22

July

Cory’s Corner: Packers’ 2014 D Begins and Ends with Raji

With the signing of Julius Peppers, B.J. Raji could have a snice year.

With the signing of Julius Peppers, B.J. Raji could have a nice year.

I gave B.J. Raji a lot of grief last year.

After setting career lows in total tackles (12) and tallying no sacks for the second straight season, it was completely warranted.

Raji’s argument was that he barely played his true position as a bona fide nose tackle. He dabbled in playing end and also spent time as a three-technique lineman that is more prevalent in a 4-3 scheme.

True position or not, his production nose-dived to the point that many — including myself — were surprised that the Packers didn’t let him walk in free agency.

But then Julius Peppers signed.

Which of course means that Raji will be going back to his usual perch at the middle of the defensive line as the team’s nose tackle. The fifth-year pro should be ecstatic about getting help on the outside to assist him bull-rushing up the gut.

And there’s another twist that makes it even better for the Packers: Raji signed a team-friendly deal this past offseason. Of course, there’s no way Green Bay can lose when Raji turns down $8 million a season. Now the 28-year-old is operating under a 1-year $4,000,000 deal.

Will Peppers have a big year? He may surprise a lot of people, but even if he plays like an average 34-year-old, the Packers will be OK.

And the reason is because Green Bay will be playing to the strengths of the guy that was one of the best run-stoppers in the game in 2010.

Is it a gamble? Sure. First of all, Clay Matthews cannot get hurt again. A consistent pass rush must be executed from each side in order to give Raji space up the middle.

In more ways than one this is Raji’s year. He needs a big year for a big payday, but he also wants a solid year to end the criticism he took all of last year for giving up on plays early. Obviously, there is no excuse for loafing and there’s no reason to do that no matter what position you play.

Raji cannot be satisfied with how he played last year. I mean he was tied for 540th in the league in combined tackles. He will need to be more of a ball hawk this year because the Packers take on eight teams with a dominant running back.

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15

July

If Packers fans had to pick a Packers Pepper to Perform

Julius Peppers

Julius Peppers

Tyler Dunne and Justin Felder asked an interesting question on the last Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel Packers podcast: If Packers fans had to choose, would they pick pass rusher Julius Peppers or trainer Pepper Burruss to have a great season in 2014?

The duo never really answered the question, so let’s answer it here. First, some context:

If Julius Peppers has a great season, it probably means he had 10-plus sacks and finally provided the Packers defense with a legitimate edge pass-rushing threat to complement, and enhance, everything Clay Matthews already does.

The Packers have tried first-round draft picks, undrafted rookie free agents, random dudes off the street and converted defensive tackles at the outside linebacker slot opposite Matthews. Nothing has worked out.

The situation was so desperate, general manager Ted Thompson took the rare step of signing Peppers, a free agent, to try and get Matthews some help.

Peppers’ snaps will probably be limited, but if he reaches double digits in sacks and forces teams to divert attention from Matthews over to him, it will provide a tremendous boost to the Packers beleaguered defense.

If Pepper Burruss has a great season, it means the Packers injury luck has finally turned around. I know one trainer isn’t responsible for the health of the team, but work with me on this one.

Since 2010, every single position group on the Packers has been hit by a major injury to an important player.

Two players — a pro-bowl safety and a running back picked in the fourth round — have suffered career-ending neck injuries. One of the best tight ends in team history likely won’t play again after a neck injury. Ditto for Johnny Jolly, one of the best comeback stories from last season.

Pepper Burruss

Pepper Burruss

Mike McCarthy says he’s had two healthy teams in his eight years in Green Bay: 2007 and 2011. In 2007, the Packers went to the NFC title game. In 2011, they went 15-1.

Whether you think McCarthy’s exaggerating or not doesn’t matter. It’s a fact that the Packers have been one of the most beat up teams in the NFL since 2010.

So let’s say Burruss comes up with a magical solution to the Packers injury woes and devises a way for the Packers to not be injury free, but at least finish in the top 5 for fewest games lost due to injury in 2014.

21

June

Cory’s Corner: Pressure’s on for Morgan Burnett

Morgan Burnett has six interceptions in his four-year NFL career. He had zero last year.

Morgan Burnett has six interceptions in his four-year NFL career. He had zero last year.

Hopefully Morgan Burnett doesn’t read his press clippings, listen to the radio or watch TV.

Because after last season, there have been plenty of Packers fans that were incensed with his lackluster play.

Which is why the 25-year-old enters 2014 with the most to prove. Last July, I was shocked when the Packers gave him a four-year $24.75 million extension.

He has been serviceable, but it was questionable to give him that money when he never really wowed anyone on gameday.

And after he signed that deal, Burnett went out and laid an egg. No picks. No sacks. Just 66 tackles and three fumble recoveries.

Burnett has gone 24 games without an interception, which isn’t exactly high praise for a strong safety.

With all the beef the Packers now have tied up in their front seven, that will put even more pressure on the defensive backs to win one-on-one battles. Because if guys like Julius Peppers, Clay Matthews and Nick Perry are consistently getting pressure on the quarterback, imagine how frustrating it will be if coverage breaks down and drives are allowed to continue?

Now that the Packers picked safety Ha Ha Clinton Dix in the first round, Burnett not only needs to bring it on the field, he also must be a leader for a green secondary — aside from Tramon Williams and Jarrett Bush.

Now, obviously the Packers didn’t give him that money just for last year. They would like a solid return on the entire investment. But the thing that is the most alarming is that Burnett never showcased that animal instinct that I saw when he was playing at Georgia Tech. Instead, he easily blended in with an average defense.

The Packers allowed five 300-plus yard passing games last year. Of those games, there were 13 touchdown passes.

The division games will be tough enough with the Lions adding Golden Tate alongside Calvin Johnson and the Bears’ murder’s row trio of Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Martellus Bennett is arguably the best fleet of pass catchers in the league.

Add in games against Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Matt Ryan and this secondary will be tested.

1

June

Surviving Sunday: Packers News, Notes and Links for the Football Deprived

Surviving Sundays with no Packers Football

Surviving Sundays with no Packers football.

Despite being two of the most accomplished defensive players over the last 10 years, both Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers have something to prove this season for the Green Bay Packers.

It sounds like they’re looking forward to helping each other make their respective points.

Matthews needs to show that he can stay healthy and return the Packers defense back to its Super Bowl form of 2010. The Packers paid Matthews $66 million over 5 years last offseason, but he missed a chunk of 2014 and has battled nagging hamstring injuries his entire career.

Peppers wants to show that he’s not washed up and can be a difference maker on a defense that has come up short in the postseason the last three seasons.

If both players are going to make statements and get the Packers defense back to where it needs to be, they’ll need to sack, hit, chase, harass and make life miserable for the other team’s quarterback.

Matthews and Peppers have done plenty of that in their careers, but they’re finally going to have something neither one has had much of in the past: Help from the other side. And that help will come from each other.

According to Ourlads.com’s opening day NFL depth charts archive, here are the players who have lined up on the opposite end of the line from Peppers and at the opposite linebacker from Matthews to start the season since 2010 (and the number of sacks each sidekick finished with):

Peppers

2009   Tyler Brayton (5 sacks)
2010   Mark Anderson (3.5 sacks)
2011   Israel Idonije (5 sacks)
2012   Israel Idonije (7.5 sacks)
2013   Corey Wootton (3.5 sacks)

TOTAL   Four different players in five seasons, 24.5 sacks.
*Peppers totaled 48.5 sacks from 2009-13.

Matthews

2009   Aaron Kampman (3.5 sacks)
2010   Brad Jones (0 sacks)
2011   Erik Walden (3 sacks)
2012   Nick Perry (2 sacks)
2013   Nick Perry (4 sacks)

TOTAL   Four different players in five seasons, 12.5 sacks.
*Matthews totaled 50 sacks from 2009-13.

Obviously, as each season progressed, the person lining up opposite of Matthews and Peppers changed due to injury or lineup adjustments, but you get my point: Neither player has had a feared pass-rushing partner from the other side of the line in a long, long time, if ever.

16

May

Cory’s Corner: NFC North is ganging up to stop Packers

Kyle Fuller (17) was one of the best cornerbacks in the draft and the Bears took him 14th overall.

Kyle Fuller (17) was the second cornerback off the board, taken 14th overall by the Bears.

Taking a peek at the rest of the draft picks in the NFC North, it’s apparent where the priorities lie.

Of the Packers nine picks, four of them were offensive skill players. Green Bay went with defense to open up the draft but then quickly reloaded Aaron Rodgers with capable weapons.

While Green Bay’s defense wasn’t exactly dynamite last year, the addition of Julius Peppers is going to change the pass rush and pass coverage.

The Bears knew exactly which way they had to go after suffering through the humiliating 48-yard Rodgers bomb to Randall Cobb — defense. And that’s exactly what Chicago did. The Bears only picked two offensive skill positions and they waited until the fourth round to pick their first one.

While everyone was dogging Detroit for making the questionable first round selection of tight Eric Ebron, the Lions responded after that. They addressed their defensive and offensive lines, secondary and linebacking corps. Just like Chicago, Detroit only picked two offensive skill positions.

That brings me to the worst team in the NFC North last year. The Vikings have a lot of holes — namely at quarterback. But after taking Teddy Bridgewater at the end of the first round, Minnesota only took one more offensive skill position but really stressed its pass rush after losing Jared Allen to Chicago.

So what does this all mean? Everyone, as they should, respects the heck out of the Packers’ offense. They are sick and tired of watching Eddie Lacy run through them and Rodgers pass over them.

Which is why it’s pretty comical that when the other teams in the division collectively loaded up to stop the formidable Green Bay offense, the Packers simply shrug and add even more offense.

And that is why Ted Thompson will always keep you guessing. You may think you have an idea of what direction he is going to go, but he was throwing curveballs for two days — after the obvious Ha Ha Clinton-Dix pick to kick things off.

Obviously the X-factor is Peppers. Without acquiring Peppers prior to the draft, Thompson would have likely beefed up the defensive line or probably traded up to make sure that Ryan Shazier or C.J. Mosley secured the defensive front seven.

15

April

Cory’s Corner: Julius Peppers is No. 56…remain excited

I’ve never seen a number unveiling get this much excitement.

And for those of you that may not know, Julius Peppers will be wearing No. 56 next season for the Packers.

Julius Peppers will be wearing No. 56 next fall as he will play a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker position called the elephant.

Julius Peppers will be wearing No. 56 next fall as he will play a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker position called the elephant.

That’s quite a change for someone that was consistently coming off the edge as a defensive end in a three-point stance wearing No. 90.

But Peppers isn’t just an end. Thanks to Dom Capers and his crazy names, which have brought us the ‘Psycho’ defensive package, Peppers will be playing a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker called an elephant.

Personally, I don’t care if you call it strawberry shortcake because the name of Peppers’ position is meaningless. His stats and his motor speak for themselves. He’s been under double-digit sacks in a season just four times in his 12-year career.

The thing I like about Peppers most is his drive. I realize that he’s 34 and might be reaching the final leg of a strong NFL career. But the last time he didn’t play a full 16-game season was in 2007. That really says a lot to me. Especially for a guy that has played through a sprained MCL in his left knee, a broken right hand and a right knee sprain among other things. And the season that he suffered his right knee sprain was in 2007, a season in which he tallied his lowest sack output of his career with 2½. Yet he still managed to lead the Panthers in quarterback hurries.

Peppers is a guy that the Packers desperately needed. He’s a guy that will come in and not only contribute with a pass rush that has been forgotten, but he’s a vocal veteran that wants to win.

That’s a great combination for a team that has youngsters like Nick Perry and Datone Jones, who the Packers are counting on to break out and flourish.

Is it fair to compare Peppers to the 31-year-old Reggie White when he signed with Green Bay? No way. And I’m surprised I’ve seen people even make that comparison because it’s not not even close. White was a once-in-a-lifetime pass rusher who may never be copied again.

But that doesn’t mean Peppers doesn’t have plenty to play for.

28

March

Xs and Os: Do the Packers Have an Elephant in the Room?

Julius Peppers hopes to be a disruptive force for the Green Bay Packers defense.

Julius Peppers hopes to be a disruptive force for the Green Bay Packers defense.

When the Green Bay Packers signed defensive end Julius Peppers in free agency, lots of speculation about his future role with the team erupted.

We heard rumors circulating about a possible deployment of a “hybrid defense” and the “elephant end” position.

The reason for this speculation is Packers’ defensive Dom Capers employs a base 3-4 defense, which utilizes 3 defensive linemen and 4 linebackers.

However, Peppers is a 4-3 defensive end. The 4-3 defense utilizes 4 defensive linemen and 3 linebackers.

Because of this alignment difference, the defensive ends between both schemes have different body types and responsibilities.

Typically, 4-3 defensive ends are usually between 260-285 pounds and are long, fluid athletes. On the other hand, 3-4 defensive ends are between 300-340 pounds and are more of the wrecking ball type.

The reason for these different body types has to do with defensive gap control.

Gap control is how the defense puts its players in proper position, mainly for stopping the running game, but also secondarily when establishing pass rushing lanes.

The 3-4 defense typically uses a double gap system, meaning that each defender in the front 7 is responsible for defending 2 gaps in the offensive formation.

This is very much a read and react system where each player anticipates where the ball will go and move to that location as the play develops. At the snap of the ball, the defensive linemen stand up their blockers, clog the position, and move to the lane where the ball is.

Linebackers also have double control and flow to the ball as the runner hits the lane.

Legend: T = Tackle G = Guard C = Center TE = Tight end DE = Defensive end NT = Nose tackle S = Sam (strong side linebacker) M = Mike (middle linebacker) W = Will (weak side linebacker) J = Jack linebacker

Legend:
T = Tackle, G = Guard, C = Center, TE = Tight end, DE = Defensive end, NT = Nose tackle, S = Sam (strong side linebacker), M = Mike (middle linebacker), W = Will (weak side linebacker), J = Jack linebacker

The 3-4 defense relies on strength to control the gaps, which is why the defensive linemen are large. However, the Jack linebacker, such as Clay Matthews, is free to roam and do damage over a large portion of the field, including rushing the passer.

In contrast, the 4-3 defense is traditionally a single gap defense, which means each front 7 defender controls only 1 lane.

Legend: DT = Defensive tackle

Legend:
DT = Defensive tackle