Defense Comes Up Big While Playing Small

Because it gets another athlete on the field, nickel is Dom Capers' preferred defense. To make it work, the Packers have to stop the run while being undermanned up front. Thanks to big B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett, the Packers can stop the run while they play the pass.

Dom Capers loves his nickel defense.

And the key figures in that 2-4-5 alignment are the "two."

If the two defensive linemen can't do the work of the three linemen who would be on the field in the Green Bay Packers' base defense, then Capers' game plan is destined for the paper shredder.

"Last week, early in the game — New Orleans had more of a commitment to running the ball with their new running back and three running backs," Capers, the Packers' defensive coordinator, told Packer Report on Friday. "I felt that they'd probably try to run us out of nickel early in the game."

Tried but failed.

The Packers played their base 3-4 alignment on just one play the entire game and their four-linemen "Hippo" grouping on three snaps — including the game-ending play — according to our unofficial charting of personnel during the game. Otherwise, the Packers played nickel (or "Bat," which consists of one lineman, four linebackers and six defensive backs) on the other 72 snaps.

"It's a challenge because we're down a big guy," defensive end Ryan Pickett said. "Coaches came up to me and B.J. (Raji) at the beginning of the week saying, ‘We expect a lot of you. We have to stop the run in this defense.' They counted on us to do it and we did a pretty good job."

Pretty good, indeed. Other than Pierre Thomas' 21-yard rumble on the final play of the first quarter, in which he broke about seven tackle attempts, the Packers' run defense was terrific. The Saints' final numbers: 81 yards on 21 carries, a 3.9-yard average.

The guys who did the dirty work last Thursday — and will be asked to do so again if Capers relies on his nickel package against Carolina's dynamic backfield tandem on Sunday — were Raji and Pickett. The indomitable Raji played in 68 of the 76 defensive plays and Pickett took part in 37, according to the snap count taken by Pro Football Focus. Of the Saints' 21 rushes, Raji and Pickett were on the field for 18 of them as Capers was successful in getting his best run-stoppers on the field when the Saints dialed up running plays.

"After the game was over, I felt pretty good that we were able to play their run game well enough," Capers said. "Pickett probably played more reps than maybe we'd anticipated going in but I thought he did a good job and our guys did a good job. There wasn't a time where I felt like we've got to get out of nickel and get our Okie (base) personnel out there to stop the run."

With Raji and Pickett playing with toughness and fundamentals, the Saints couldn't gain any traction against a defense that finished 28th in the NFL last season after allowing 4.7 yards per attempt.

"Whenever it comes to stopping the run, no matter what front you're in, it starts with the guys up front," said linebacker Desmond Bishop, who finished with 12 tackles. "With the (nickel) defense we run, it starts with them."

Stopping the run is the priority for the linemen in a 3-4 scheme, and it's obviously even more important for the linemen to hold their ground when there's one fewer of them on the field. Defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said slanting the linemen one way or another helps, but in the end, it comes down to playing with toughness, technique and just a hard-nosed desire to stand your ground, stay in your gap and take up blocks so the linebackers can swoop in and make the play.

"We count on them and they came through for us," Trgovac said. "We expect that our big guys are going to be as good or better than their big guys. That was a big test for us because both of their guards are really good guards. (Jahri Evans and Carl Hicks) both made the Pro Bowl. That was one of the things we needed to do with those guys is control the middle, and they did it."

Added Raji: "Any time you're playing nickel against the other team's regular (personnel) and their power stuff and you have the type of production and success that we had, you're definitely thrilled. But this week's a different challenge with these backs. Not saying last week's backs weren't good but these are legit backs. They're strong and they can make cuts and they break a lot of tackles."

DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart are the major reasons why the Panthers rank second in the NFL in rushing over the last three seasons. Because of them and the Panthers' fondness for two-tight-end sets, the Packers might run more base than usual. Then again, with quarterback Cam Newton's running ability, Capers might opt to play as much nickel as always just to get another athlete on the field.

"We think it's a tremendous advantage for us if we can play the run with five DBs out there, especially with the way people spread you out now," Capers said. "All you have to do is look at the first weekend of football and you've got all these people throwing for 300 yards and all these spread offenses. The better your substitution packages are, the better chance you have of matching up with people."

Agree or disagree?: Discuss hot Packers topics in our, free forums. Leave Bill a question in the subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum.

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at and Facebook under Bill Huber.

Packer Report Top Stories