When Julius Peppers was signed, the initial reaction from Cheesehead Nation was a overwhelmingly positive. Whether or not Peppers was a good player any more, a good value or a good fit for the team it didn’t matter: we freakin’ signed somebody we’d all heard of! As the dust settled people began to analyze the signing and formulate opinions. Some, like myself, have remained positive. The money was reasonable and the structure of the contract was responsible. These things offer no surprise to those of us who have followed Ted Thompson’s work.
As with anything there were detractors. Guys that worry that he’s getting old and that he’s in decline. To that end it is hard to argue. Peppers’ Pro Football Focus numbers from last season were wildly inconsistent. His play ranged from dominant against Detroit in week 4 and at Minnesota in week 13 to downright detrimental in week 6 against New York and at home against the Cowboys in week 14. His overall grade for the season was -4.4. He received a -2.7 grade against the run and a -3.6 rushing the passer. My answer to this has been the same as everyone else’s. Decrease his snap count. Peppers played around 80% of the defensive snaps for the Bears, I don’t see any reason why Green Bay with their multitude of highly drafted pass rushers couldn’t reduce that to 50-55%.
Another main concern is how Peppers will or won’t fit into the defense. The detractors say that he’s been in the league a long time and has never played anything but defensive end in a “40” front. The term that has been thrown around has been “elephant” end. Coach McCarthy has said as much. He has made his desire clear to become a more “multiple” defense. Pass-rushing type “tweeners” are all over the Packers roster. Aside from Julius Peppers, the Packers have former defensive linemen Mike Neal, Nick Perry, Andy Mulumba, and Nate Palmer. Instead of trying to fit players with “juice” to their system it appears that the Packers have decided to start fitting their system to the players that they have. Coincidentally, I believe that their going to end up running a similar defense (at least in the front 7) that the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks do. Jay Hodgson does a fantastic job discussing the possibility here and Chris Burke of SI breaks it down here as well.
It certainly is concerning that the Packers might move to a “4-3” defense. I don’t think that everyone really needs to worry. The Packers aren’t going to move into a “single gap” or “Cover 2” 40 front where the 3 linebackers are detached from the line of scrimmage completely like this:
The Packers best pass rusher, Clay Matthews, would be neutralized in this scenario, playing off the line of scrimmage on the weak side, away from the action on a lot of plays. While I do think that the Packers are going to be utilizing more 4 man fronts I think they’re going to look a lot more like how the Seahawks defense plays. The one thing that I’ll agree with how the Seahawks play and disagree (respectfully) with Jay is where Matthews and Peppers will play. The Packers have historically under Dom Capers attempted to put their premier pass rushers on the opposite sides of the formation from each other. When Matthews and Cullen Jenkins were the most disruptive players on the defense, Matthews played LOLB and Jenkins played RE. Philosophies differ on the subject. Recently, the San Francisco 49ers have been pairing their most devastating tandem, Justin and Aldon Smith, instead of having them attack from opposite sides of the formation. Below, you’ll see the 4-3 hybrid in which Matthews and Peppers would both play on the weak side of the formatoin and also a screenshot of how the Seahawks play it, with their 2 most effective rushers (Bruce Irvin and Michael Bennet) playing across from each other.
If you take a look at that it really looks a lit like a 3-4 defense. There are definitely 5 players engaged on the line of scrimmage. In this defense the outermost players (Irvin and Bennet) still have edge defender responsibilities in the run fit. The Packers are reportedly interested in Ohio State OLB Ryan Shazier, and I’ve been beating the CJ Mosley drum since day one. Either one of those players would look very, very good next to AJ Hawk in this new defense. Nick Perry and Mike Neal can both rotate with Julius Peppers in the elephant position. You can find a Madden simulated image of what it might look like with Peppers and Matthews playing opposite each other. Whatever happens scheme-wise with the defense, it’s clear that Julius Peppers picked the Packers because he’d like to win a championship. It’s clear that Ted Thompson views this season as an opportunity to do so or he wouldn’t have spent the money. I have a feeling this season is going to be a hell of a ride.