Posted May 08, 2012

Boom or Bust: Does Jerel Worthy Fit the Packers’ D?

Boom or Bust, Green Bay Packers

Jerel Worthy isn't an ideal fit for the Packers' defensive scheme, based on what he did in college. (Getty Images)

When Michigan State defensive lineman Jerel Worthy, a first-round pick in the eyes of many, slid all the way to No. 51 overall, the Green Bay Packers decided to go and get him. Green Bay shipped the 59th and 123rd overall picks in the 2012 draft to Philadelphia for the opportunity to select Worthy.

Worthy earned All-America honors in 2011 thanks to his disruptive play up front for the Spartans. He had 50 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in his junior season, plus blocked a field goal to give Michigan State an Outback Bowl victory.

Questions about his compete levels drove down his stock at the draft, though — the knocks on Worthy were that he didn’t give 100 percent each play and appeared to wear down over the course of games, especially in the rugged Big Ten.

Worthy’s size (6-foot-2 3/8, 308 pounds) and quickness made him an intriguing candidates for a lot of teams, despite those issues.

Michigan State utilizes a 4-3 defense, which means Worthy has to do some transitioning to Green Bay’s 3-4. He does not appear to be an ideal fit at nose tackle as a space-eater, meaning the Packers likely have him ticketed for one of their end spots. Ryan Pickett should get another crack as Green Bay’s left end, but the right side is up for grabs. Mike Neal is suspended for the first four games of the 2011 season, and Jarius Wynn, who started four games last season, is hardly irreplaceable.

It could take some time for Worthy to get acclimated in whatever role he winds up in, but it’s worth noting one specific feature of Green Bay’s defense that could play to his advantage.

Here’s the Packers’ traditional 3-4 look (although here, Pickett is inside where you’d expect to see the nose tackle, with Raji to his left. Normally, that’s reversed):

A majority of Green Bay’s backfield pressure comes not from its D-line, but from its linebackers. The Packers’ linebacking corps had 17.5 sacks last season; their defensive linemen had seven.

In that traditional 3-4 look, Worthy would normally slot in on the outside, though he could shift to the middle — as Pickett did on the play pictured above — to give the offensive line something else to deal with from time to time.

But Worthy might be of even more use, and may feel more comfortable, when the Packers turn to their unique nickel defense. That look employs five defensive backs (hence: nickel), but Green Bay puts its twist on it by using just two defensive linemen and four linebackers — almost every other “nickel” look would invert those numbers, with a four-man front, two linebackers manning the middle and the five DBs.

But since the Packers’ best pass-rushers are their outside linebackers, they slide Matthews and one other linebacker up where you’d expect to see two defensive ends, then place two linemen (with Raji usually filling one of the spots) on the interior.

The result is this look:

For Worthy, if he were to line up next to Raji in the Packers’ nickel, it would get him as close to his Michigan State duties as possible — in football terminology, Worthy’s ideal NFL fit going into the draft looked to be as “3-technique” lineman, which means he lines up over the outside shoulder of an offensive guard.

The 3-technique is what Warren Sapp so excelled at during his days in Tampa Bay, because it basically puts the defensive tackle in charge of one specific spot, the “B” gap between the guard and tackle, which allows him to go full-bore into that area. In the picture above the Packers’ two tackles are closer in on the center than that, but it’s a place Worthy may feel more comfortable.

Worthy will have to be more physical in Green Bay’s 3-4 base defense, because, as mentioned above, the line’s job there is to engage blockers while the linebackers swoop in for tackles.

There will be a steep learning curve for Worthy, there’s no question. Does he have the drive to make this match a successful one?

Best-case scenario: Worthy acclimates well to the 3-4, with his quick burst off the snap creating havoc for opposing guards and tackles. He shines in the Packers’ nickel defense, with his size and speed helping him get into the backfield on occasion and, at the very least, letting Green Bay’s linebackers fly past him on the outside. He takes over as a starter in camp, freeing up the Packers to cut Neal.

Worst-case scenario: Worthy proves that he’s more of a 4-3 DT than a 3-4 anything. He winds up being too slow and lethargic to make an impact on the outside in Green Bay’s base defense, and proves that he’s too small to play inside, either in the 3-4 or when the Packers go to their nickel package. He winds up playing just 10-15 snaps per game because of his conditioning.

2012 prediction: Except Worthy to fall somewhere in the middle of the dream and nightmare projections. Green Bay’s defensive linemen don’t put up big numbers regardless, so it’s hard to pinpoint a real statistical expectation. The prediction? Worthy starts 4-5 games, finishes with two sacks and 20 tackles and plays an average of about 20 snaps per week. Oh, and year two goes much more smoothly than year one.

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