The Green Bay Packers’ version of the NASCAR defensive package was rooted in stopping bootlegging Cam Newton.
The “NASCAR” package isn’t some wild-and-crazy defensive wrinkle put together by Packers coordinator Dom Capers. The Giants turned to “NASCAR” en route to winning Super Bowl XLVI. By using defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka in a four-man pass-rushing package, the Giants were able to shock Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in the NFC divisional playoffs, the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game and Tom Brady and the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
“I thought of race horses at the Kentucky Derby and then — I'm from North Carolina — I said, ‘Hey, NASCAR,’” Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said before that Super Bowl.
“This guy's like (Dale) Earnhardt, this guy's like Richard Petty. So, I took it into the team defensive meeting room and said, ‘Hey, guys, this is what we would like to do. We’d like to create this package.’”
For Capers, the premise is exactly the same now as it was for Fewell a few years ago. If it’s third-and-long, Capers’ best pass rushers are his outside linebackers. So, against the Panthers on Sunday, Green Bay lined up with Mike Neal and Nick Perry as the ends and Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers as the interior rushers.
(The Packers used that foursome on nine snaps in games earlier in the season, with Peppers and Neal as defensive tackles and Perry and Matthews as the ends. Sunday's game was the first time that Peppers and Matthews aligned inside.)
“We talked during the offseason about these four guys (and) at times trying to get them all on the field,” Capers said on Monday. “There’s been times we’ve had different packages, we called it different things, where we try to put our most athletic pass rush people out there. We’ve sort of gravitated to certain calls you’d like to run your games with four outside linebacker/elephant-type guys on the field. It worked well for us.”
The Packers used “NASCAR” on five snaps against the Panthers — all of them on third down. The defense won the down 4-of-5 times.
“NASCAR” fits the personnel, especially against athletic quarterbacks like Newton. With the brute force of Neal and Perry, they can set the edge and keep the quarterback in the pocket.
Matthews lined up in a two-point stance over one of the guards. He’s had plenty of success blitzing up the middle during his career, so it provides an interesting change-up.
“I think any time you can put a guy who’s got some speed in the middle, quick acceleration, it’s a mismatch against the guards,” Matthews said. “Obviously, they can very easily just gobble you up but I think it provides mismatches and one that we try to take advantage of when we mix it up as opposed to just lining someone up over the tackle, over the guard, over the center. We try to mix it up and put our skill-sets against different offensive guys.”
From Peppers’ perspective, he frequently rushed as a three-point-stance defensive tackle for the Bears, so there’s a comfort level.
“He gives you great diversity because he can play outside, he can play inside, he can rush, he can drop,” Capers said. “Clay has always been able to do that. I think Julius gives you another guy who can do similar things to what Clay does in terms of if you want to move him around, he has handled that without much issue.”
Chances are, “NASCAR” will be nothing more than a package rolled out a few snaps each game. After all, “NASCAR” means defensive tackle Mike Daniels, who is third on the team with 2.5 sacks and tied for first with eight quarterback hits, is left on the bench. Still, Peppers (three sacks, seven hits), Perry (three sacks, one hit), Neal (two sacks, five hits) and Matthews (1.5 sacks, eight hits) rank among the team’s best rushers and have merited pass-rushing opportunities.
“All four of those guys are definitely hitting their targets as far as how they’re playing,” coach Mike McCarthy said on Wednesday. “I’d like to give Nick Perry a few more reps if you’re looking at just the overall numbers. We’re not all about one package. (NASCAR’s) a part of what we do. It’s important to have the rotation that we’ve been able to do. I think this year has clearly been our best (in) how we’re getting our defensive players in and out of the game.”
More outside linebackers in the game is what puts a smile on Matthews’ face.
“It’s good to see and it’s fun to see,” he said, “because every guy can win their one-on-one matchup and get after the quarterback. I think that’s what you’ve been able to see is, when we’ve put those packages out there, as well as those certain individuals, they’ve made their plays and they’ve made it count. I think that’s what you see is an efficient pass rush that we don’t always need to bring a pressure or a blitz, but we can line up four-man rush and still get after the quarterback.”
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