If there’s one criticism Green Bay Packers fans have about Dom Capers, it is his seemingly consistent use – and failure – of the three-man rush in third-and-long situations. Since last year, the defense has been burned numerous times with this “prevent” approach, and perhaps the most maddening use of the three-man rush was on a December afternoon in Pittsburgh last season.
With only three seconds and a prayer left in the fourth quarter to make the go-ahead touchdown, the Pittsburgh Steelers needed a full 19 yards for the score. On the snap, the Packers sent only three down linemen against quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, leaving the remaining eight defensive players in coverage. The offensive line held the rush, “Big Ben” was allowed plenty of time to throw from the pocket, and he connected with Mike Wallace in the endzone on an amazing sideline pass-and-catch.
After making the extra point, the Steelers ended up winning 37-36.
(It would be prudent to note that Green Bay also allowed a 4th-and-7 conversion on that final drive using the three-man rush. The result? A 32-yard reception by Santonio Holmes.)
The aftermath of that game left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Packers fans, and they can’t help but hold their collective breaths every time Dom Capers is faced with a third-and-long situation.
More recently, against the New England Patriots in Week 15, this concern once again reared its ugly head.
Setting the scene is the Patriots’ first offensive drive. After a 25-yard catch-and-run by Ron Gronkowski to set up the first down in Packers’ territory, B.J. Raji sacks Tom Brady for a big loss. Woodson breaks up another pass intended for Gronkowski on second down, which then brings up a third-and-17 on the 50-yard line.
Then comes the infamous three-man rush:
On what should have been a stalled drive, the rush fails to get to Tom Brady, and he has time to find a wide-open Deion Branch right at the first-down marker. On the very next down, Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis takes the ball 33 yards for their first touchdown of the game.
What would have happened if the Green Bay Packers had stopped Tom Brady on that third down, maybe by bringing more pressure?
We’ll never know.
Now, to be fair, let’s fast-forward one week to the game against Eli Manning and the New York Giants.
It’s the first quarter, and the Packers have just taken a 7-0 lead with the 80-yard touchdown by Jordy Nelson. The Giants take the kickoff and begin their drive at their 30-yard line.
On first down, Manning makes an incomplete pass to Hakeem Nicks. Clay Matthews proceeds to blow-up a second down running attempt by tackling Brandon Jacobs for a 1-yard loss. This brings up 3rd-and-11, and what does Dom Capers do? He sends the three-man rush.
But let’s take a look at the outcome this time:
The Packers don’t even mask their intention to rush only three defensive lineman; however, instead of allowing the first down, Tramon Williams makes an interception on a pass again intended for Nicks. It would prove to be the first of four interceptions made by the Packers’ defense that afternoon.
We must then ask ourselves:
Is the three-man rush utilized by Dom Capers an effective option in long down-and-distance situations?
In this next (long-awaited) edition of the “Packers Beer Mug Perspective,” we’ll take a look at the issue from both angles, then determine whether our mug is really half full or half empty.
We’ve already seen an example for each side of the argument, but let’s delve a bit deeper into the conversation.
THE MUG IS HALF FULL
For our examination, I have decided to pull some more video evidence, this time from Sunday’s final regulation game against the Chicago Bears. Allow me to present Exhibit “A”:
The foundation of the three-man rush revolves around “prevention.” In this type of package, the players at the second and third levels are playing to prevent the first down, even if it means giving up some yardage. The deep zones will be focused on, while some players – usually a mix of linebackers and defensive backs – will be held responsible for the area in front of the first down marker.
In a perfect world, the deep ball will be taken away, and the offense would be forced to settle for a check-down or a forced throw. If the check-down occurs, the defense tackles the player short of the first down, and the drive is stopped.
In an even more perfect world, the pass rushers get to the quarterback before anything can even develop.
(This actually happened in the fourth quarter of the game, when the Bears were backed up near their goal line and Clay Matthews sacked Jay Cutler coming off the edge.)
Notice in the video above how Erik Walden is positioned near the line of scrimmage. He gives the threat of being the fourth rusher, but then steps back into coverage and mans up with the running back. Additionally, the two receivers taking the out-routes are covered, as are the deep receivers. This allows very few options for Jay Cutler, and Jarius Wynn gets just enough pressure on him to force a throw after about three and a half seconds.
Though a better throw might have been made, Cutler’s cavalier attitude plays into the hands of the defense, and Charlie Peprah comes up with the interception.
Back in November, defensive line coach Mike Trgovac addressed the question of why the Packers are comfortable using the three-man rush:
“You have to look at the down and distance. When a coach decides to call that, you look at how fast the guy (the opposing quarterback) is getting the ball out. Then you look at the success of it and our three man rush has been very successful this year. Also, teams are throwing screens at us. We have more eyes on the screen, as opposed to four guys rushing. I know a lot of times people see three man rush and don’t understand it. But we have several different coverages that go along with it so teams won’t be able to pick up on it. We’re not doing the same coverage out of a three man rush.”
In many ways, the three-man rush is a microcosm of the defensive scheme set up by Dom Capers. It’s a bend-but-don’t-break package that gives the opposing offense some room, but not enough for the first down.
And when executed well, we have seen that there can be some very positive outcomes. In fact, the final game-winning interception also came on a three-man rush.
THE MUG IS HALF EMPTY
I now present to you Exhibit “B”:
As with any play, the three-man rush has its weaknesses. In the above video – again from Sunday’s game – you’ll notice that Chester Taylor is able to take the dump-off pass all the way to the first-down marker.
Even though the play is eventually nullified by a timeout, it shows how the offense can create the space it needs with enough time and the right playcall.
Strangely enough, the Chicago Bears are able to make this play even though the tight end never releases and instead stays in to block. That means Cutler only had three wideouts and the running back to throw to. The only problem for the Packers was that their zone coverage made them play too far back, and the receivers were able to spread them out far enough to create a giant hole through which Taylor could run once he made his release.
If you look closely enough, you’ll notice that the flanker (Z-receiver) is the key player here. Walden bites on his crossing route and is pulled far enough out of position to where he can’t get to the running back. The defensive backs also fail to meet Chester Taylor far enough in front of the first down marker to make the tackle, which they were in a position to do.
This play highlights how a strong, dynamic running back can make a well-timed dump pass successful against the three-man rush.
Even without the extra cushion, some backs like Adrian Peterson and Michael Turner could easily break a tackle or two and get the extra yardage they need. Besides, Green Bay’s defense has been known to whiff on a few tackles this year.
The other dagger to the three-man rush is the elite quarterback, i.e., players like Tom Brady.
These quarterbacks and their offenses are so in-sync that, if need be, they can often thread the needle for a reception, especially if a defender missteps on the coverage. That’s what happened in the first video against the Patriots. Sam Shields went the wrong direction against Deion Branch and paid dearly. Brady recognized the break in coverage quickly and made the perfect pass for the first down.
With a strong running back or a precise passing attack, the three-man rush can be exploited by an offense, even if the defense executes the coverage well.
GETTING THROUGH THE FOAM
Think of the three-man rush as if it was your best friend’s home-brewed beer: you’re going to drink it, but sometimes only because you have to.
The first few batches your friend makes are still part of the learning process. Unless he’s had experience making beer before, it probably won’t be the best tasting stuff you’ve ever had. And you may not even be able to finish it.
But after some time working with the ingredients and understanding the process, your friend might just be able to brew some tasty suds. Sure, there might be a bad batch here and there, but for the most part, you won’t be holding your nose anymore every time you take a sip.
The same holds true for the Green Bay Packers and Dom Capers’ use of the three-man rush.
Last year, it was practically a horrible playcall every time it was made. With time and practice, though, the players have become better at making it work. Not only has the overall level of play risen in the secondary, but the pass rush has improved significantly. With guys like Clay Matthews, Cullen Jenkins, B.J. Raji, and even Jarius Wynn in the mix, rushing only three players no longer becomes a liability.
There is still work to be done, but for the most part, the defense has finally reached the point Dom Capers wants them.
Furthermore, I will present you with my final piece of evidence, Exhibit “C”:
Astute readers will recognize this as the play that followed Chester Taylor’s nullified catch-and-run on 3rd-and-15. The Chicago Bears are lined up almost exactly the same. They are in a three-wide, single-back set, except this time two wide receivers are lined up on the left side of the formation instead of the right.
Perhaps anticipating another three-man rush, Mike Martz calls for the tight end to release immediately, and only the five offensive lineman are left to block for Cutler.
But Dom Capers learned his lesson quickly.
He mixes in some man-to-man coverage with a two-deep shell. Additionally, – and this is what makes a huge difference – Capers sends Erik Walden on a delayed blitz. Walden actually moves in like he’s going to rush, but then hesitates slightly and waits for his moment to strike.The result was Cutler winding up on his backside, never having any time to react.
Being a successful coordinator in the NFL means being unpredictable and knowing when to shake things up. Just like a running game is necessary for the play-action pass, different levels of the pass rush are necessary for a defense to remain confusing to the opposing quarterback.
In this example, Erik Walden’s sack would not have been as effective if Mike Martz didn’t expect Dom Capers to bring only three pass rushers.
So, to answer the question, I will say this mug can be both half full and half empty, depending on what you fill it with. The three-man rush is an effective option for this 2010 Packers defense; however, it can quickly fall flat without the proper personnel, coaching, and/or execution.——————Follow @ChadToporski