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Sunday, August 9, 2009
Camp Confidential: A read on GB's defense

By Kevin Seifert
ESPN.com

 
  Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
  Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers is experiencing the changes on the Packers' defense first hand.

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Someone is bearing down every time Aaron Rodgers throws a training camp pass. One play it's cornerback Charles Woodson. Then it's safety Nick Collins. Sometimes outside linebackers Jeremy Thompson and Aaron Kampman crash the pocket together. Then it's Thompson and inside linebacker Brandon Chillar.

Camp Confidential: NFC North
Vikings: Sun., Aug. 2
Packers: Sun., Aug. 9
Bears: Thurs., Aug. 13
Lions: Fri., Aug. 21
Training camp index
After only a few minutes of watching training camp, the scope of Green Bay's defensive scheme change is plainly obvious. Pressure and unpredictability will be cornerstones of the Packers' new 3-4 approach, and players on both of sides of the ball have instantly recognized the possibilities.

"It's tougher to go against," Rodgers said. "It really is tougher. Going against our old scheme, there was just a lot of man coverage. You kind of knew you were going to get 'one-high' man or 'two-high' man or a very rare Cover 2. But what you saw in practice, they were bringing guys off both edges. Corner blitz. Safety blitz. Then they play Cover 2, Cover 3 or Cover 0. They mix up the coverages and the blitzes so often... It makes it a lot more difficult to try to get a read on it. They force you to make a quick decision."

There is little doubt Green Bay's new defense will be different and take more chances in 2009. But no one believes the scheme alone will turn around a team that finished 6-10 last season. The Packers are still testing their players' aptitude for the 3-4 and adjusting it accordingly. They've also initiated a significant overhaul of their offensive line, are transitioning the tight end position with a greater emphasis on second-year player Jermichael Finley and are holding a wide-open competition for a new punter.

"Certainly the whole idea behind this defensive scheme is to be more unpredictable and to hand more question marks to the offense," general manager Ted Thompson said. "But like everything else, it still gets down to football players making plays and defeating the guy across the line of scrimmage."

Key questions

1. Do the Packers have the right players for a traditional 3-4 defense?

Initially posed in January, that question remains relevant 10 days into camp. I saw Kampman and Jeremy Thompson, both defensive ends last season, valiantly chasing receivers downfield during team drills. No matter how quickly those players make the schematic adjustment, that seems to be a mismatch.

But defensive coordinator Dom Capers insisted he has no coverage that gives an outside linebacker sole coverage responsibility on a receiver. In those instances, Thompson and Kampman are responsible for underneath routes and have safety help downfield. That's an example of the short-term adjustments Capers will have to make for the scheme to work in 2009.

We're also still waiting to see how many of the Packers' 4-3 defensive tackles and ends can hold up as a 3-4 end in this scheme. Cullen Jenkins appears to be a natural, but Johnny Jolly has missed significant time with an ankle injury and former first-round pick Justin Harrell has been on a snap count. Which brings us to ...

 
  Mike Roemer/AP Photo
  Packers defensive lineman B.J. Raji's contract situation is costing him valuable conditioning time.

2. How much immediate help will the Packers get from their pair of first-round draft choices?

Defensive lineman B.J. Raji remains unsigned as of Sunday morning, meaning he has missed nine practices and at least temporarily delayed the Packers' plans to transition him into the starting left end. Linebacker Clay Matthews, meanwhile, was beginning to challenge Thompson for a starting job on the outside when he tweaked a hamstring injury that slowed him for much of the spring.

Thompson has displayed superior athletic skills, but when healthy it appears Matthews is the more polished player. Matthews seems destined to start when the regular season opens -- if he can stay on the field.

You want to say the same about Raji, but he remains in a market logjam that is keeping five other players out of NFL camps. Raji was probably the best overall defensive lineman in the draft and he'll make quick progress once he arrives. But his ab
sence has been long enough to affect his conditioning. And no one should underestimate the challenge and significance of Raji's move to defensive end. Every snap he has missed is one less opportunity to grow comfortable before the season starts.

3. Can the Packers achieve stability on the offensive line?

One of coach Mike McCarthy's primary goals is to end the revolving door of line play caused by changing the positions of multiple players. Daryn Colledge is now locked down at left guard, and it appears the Packers are giving Jason Spitz (center) and Josh Sitton (right guard) every opportunity to be the long-term answers at their respective positions.

That still leaves both tackle positions as mild question marks. But left tackle Chad Clifton appears healthy enough after having four offseason surgeries: arthroscopic procedures on both shoulders and both knees. The Packers are still limiting his snaps in hopes of squeezing one more year out of his 33-year-old body. Nothing I saw suggested Clifton is done, but it's very early.

On the right side, Allen Barbre has worked exclusively with the first team while youngsters T.J. Lang and Breno Giacomini rotated behind him. I don't get the feeling the Packers consider Barbre a long-term solution but to this point, his hold on the starting job does not appear threatened.

Market watch

Ted Thompson said that linebacker Nick Barnett is "on pace" to be activated soon from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. It could happen sometime this week, but Barnett will find several new challenges when he returns to the field for the first time since tearing his anterior cruciate ligament last November.

The most obvious is pushing through the usual soreness and uncertainty that goes with ACL injuries. Players are rarely at full speed when they first return to the field. As well, Barnett will have to get an on-field crash course in the new scheme. No matter how many meetings he has attended or practices he has watched, there is no substitute for practice reps.

And finally, Barnett's replacement has actually proved adept in the new scheme. Linebacker Brandon Chillar played in a similar blitz scheme earlier in his career in St. Louis and will have a significant role this season no matter what happens with Barnett. "This really fits Brandon's talents as far as all the sub packages we have," McCarthy said. "And he's a good blitzer. He gets good pressure."

This is not to suggest the Packers will move on without Barnett. But his football world has changed significantly since we last saw him on the field.

 
  AP Photo/Morry Gash
  Green Bay's Quinn Johnson is an intimidating presence at fullback.

Newcomer to watch

We've already discussed the absence of Raji and Matthews. On the other hand, one rookie who has opened some eyes is fullback Quinn Johnson. The Packers list him at 250 pounds, but Johnson would pass for a defensive tackle if he didn't have a number on his jersey.

Needless to say, Johnson is a load as a lead blocker. He also displayed some intriguing quickness on the rare occasions I saw him carry the ball. The Packers don't give the ball to their fullbacks much -- they combined for eight rushes and 10 receptions in 2008 -- but I doubt too many defenders would be eager to tackle him.

Johnson is competing for a roster spot with incumbents John Kuhn and Korey Hall, but it's hard to imagine him not making the team after the Packers spent a fourth-round pick on him.

Observation deck

At the urging of veterans Donald Driver and Greg Jennings, Rodgers is openly expanding his leadership role within the locker room. "I think it's the opportunity that presents itself," Rodgers said, "and the vibe that I'm getting from the guys [is that they] are looking to me for leadership. In certain situations, they are expecting me to speak up." Rodgers also said he is getting "more freedom" from McCarthy to influence scheme and game plans. ... During individual drills one night last week, Rodgers drilled three passes into a small square from more than 40 yards away. ... The intense vibe of this camp is like night and day from last year's distraction-filled affair. I have no idea why the Packers would consider risking that relative tranquility by signing Michael Vick. Multiple reports suggest they have been doing their due diligence on the former Atlanta quarterback. ... You wonder whether this is the end of the line for veteran center Scott Wells, who is battling Spitz for the starting job. If Spitz wins, as expected, it's not clear if the Packers would keep Wells as a backup. ... With Spitz and Sitton in the starting lineup, the Packers should have a bigger offensive line this season. "Were some teams stronger up front than us last year? Yeah, probably so," McCarthy said. "We'll see what happens this year." ... The Packers are pitting Jeremy Kapinos and Durant Brooks in a punting duel, but neither has been impressive and it's possible the Packers will have to look elsewhere once teams starting making roster cuts. ... Linebacker Brady Poppinga is behind Thompson, Matthews and Kampman on the depth chart but believes this scheme was made for his skills. "I feel like I'm in a defense that really fits who I am," Poppinga said. ... No idea where he fits in, but first-year receiver Jake Allen caught my eyes during the early portion of practice. Allen is 6-foot-4, has long arms and made a number of acrobatic catches during red zone work. Allen spent last season on the Packers' practice squad.