During training camp defensive Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila began to figure out the Green Bay Packers' new defensive scheme.
"I just saw how it worked,"Gbaja-Biamila said. "The scheme was awesome."
The six-year NFL veteran has been soaking in the lessons ever since. And the player once labeled as a pure pass rusher has become a capable run stopper.
"There's no liability against the run," Head Coach Mike Sherman said. "He's playing the best football of his career right now."
After racking up 52 tackles during 16 games last year, Gbaja-Biamila already has 43 at the season's halfway point.
The Packers' new defensive alignment installed under defensive coordinator Jim Bates calls for their defensive ends to line up wide and at an angle against offensive lineman instead of directly over a tight end or offensive tackle. That tweak places Gbaja-Biamila in a better position to stop outsider runners.
Schematic changes are not the only reason for his improvement versus the run. The coaching staff has emphasized run-stuffing fundamentals throughout training camp and the regular season.
In his first year with the Packers, defensive ends coach Bob Sanders, who has tutored other elite pass rushers, including Jevon Kearse, Jason Taylor and Kevin Carter, made turning Gbaja-Biamila into a complete player as a priority. He instructed Gbaja-Biamila to keep a low pad level and use his hands to disengage from offensive linemen.
His teammates have noticed the results.
"He's trying to play with more sound technique," defensive end Aaron Kampman said. "It's helped him get off blocks better."
The coaching staff also changed Gbaja-Biamila's stance to give him a stronger base.
"It has helped him," Bates said. "The foundation of your lower body is as important as anything for a defensive lineman."
While his tackle numbers have sky-rocketed, his pass rush statistics have fallen. After racking up at least 10 sacks during the last four consecutive seasons, he has 3.5 through eight games.
Sherman, however, contested that Gbaja-Biamila has rushed the passer with the same abandon. Two things have helped account for his drop in sacks. Until the fifth game of the season, the Packers led for a total of six minutes. With opposing teams in the lead, they would try eating up clock with the running game, allowing Gbaja-Biamila fewer opportunities to chase down the quarterback.
Sherman also said the coverage units have let quarterbacks complete quick passes too frequently. Cleveland Browns quarterback Trent Dilfer did an excellent job of hitting his receivers from a three-step drop in Week 3, and the Packers rushers never sacked him the entire day.
"You can't always measure stats," Sherman said. "Everything is relative."
Bates and Sherman both said they expect his sack numbers to increase. Gbaja-Biamila has rounded out his game, but rushing the passer will remain the strength for the player ranked third on the Packers' all-time sack list with 54.
"I prefer, of course, rushing the passer," Gbaja-Biamila said. "When I'm out there, I feel like I'm going get a sack out there every game, every quarter. That's just my mentality."
Gbaja-Biamila may stand out in the NFL as a sack artist, but he has added strong run defense to his repertoire.
"His production is way up from what it was last year," Bates said. ""He wants to be a complete player."