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

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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
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
DT = Defensive tackle

The gap is predetermined before the snap of the ball and the defender immediately flows to it. There isn’t as much read and react as the double gap scheme, so players can be smaller and rely more on their athleticism. The player fills the gap whether the ball carrier is there or not.

So, what exactly is a hybrid defense? An elephant?

First, a little bit of a disclaimer. Every defensive coach has his own philosophy, language, positions, etc. I have no intimate knowledge of Dom Capers’ playbook other than what I’ve seen on video.

So, everything I say from here on out is speculation about what we might see from Julius Peppers and the Packers this upcoming season.

A hybrid defense melds concepts of both the 3-4 and the 4-3 fronts. It can mean any combination of this mixing.

In my opinion, the Peppers signing indicates the Packers will use a more traditional 4-3 front 7 personnel (such as Julius Peppers and Datone Jones) and mix both 3-4 and 4-3 gap responsibilities.

EL = Elephant end

In the diagram above, which is a typical NFL hybrid defense, you’ll see that single and double gap responsibilities are being simultaneously executed. The strong side of the formation (TE) has  double gap control (with the exception of the Sam having single) and the weak side has single (with the Will more free to roam than typical double gap responsibilities).

The weak side allows defensive play makers more freedom in roaming. If this was the Packers, Clay Matthews can assume the role of Will and Julius Peppers can become the elephant end.

The elephant end lines up on the weak side of the formation and usually has single gap responsibilities. He’s free to roam, run defend, and pass rush from either a stand up 2-point stance or a 3-point stance.

Whatever Dom Capers rolls out this fall, it will be fun and interesting to see. Hopefully, it puts both Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews in positions to disrupt the passing game.



Jay Hodgson is an independent sports blogger writing for AllGreenBayPackers.com and WISports.com.

Follow Jay on twitter at @jys_h.


30 thoughts on “Xs and Os: Do the Packers Have an Elephant in the Room?

  1. Aren’t some teams like the Chiefs using totally 1 gap assignments out of the 3-4….a more “attacking” version of our defense?

    1. Yes, indeed. Wade Phillips also uses a single-gap 3-4. I guess the point I was making was Dom Capers uses a more traditional double-gap 3-4 defense, so adding the hybrid aspect would be a change for the Packers look.

      Thanks for reading!

      1. FWIW, Capers may have mostly ‘two gapped’ in Green Bay so far, but he used one-gap and zone blitz often out of the 3-4 as DC in Pittsburgh, and also ran a 4-3 in Carolina. He’s had top ranked defenses using all systems.

        I know people are dissatisfied with his overall performance here, but I keep thinking that has been more because of personnel and especially injuries (permanent loss of guys like Collins and Bishop as well as the seemingly annual epidemic.)

        I am looking at Peppers more as adding a kind of ‘critical mass’ to the front seven — enough guys to sustain pressure up front even if one of them is pout for a game or two, or needs a breather during the game. They will still need Hyde (or whoever takes over at safety) to provide playmaking on the back end for this top work.

      2. In addition I think the staff has realized that Raji is more suited for 1 gap, I expect him to be on some 1 gap packages this year.

        1. Raji likes to play directly over the Center, which actually invites more double teams. Pickett always played a slanted NT instead of straight up. Raji isn’t going to be one gapping. He likes being straight over the center cuz he feels few centers can handle him one on one, and he’s right. He’ll have a lot of double teams vs the run. However, if the offense passes and Raji is straight up on the center he has a much better chance of being able to beat the Center and get disruptive pressure on the QB.

          1. Ugh, I give up.

            If playing 0-tech invites more double teams, how is it that Raji wants to play 0-tech because he feels it gives him the best chance to get ‘one-on-ones’ with the Center?

            Moreover, you are saying Raji -won’t- be playing a single gap assignment, but then you continue on to say if it’s a pass play, he’ll just beat the center and rush the QB.

            If you would like to see plays break down and offenses get large gains, a sure way to see it happen is give your true, 0-tech NT in the 3-4 the standard, two-gap assignment and have him abandon his gap control and rush the passer. Congrats, you just gave up your defensive integrity up the gut, and there’s a wide open hole right where a 3-4 defense absolutely needs to be air-tight in order to function.

            Whoever your friend at ESPN Radio MKE is, you need to stop listening to whatever he’s telling you. His ideas on defensive line play are not sound.

            1. If you read sites other than just this blog you would read it for yourself and I wouldn’t have to explain it too you. Just becuz Raji gets more double teams on RUN downs doesn’t mean he does on pass plays. Typically in the run game the Offense knows blocking the NT is the first place you start, but on pass blocking the NT being in 0 tech mostly means he is the Centers sole responsibility.

              See it really helpful to read sites other than just blogs where you get a lot of inaccurate information. I read JSOnline, PackersNews, ESPNWisconsin, ESPN Packer blog (w/ a real journalist), Fox Sports Wi.

              Go find the article it was mentioned by more than just one of them shortly after the Packers signed Raji. BTW my buddy isn’t a radio guy, he does SportsCenter, you know the one on TV… And he doesn’t give me information we discuss things! And he talks to guys like Dilfer, Young and others…

              1. I don’t read football blogs and regurgitate. I watch football and discuss football on football blogs with other football fans. The only thing I can tell you about “real journalists” is that an awful lot of “real sports journalists” don’t know a whole heck of a lot about the nuts and bolts of sports. In fact, if you pay close attention, you’d find than an awful lot of ‘real sports journalists’ rip their stories from blogger sites, because an awful lot of the people that frequent places like Jersey Al’s, or Cheesehead TV, or any number of other NFL team fan sites, are quite well-informed football fans. At any rate, if your inside guy is a sports center talking head, he/she doesn’t know line play. There you have it.

              2. I watch football endlessly, then form my opinion and then read what sportwriters say. Sometimes I adjust my opinion, usually I don’t have to. Maybe you should try it too. Blogs are fun to comment on, but the cold hard facts usually come from the professionals, not bloggers/commenters.

  2. Peppers ears do resemble an elepahants, so it was meant to be. Sure hope he has some reserve fuel in the tank cause last year he was running on empty

    1. Peppers started slow last year and finshed up fairly well. He has had a few other years with similiar stat lines as well. I also think changes and injuries on last years Bears D made a big difference.

      Based on what I saw from Peppers vs that Packers last year I am optimistic. Bahk embarrassed Jared Allen, and was taught a lesson by Peppers. Had Kuhn not made an incredible block on Peppers, Pack would not have made the playoffs.

      People say alot, but alot of it does not reflect what you see, if you really watch.

  3. Great article, even with the assignments ‘simplified’ for better contrast.

    I’m interested in seeing if they line up Peppers and Matthews on opposite sides, to split the offense’s attention as to where the primary pass rush is coming from.

    On some downs, I think they might rotate Peppers to a more interior line position. He may (as some people commented) have ‘lost a step’ on his speed rush, but he still has a powerful ‘bull’ rush move that could provide interior pressure.

    Of course both of those options are also available from the ‘regular’ Elephant position via stunts or dropping linemen back into zone coverage like they did with Raji against the Bears in the NFC championship game.

  4. Will Peppers experience make up for him being old,tired,and slow? That is the 10 million dollar question…

  5. My guess is that the packers will run the hybrid a little different it will be like a 4-3 under and Clay Mathews will be the SAM and lined up on the line a scrimmage in a two point stance. I can’t see the packers playing him inside very often.

  6. I presume Raji will play NT in these schemes. Who would be best at playing DE and DT in a 3-4 and who would be more suited for the 3-4 hybrid? Does it require different body types? Thinking of the Boyd/Jolly/Pickett type vs smaller Daniels type guy.

    1. Raji IS a NT. He’s always been a NT. He was forced to play out if position at DE the past 2+ yrs. A large part of the reason he came back to GB was the assurance he would be playing NT again. That’s been established for quite awhile.

      Daniels has excelled in his role as an interior pass rusher which has earned him some opportunities as a base DE but that doesn’t play to his strengths. The more he is in his role inside pass rushing the more successful he’ll continue to be. Playing base DE is likely to diminish his effectiveness.

      Peppers will be a role player too. He won’t be asked to be a 2 gapping 34DE too much if at all. They’ve already said he won’t be an every down player.

      Right now Datone is the only true 34 DE even Boyd is more a DT/NT than 34 DE based on body type and abilities tho he’ll obviously be asked to play base DE. Packers have a lot of role players on thr DL except for Datone and Raji.

  7. I really hope they play him as 34 DE. Over the last couple years, everyone’s been complaining that the Pack’s DE’s are too short. Peppers is 6’7 & 290lbs. It’s exactly what they need on their line. He may be getting a bit slow to play 43 DE and having to face Tackles, but he should be able to smoke most of the Guards in the league.

    They could rotate Peppers, Daniels and Jones at DE. Raji would be in the middle, with CM3 + Perry or Neal coming from the outside. I think they could have a consistent pass rush this year.

    1. I agree… Been saying it for awile. In base 34 D Peppers can play 34 DE and still only have one gap responsibilities. Capers did just that w/ Jenkins who rarely had to play 2 gap. Its an adjustment to the scheme that Capers has in his arsenal. He just hasn’t had the personnel to utilize it much and it can keep Peppers out of facing double teams. In pass D the best utilization would be for Peppers to drop inside a little over the OG and allow Perry to play the “elephant end”. However I don’t think Peppers will be on the field often on run downs, that’ll be more for Jones, Raji and Boyd.

      In pass rush they can use Perry, Neal and to some degree Peppers as the elephant depending on matchups. Peppers can also drop to DT or LDE to rush and still have either Jones, Daniels or Neal at DT. Leaving Perry and Matthews as the rush LB’s.

      There’s just a lot more diverstity and versatility available w/ Peppers that they didn’t have last year, partly due to injury but also lack of personnel to be versatile.

      Peppers being moved up and down the DL and Matthews moving around at LB, along w/ Perry rushing from OLB or elephant and Neal as an OLB or DT.

      Just a lot of variations that are open for Capers now.

    1. Great question with a complicated answer. I did oversimplify for illustrative purposes. Usually, defenses determine strength of the offense on field (wide side of field from hash) over boundary (narrow side from hash). In that case, motion shouldn’t matter.

      However, if strength is determined by formation, motion will impact that. In that case, assignments flip. Or, players follow motion. Both happen.

  8. FWIW the Packers specifically McCarthy and Capers were planning on using the “elephant end” to diversify the Defense before Peppers was ever signed. Its the position that Matthews and Perry played at USC. Matthews moving up from Safety to LB, then Perry as a backup to Matthews and for a year or so after he left. USC gradually or at some point during Perry’s career moved to a more traditional 43 alignment.

    Signing Peppers wasn’t the impetus to use the elephant position. It was in the works even before Peppers became available.

    Its one of the reason I still feel that Peppers will be moving to a DT spot more often than he plays elephant. Both Perry and Neal fit the elephant position as good or better than Peppers. They will all get chances but McCarthy specifically said that Perry is more comfortable on the right side. So Perry w/ his experience playing elephant on the right side is a natural for that spot.

    This is not to say that Peppers wont get opportunities at elephant however. He just brings even more versatility to the front 7. Peppers can move up and down the DL, Matthews all around at LB. Perry rushing as a DE or OLB/elephant, Neal rushing as an OLB, DT and possibly some elephant.

    The combinations are only limited by Capers imagination and the weekly matchups they can scheme to get Matthews and Peppers in. This doesn’t even count Datone, Daniels, Peppers and Neal rotating at DT in pass rush.

    1. You just won’t let go of your campaign to make a DT out of Peppers. It’s not going to happen. maybe on a rare occasion, but that’s it. McCarthy has already said Peppers will work in practice with the linebackers group. He IS the elephant. They wanted to use Perry as an elephant last year, but the guy can’t stay on the field.

      1. A lot of things are said this time of year. A lot of it is misinformation too. I’m not saying that Peppers wont play some elephant, I think he will, but they were planning to use that position for Perry even before Peppers became available.

        I think the Packers will want to get the best pass rushers on the field and will play to matchups more than they ever have. Peppers can play some elephant, but its pretty clear at this point that he isn’t the dominant edge rusher he used to be. Obviously, having less attention will help him since teams will continue to account for Matthews as much or more than even Peppers.

        Yeah injuries were a factor and screwed a lot of plans up, but if Perry is healthy who are the best pass rushers and how do you get them on the field at the same time?

        To me that would be Perry at Elephant, Peppers and Daniels/Jones at DT and Matthews at LOLB. Peppers at elephant all but takes Perry out of the game. If he is on the right side, which is generally the side the elephant end aligns Perry won’t be on the field.

      2. Per JSonline…

        “Among the things Peppers may do is line up w/ his hand down at a DE in the base scheme, move inside to play DT on passing downs and stand up as an OLB and either rush the QB or drop in coverage.”

        I like the idea of lining him up as the elephant in base D that makes sense, but moving inside to play DT in passing situations kinda stands out don’t you think? Not too mention gets the best pass rushers on the field in passing situations, which BTW is what I’m talking about more than base or run D. The last thing I want to see is Peppers dropping in coverage.

        Not going to happens huh?

  9. This was great, keep up the good work Jay. I remember reading early last season , about New England’s 3-4 / 4-3 hybrid concept defense (will try to find the article). In it there were like 3 or 4 very detailed plays and the concept behind them.

    I view the signing of Peppers as a recognition of talent at the right price, and trying to find a suitable position for him within our D. This season started very good, the draft is in 40 days and we should have a clearer picture there on how the defense will shape up.

  10. I like that Hybrid defense for the Packers personnel. I think it would mean less of Hawk and Jones on the field at the same time, which strikes me as a good thing.

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