Examining the Green Bay Packers' Use of Linebackers

USA TODAY Sports

We break down the snap counts of the Packers' linebackers from 2012 to see if any useful information can be extracted.

A discussion in the comments of another article this afternoon got me thinking...how do the Packers typically use their linebackers? More specifically, are there distinct trends in the way the outside linebackers are deployed against the run or the pass, or does the team's strategy depend on which player is on the field at a given time? Ultimately, we found that one unit is utilized consistently, while another depends greatly on which players are taking the snaps.

All raw snap counts are from Pro Football Focus' 2012 archives.

Outside Linebackers

Player Snaps Pass Rush PR % Run Run % Coverage Cov % Cov/PR
Clay Matthews 877 439 50.1 357 40.7 81 9.2 0.18
Nick Perry 211 106 50.2 85 40.3 20 9.5 0.19
Erik Walden 882 440 49.9 336 38.1 106 12.0 0.24
Dezman Moses 504 255 50.6 189 37.5 60 11.9 0.24
Frank Zombo 115 58 50.4 45 39.1 12 10.4 0.21

This table shows with clarity the consistency with which the Packers' defense uses its outside linebackers. First of all, opposing teams did not appear to change their tendencies or their ratio of running plays to passing plays based on which outside linebackers were in the game. According to these numbers, other teams ran a solid 60/40 split of pass to run.

One interesting note is that Walden and Moses saw more snaps in coverage versus rushing the passer (shown by a lower number in the coverage snaps per Pass Rush column) as opposed to the other linebackers. This makes sense for Walden, since he graded out with a horrific -26.4 pass-rushing grade for the season by Pro Football Focus but was actually graded positively in coverage. Moses was similar, earning negative grades in the pass rush but being relatively neutral in coverage.

A mild surprise to me was the frequency (or lack thereof) with which Matthews played pass coverage. He is generally thought of as one of the better-covering outside linebackers in the league, and a quick look through the 2011 snap counts shows that he actually covered on over 14% of his snaps that season, which gave him a Pass Rush/Coverage rate of 3.44, much lower than any OLB in 2012. The Packers' defense saw more passing plays in 2011 than they did in 2012 because the team's offense was less dominating early in games, but Matthews still rushed the passer at a substantially higher frequency in 2012 and covered receivers less often. Hopefully with an improved pass rush from Perry and from an improved defensive line, Matthews will be able to use his coverage abilities more often in 2013.

Inside Linebackers

Player Snaps Pass Rush PR % Run Run % Coverage Cov % Cov/PR
A.J. Hawk 847 79 9.3 443 52.3 325 38.4 4.1
Brad Jones 828 98 11.8 335 40.5 395 47.7 4.0
D.J. Smith 385 55 14.3 156 40.5 174 45.2 3.2
Desmond Bishop* 916 150 16.4 311 34.0 455 49.7 3.0

* Note: Bishop's stats are taken from 2011, so they may not be consistent in terms of opponents' pass/run ratios.

Unlike their counterparts on the perimeter, the Packers' inside linebackers show significant differences in the way they were used in 2012. The three primary players at the position tell very different stories. A.J. Hawk's usage shows a dedicated effort to keeping him on the field in the base defense - over half of his snaps were on running plays. Brad Jones and D.J. Smith, on the other hand, were used in many more passing situations than Hawk was, which certainly appears to be by design.

What is fascinating about Jones and Smith, however, is that though they were on the field for a similar percentage of pass plays vs. run plays, they were used substantially differently. Smith was much more likely to be brought on a blitz than Jones. This may speak to a feeling that Jones was better in coverage, Smith was better as a blitzer, or both.

As for Bishop, he was a very frequent blitzer in 2011 (at least as far as inside linebackers go), but saw a lot of action in coverage as well because of the frequency with which opposing teams were passing the ball.

Overall Impressions

Ultimately, the Packers' defensive scheme appears to utilize the outside linebackers consistently regardless of which players are on the field. However, the inside linebackers seem to be rotated in and out of the lineup based on the down and distance, as well as being utilized differently based on their strengths. Because of the Packers' variety of sub packages, this makes sense - they almost always use two OLBs on the field, but add defensive backs by taking an inside linebacker (or sometimes a defensive lineman) off the field.

What are your takeaways from these numbers?

Note: thanks to commenter BreezyBrew for the suggestion of looking into these stats.

The Next Read:

- Post-Draft Positional Review: Outside Linebackers
- Jake Stoneburner interview: a look at his chances of making the roster
- Rookie RB Johnathan Franklin ineligible for OTAs
- Dayne, two Packers elected into College Football Hall of Fame

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