Apparently months of practice time have eliminated a lot of that challenge.
When the Packers visit Pittsburgh on Sunday, this will be the fifth time they've faced a 3-4 defense. The Packers are 4-0 in those games: 31-3 over Cleveland, 17-7 over Dallas, 30-24 over San Francisco and 27-14 over Baltimore. That's a 26.3-point average, or right on par with their overall average of 26.5.
Practice makes perfect, and the Aaron Rodgers-led offense saw a steady diet of 3-4 in organized team activities, minicamp and early in training camp while the Packers' defense worked out the kinks, and again late in training camp while preparing for the preseason game at Arizona.
"Yeah, it helps," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said on Thursday. "We talked about it even as a staff. There's been years we've been here where we've played maybe two teams that have a 3-4 and I think everybody's anxiety level kind of goes up, ‘Oh my God, what are we going to do? Or how are we going to block this? Or what if they do this?' And then, like you say, if you go against it in OTAs and camp and then we had preseason games, I think this is kind of team No. 5, I think. So, I think everybody's a little more comfortable. Years ago, when I started coaching, I think everybody started with the 3-4, but that was many moons ago, and so you kind of get out of sync a little bit. But yeah, we've had some success."
Actually, the Packers faced only one 3-4 defense last year, a 27-16 loss to Dallas in Week 3.
This week's game against Pittsburgh features the defensive scheme that the Packers' defense is centered on. Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers and Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau were on the same staff from 1992 through 1994. They literally wrote the book — about 900 pages, Capers recalls — on this scheme.
There are differences, of course, between what the defenses are doing. While rushing the passer is more of a group effort for the Packers — Clay Matthews has eight sacks but the other 21 are divided among 12 players — the Steelers rely on their outside linebackers. James Harrison (10) and LaMarr Woodley (nine) have 19 of the Steelers' 39 sacks. Eight players have the other 20 sacks, paced by inside linebacker's Lawrence Timmons' six. Plus, the Packers have sacks from four defensive backs compared to two for Pittsburgh.
All told, 28 of the Steelers' sacks have come from their four starting linebackers.
Aaron Rodgers runs through Dallas' 3-4 defense. Jim Prisching/AP Images
"I think that's one of the beauties of having a 3-4 defense to go against in practice," Rodgers said. "This is our fifth team that plays a similar scheme that we play on defense as far as its alignment. So it's been nice to work on that in practice and get our calls down for our protection schemes that we like against an odd front where the guards are uncovered. They present a different problem. Each team runs the 3-4 a little different. Pittsburgh has two very talented rush guys on the outside and ends who are really unselfish and play that scheme really well and a guy who's really hard to move on the inside (Casey Hampton)."
Rodgers has been sacked a league-high 47 times, but those problems have come mostly because of the team's early-season inability to handle 4-3 defensive ends like Jared Allen and Antwan Odom. In the four games against 3-4 defenses, Rodgers was sacked seven times — four against Dallas, two against San Francisco, one against Baltimore and none against Cleveland. That shows the pass protection unit's familiarity with the varied pressure schemes authored by 3-4 defenses. That means Rodgers, center Scott Wells and the backs — Brandon Jackson, lately — have been on the same page to pick out the blitzers before the snap.
The Packers, however, for one of the few times of the season, struggled against blitzes last week against Chicago. And outside of Dallas' DeMarcus Ware, the Packers haven't faced a 3-4 rusher like Pittsburgh's Harrison and Woodley. Woodley has a sack in each of his last five games with a total of seven during their five-game skid. Harrison, the reigning defensive player of the year, has been shutout in his last three games. Not only is he a feared rusher, but he has forced 17 fumbles over the last three seasons.
"The beauty of the 3-4 is that you don't always know who's coming, where they're coming from," said Rodgers, who has nine touchdowns and two interceptions against 3-4 teams this year. "I think Coach LeBeau is doing a great job, he's done it for a lot of years, drawing up a scheme for each team to try to put them in a difficult situation protection-wise. The 3-4 is all about communication, if you're trying to stop it. If you're running the 3-4, you want to confuse the offense. They do a nice job each week of drawing up schemes and running the blitzes they've run for years to give us issues upfront, communication issues and protection issues. So it's going to be important for us to be on the same page protection-wise, and if we can pick it up, obviously when you have guys like (Donald) Driver and (Greg) Jennings it's going to be my job to get those guys the ball."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.