Green Bay's defensive scheme last year was relatively simple: the front four were responsible for covering running lanes and generating pass rush, the linebackers filled any gaps in both run coverage and pass coverage, the cornerbacks played a tight pressing version of man-to-man coverage on the outside, and the safeties were either both over the top or split (one in coverage, the other in run support).
That's it in a nutshell. Sure, you can throw in wrinkles here and there and maybe blitz sometimes, but that's the Green Bay defense at its core. It's very plain, very reactionary, very vanilla. There's admittedly not much creativity on this side of the ball; everyone has a job and is expected to cover their assignments.
Now the question at Lambeau is whether or not to change that defensive philosophy. Do they want to put last year behind them and continue with the system as is, or would they prefer to move to a different style of play? And if the latter is the case, what system is best for the Packers? A basic Tampa 2 scheme? Maybe a switch to a 3-4 (a move that has had some scattered support around Packer Nation)? McCarthy and Winston Moss (the only defensive coach left standing from the January Purge...if he stays, that is) need to identify what type of system is best for success in the NFC North and perhaps beyond.
The first step is the shortest, but also the most important. Bob Sanders' departure started the process of finding a replacement, a process that isn't very transparent to the everyday fan and sometimes to other NFL teams. However, there has been movement on this front the last few days.
Meet Mike Nolan, currently the leading candidate for the defensive coordinator position. Right now, it seems to be a three man race between Nolan (who has an interview this coming Thursday), Bronco's defensive line coach Bill Johnson (who is also scheduled to interview for the position) and current assistant head coach/linebackers coach Winston Moss, with former Bills head coach and Jacksonville DC Gregg Williams also in the conversation.
First, a little history. Nolan was the starting safety at the University of Oregon during his time there, then made his rounds in the college community, including stops at Stanford, Rice, and LSU. In the late 80's, he made the jump to the NFL as a defensive assistant, where he caught the eye of Dan Reeves while Reeves was with the Broncos.
Reeves brought Nolan with him from Denver (where he was linebackers coach) to New York to be the Giants Defensive Coordinator in 1993. Nolan excelled at the position and his success served as a springboard for later success with other teams.
Nolan continued to serve as DC for the Giants until 1996, then moved on to the Washington Redskins for three years, followed by a one year stint as DC for the New York Jets. Nolan met relative success during his tenure with these three teams, but after moving to Baltimore in 2001, he earned his stripes.
The Ravens have ranked among the league's best defenses during Nolan's tenure. He took over a Ravens unit in transition in 2002; Baltimore used eight rookies to get through the season, and despite their youth the Ravens finished first on defense.
After three stellar seasons as Baltimore's DC, Nolan got hired by San Francisco as their new head coach. Taking on a squad that went 2-14 the year prior and had "earned" the first overall pick in the draft, Nolan had his work cut out for him. And he never got it done in San Francisco; from 2005-2007, Nolan's record was a paltry 16-32, a win percentage of 33%. Then, seven games into the 2008 season, Nolan was replaced with this guy...
...who needed to chew out his players and, yes, drop his pants to get them to 7-9 on the season.
Does this mean that Nolan is a bad coach? Absolutely not. Remember, Nolan got stuck with two abysmal top-5 draft picks in Vernon Davis (the TE equivalent of former Lions WR Mike Williams) and Alex Smith (lost his job to J.T. O'Sullivan/Shaun Hill). Plus he had Mike Martz and all his insanity to deal with. And the 49ers' defensive woes? Take it, CBS Sportsline blogger quoting a San Jose Mercury News article:
After all, the reason that Nolan had so much success with the Ravens is that he had top notch personnel on the defensive line. A solid front four can apply pressure without the need for blitzing. The 49ers did not have that.
Let's face it, the only real defensive players Mike Nolan ever had to work with in San Francisco were Patrick Willis and Nate Clements. This team started Mark Roman, for God's sake. You can't expect a coach to succeed without at least average personnel across the board, no matter how well dressed he may be. Between 2004 and now, I wouldn't even use the 49ers in Madden unless I stood to make a lot of money by somehow succeeding with them (hint: lots and lots of Frank Gore. Video game RB's don't get tired.)
But what does this all mean for Green Bay? Well, as we all know, Nolan and McCarthy are close; McCarthy served as Nolan's offensive coordinator in San Francisco before getting the Green Bay gig. And they reportedly have a friendly relationship, which means that the coaching dynamic won't be too difficult. Also, Nolan has some expertise on the 3-4 defense from his time in Baltimore and, to a lesser extent, San Francisco. This means that we might see a major departure from business-as-usual on defense.
But there's a lot of questions surrounding his hire. Will he be a good fit for Green Bay? Will he change his style to fit the 4-3? Will he force a change to the 3-4? What about personnel? Does this mean bye-bye to players that might not fit, such as Al Harris or Ryan Pickett? As the foremostest expert on the team, I approach this whole issue with one question: Will Mike Nolan be able to dream up a system that contains players like Adrian Peterson, Calvin Johnson, Matt Forte, and the rest of the offensive playmakers in the NFC North? That's the question we'll be exploring in the near future. Personally, I don't care if he runs a 4-3, a 3-4, a 5-2, or a 1-1-9, as long as he finds a way to fix the defense.