Know Your Enemy: Green Bay Packers Defense
The Green Bay defense has taken a backseat to their juggernaut of an offense in recent years. This perception is backed up by the statistics. Traditional statistics have the Green Bay defense ranked 19th best in terms of Yards Per Game. For a more #fancystats approach, Football Outsiders have calculated Green Bay as the 25th best defense according to their DAVE statistic. I went back to the tape of the Packer’s last few games to see what showed up.
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This defensive unit is led by the legendary Dom Capers who has ridden his 3-4 Zone Blitz scheme to success for many years. He relies on pre-snap deception and unpredictability behind a 2-gapping 3-4 front. His defenses resemble his successor (and student) Dick LeBeau in overall theory, but Capers differs in his usage of back-end multiplicity with unique coverage wrinkles.
Complexity and Deception reign
The following play exemplifies the amorphous secondary throughout a given snap:
The Packers are showing a Tampa-2 coverage look pre-snap as judged by the width of the two safeties and intermediate depth of the Corners and Linebackers. To further solidify the defensive playcall in QB Stafford’s eyes, Green Bay tends to play in Tampa-2 often.
Moments before the image above, CB Tramon Williams begins to sprint toward the line of scrimmage in order to blitz. A slot CB blitz along with a charging Safety (Morgan Burnett) generally means the defense is simply transferring the blitzing CB’s coverage assignment to a Safety. I broke down a very similar play in my Browns preview piece.
When Stafford sees the blitz from the edge, his first (and correct) assessment is to throw it “hot” from where the pressure came from because the Safety Burnett has a long distance to travel to take over the vacated coverage.
A very cool wrinkle was that Williams’ blitz was a fake blitz. Tramon Williams stopped mid-rush, and recovered to the back hip of Ryan Broyles (blue circle). Stafford’s hot read was no longer open and he was forced to turn his eyes to the opposite side of the field. The result is a lame duck throw to the isolated X receiver for an incompletion.
The defense transitioned between three different looks within the same play: the first playcall, the second, and the eventual defensive coverage.
The secondary of this unit has some talent but there are no stand-out players besides the injured slot corner Casey Hayward. That said, CB Sam Shields has the straight-line speed to match #1 receivers vertically. He mirrored WR A.J. Green impressively in Week 3 but his weaknesses can be exploited versus elite route-running. Shields doesn’t quite have the flexibility or experience to cover receivers who use multiple break points or work in combination route concepts. Safeties M.D. Jennings and and Morgan Burnett can play with burst when they have a confident read on the ball, but change-of-direction is not their strong suit.
The Dom Capers secondary uses a wide range of coverages in a seemingly unorganized fashion. Almost every standard NFL coverage was used within a single game:
- (What some call) Cover-5
- Cover-7 “Slice”
- Fire Zone
The Capers philosophy seems to strive to implant hesitation in the Quarterback’s reads which allows speedy outside rushers to bend the edges against the offensive tackles to create further disruption. After losing Clay Matthews midway through last week’s game, they used Mike Neal and Nick Perry who both should burst around the edges and active hand-use.
Green Bay’s attacking 3-4 based defense will not surprise the Ravens offense conceptually. Capers’ 3-4 is still alive in familiar Ravens opponents such as Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Additionally, this will be the 4th-straight aggressive 3-4 defense the Ravens have played this year (Cleveland, Houston, Buffalo, Miami).
The idea behind the Green Bay front is to use huge 2-gapping interior lineman (Raji and Pickett) to occupy the A and B gaps while the outside linebackers (Neal and Perry with Matthews out) maneuver around offensive tackles to play the run or pressure the QB. Both the inside and outside linebackers are very active and flow to the ball well. Reggie Bush had a difficult time in the run-game last week due to hesitation in hitting open creases. However, Green Bay’s aggressiveness did not always work in their favor:
The Packers are playing Cover-3 “Sky” on first down. “Cover-3” refers to splitting the deep zones into thirds (the CBs and FS in this image). “Sky” refers to using a Safety as the “force” player in the run game. This safety is M.D. Jennings who has run responsibilities on the edge as well as a Curl/Flat coverage. “Sky” is a standard way to get a safety in the box to play versus the run.
After the snap, Stafford play-fakes to Reggie Bush to the left. Short defenders (arrows) have sucked up to the line of scrimmage to stop the run.
The four underneath zone defenders (orange circles) are stuck trying to recover and the middle of the defense (green) is left completely vacated.
The idea of a good running game impacting the secondary on play-action calls is extremely over-rated. The Lions had not run very well throughout the duration of the game (65y on 18 rush attempts) but the play-fake still had a dramatic effect on the secondary. This propensity for Green Bay linebackers to drive downhill on running plays is due to a) poor run/pass key reads, b) the aggressive flowing approach that this defense uses to stop the run, and c) this isn’t a blitz heavy defense and it therefore asks its second-level defenders to play both the run and pass on most snaps. These three factors contribute to a defense that struggles against play-action.
Quick Notes about the Ravens strategy
- With Clay Matthews out, the Ravens should need to allocate less resources to stopping the edge rush. However, Mike Neal and Nick Perry combined for 3 sacks against Detroit and looked explosive doing it. A protection-first approach will likely be prominent in the beginning of the game.
- The Packers like to clog up the middle gaps and leave the OTs on islands. Ravens TEs and RBs will need to chip and help in protection. The pass game will need to provide Flacco with multiple short-to-intermediate options because unusual protections paired with a formidable pass rush will limit the number of deep shots that Flacco can take down the field.
- The Packers cornerbacks don’t play press coverage often. This is good for the Ravens because a lack of size and/or experience at the WR position leaves the receiving corps vulnerable to press-man. This should also allow timing routes underneath.
- Rice has had difficulty remaining on the attack this season. Poor run blocking doesn’t help, but he has been hesitant this year. Running-backs who are reticent to push a hole can be had by Green Bay’s fast flowing linebacker group which includes A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones.
- Provided the Ravens OL can hold up in protection, the Packers safeties are coverage liabilities. They are the cliched “jack of all trades but master of none” when it comes to coverage-types. They lack range and forcing them to change direction can open up deep windows. “Levels” and “Pin” can work well.
- The Packers have very poor coverage linebackers. A.J. Hawk is particularly inflexible in open space. Ray Rice, given room, can make these players miss.
- Green Bay likely feels good about playing 2-Man most of the day versus the Ravens receivers. Shields can match Torrey’s speed on the outside. Torrey will need to be used in the slot and across the middle to be effective. Ed Dickson versus a linebacker is the best man-to-man advantage the Ravens have.