During last year's offseason, we took a look at the Green Bay Packers' linebackers and how they were used in the three primary purposes of the position: run defense, pass rush, and pass coverage. We learned that the outside linebackers rush the passer 4-5 times more often than they drop back in coverage, and we also learned that Green Bay had been trying to maximize A.J. Hawk's productivity by taking him off the field in passing downs when the team moved into the nickel formation.
With another season in the books, I decided it was time to revisit the snap counts to see what, if anything has changed, and how the numbers could translate into what the Packers are looking for in their linebackers this offseason through free agency and the draft. First, we take a look at the primary pass-rushers in the Packers' 3-4 defense.
|Player||Total Snaps||Run D %||Run D %||Pass Rush||Pass Rush %||Coverage||Coverage %|
This position was completely battered by injuries all season long, with Matthews and Perry both missing substantial time. Mike Neal, though active for all sixteen games, was only intended to be a rotational player but ended up playing more snaps at the position than anyone else.
Let's find some trends here. First of all, Mike Neal's tiny coverage rate is a sign that the Packers did not want him out in space and in coverage. This makes sense, considering that he played defensive line for his entire collegiate and pro career before 2013. Matthews' 9.1% rate in coverage is almost identical to the 9.2% he saw in 2012.
Let's break down passing snaps a little more thoroughly.
|Player||Passing Snaps||Pass Rush||Pass Rush %||Coverage||Coverage %|
We can see clearly here which players Dom Capers and company trusted more in coverage - namely, Matthews and Andy Mulumba. Perry is behind that pace a bit, while Neal is way back of the others and Palmer even farther back (albeit in a smaller sample size).
When we see that the Packers' outside linebackers are dropping into coverage on less than 14% of passing downs and 8% of snaps overall, it puts the primary responsibilities of the position into focus. Though the Packers have converted many college (and, with Neal, professional) defensive ends to outside linebacker, the skills they need to transition are much the same, and the coverage assignments asked of them will be limited in both number and sophistication. However, as later results will show, the Packers would benefit from having outside linebackers with more coverage ability.
|Player||Total Snaps||Run D||Run D %||Pass Rush||Pass Rush %||Coverage||Coverage %|
Inside linebacker tells a very different story in 2013 than it did in 2012. That season saw Jones play far more on passing downs than Hawk, despite playing fewer snaps overall. That was a clear sign that Jones remained on the field in the dime package, while Hawk was removed in favor of a sixth defensive back. In 2013, though, nagging injuries to Jones and the inexperience of Lattimore dictated that Hawk see the field on more passing downs than the year prior.
Interestingly, Hawk's play against the pass was actually relatively steady. According to Pro Football Focus, he graded out at a +4.6 for the season in that phase of the game, posting only one game with a rating lower than -0.6 (that was the Bears game in week nine, when he was graded -2.4).
It is possible that Hawk's lighter playing weight in 2013 was a factor here. And while the raw numbers tell one story, the numbers adjusted for snaps and targets are very different, as you can see below:
|Year||Hawk Coverage Snaps||Passing Yards Allowed||Yards/Snap||Completion %|
Whereas last year Brad Jones was by far the best Packers inside linebacker in coverage, this year he tailed off, allowing 276 yards in 287 snaps (a rate of 0.96). It seems that the Packers were actually wise using Hawk more in coverage in 2013 instead of putting a hobbled Jones out in coverage.
That said, each player rushed the passer less frequently on passing downs in 2013 than he did in 2012, possibly as a result of the outside linebackers being less capable of covering receivers. Those numbers are here:
|Player||2013 Pass Rush %||2013 Coverage %||2012 Pass Rush %||2012 Coverage %|
It seems plausible that less variety in which linebackers were dropping into coverage led to a more predictable defense in 2013, and one reasonable explanation for those calls was the lack of coverage ability by the outside linebackers.
On the outside, the Packers were forced to use backups and young, inexperienced players far more than they had planned in 2013. As a result, the team used their outside linebackers as pass rushers on over 86% of passing snaps this year, a major increase from 82.3% in 2012. Look for the team to try to get the position back closer to an 80/20 split in 2014, as they will no doubt hope for better health from Matthews and Perry and potentially look to bring in more talent with better ability to play in space and cover receivers out of the backfield.
As for the inside linebackers, A.J. Hawk showed significant improvement in pass coverage in 2013, validating the team's decision to use him more frequently on passing downs.
Regardless of which linebacker position the Packers choose to address in the 2014 offseason (and I still would advocate improving the talent level both inside and outside), coverage ability will be a skill that team should be actively looking for, perhaps more so than any other individual skill. Having multiple linebackers on the field with the ability to cover receivers would allow the team to become less predictable in its defensive calls and formations and should lend itself to better success on that side of the ball.
(Note: all snap counts and statistics are from Pro Football Focus, and we examined all seventeen Packers games in the 2013 season - the sixteen regular season games and the Wild-Card playoff game.)
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