt his scheme to his personnel.