Expert details switch to 3-4

Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert weighs in on the Packers' defensive transition, analyzes personnel and says this is a bad draft class for defensive linemen.

No doubt, Packers general manager Ted Thompson will have a different viewpoint on Friday, but if you believe the Pittsburgh Steelers' director of football operations, Green Bay faces a pretty difficult challenge as it transitions from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense.

First, there are the inherent challenges in making personnel fit from one scheme to the other. Second, the free agent pool, which wasn't strong to begin with, was weakened by a series of franchise tags and new contracts in recent day. And third, this is a horrible draft to find bodies up front.

"It's not as deep as any 3-4 team would like," Pittsburgh's Kevin Colbert said from the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis on Thursday. "It usually isn't. It's usually deeper at tackle than it is at end."

Unfortunately, Colbert went on to add, the 3-4 end prospects aren't too promising, either.

Colbert, who has guided the Steelers since 2000, never has been part of a front office that has had to supply players for a team transitioning from one defensive scheme to another. However, he provided his generalized thoughts to reporters who cover the Packers as well as the Denver Broncos, who also are moving to a 3-4.

It all starts at nose tackle, said Colbert, who has Casey Hampton manning the middle of the Steelers' defense. The Packers may or may not have that guy in Ryan Pickett, but even if he is a good fit for the scheme, they'll need another body. And after B.J. Raji, it's slim pickings in this draft and there's nothing in free agency, according to Colbert and several other insiders.

"It all spills off of him, so you have to have that one big guy in the middle who just can occupy that space and allow everyone else to do their job," Colbert said, adding that a 3-4 nose tackle must be a team-first guy who doesn't mind doing all of the dirty work so those around him can make the plays.

Flanking the nose tackle are the defensive ends. They're not easy to find, either, because there aren't too many 6-foot-5, 295-pound college prospects who have experience playing a 3-4 end. So, Colbert said, teams are forced to draft 4-3 defensive tackles and turn them into ends. That, obviously, means those guys likely won't be ready to play key roles early in their professional careers.

"Defensive ends, for sure (are a challenge), because they have to be a little bit of a pass rusher and a little bit of a run stopper," Colbert explained. "Sometimes they're going to penetrate, sometimes they're not. Their help on the outside from the linebackers is different. That's probably the most difficult. I've found that it takes a pretty good amount of intelligence to play defensive line because there's a lot of different responsibilities."

For the Packers to have any success this year, they'll need the players on today's roster to buy into Dom Capers' system and be willing to adapt. The biggest changes, Colbert said, come from the front seven, though even the secondary will be impacted because of what's going on with the front seven.

"It depends what they already have on their roster, changing from a 4-3 to 3-4. There are certain players who can make the change, certain players don't have the physical characteristics," Colbert said.

Can Aaron Kampman make that change?

"The hardest transition is for the tweener defensive end who is 260, 265 pounds," Colbert continued. "It's harder for him to be able to project because usually the ends are going to have to be a minimum of 290 pounds to be able to play in that scheme and linebackers are going to have to be able to do certain things in coverage. The 265, 270 end will have the most difficulty."

Not all is doom and gloom, though. In breaking down the draft, Colbert said the depth and talent shines at outside linebacker, which is made up of players who played outside linebacker in college or 250-pound athletes who played defensive end in a 4-3 in college and translate to 3-4 outside linebackers in the NFL.

"It's a lot of projection, but there's a lot of body types that we think can make the transition," Colbert said. "This weekend will answer some of that because we'll get to see some of these kids drop in pass-coverage skills that we haven't seen before. All of those guys that are in that 6-3, 250-pound range, for the most part, they haven't been asked to do those kinds of things."

At the end of the day, however, expect some growing pains all around.

"If you have continuity, as we've been able to have over the years, it's easier to get players that fit that scheme," Colbert said. "When you've had stability over the years with (defensive coordinator Dick) LeBeau and John Mitchell, our defensive line coach, and Keith Butler, our linebackers coach, they know what they want and we know what they want, so it's easier to aid them in that transition."

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com.

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