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Why it Worked, Week 12: Aaron Rodgers reads soft coverages

Philadelphia allowed Green Bay to complete the underneath passes. Let’s see how the Packers took advantage.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Philadelphia Eagles Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been said multiple times before by various media outlets; the Packers wide receivers struggle to get open against press-man or underneath-man coverage. Defensive backs are able to stick with the Packers’ wide receivers like...well, like Lester Hayes would stick to anything. Aaron Rodgers is then forced to hold on to the ball and improvise, waiting for someone to come open. It rarely worked, and the offense has at times looked anemic.

Throughout the week 12 match-up against the Philadelphia Eagles, Jim Schwartz, conductor of Philadelphia’s freight-train-strong top-5 defensive unit, decided not to press the Green Bay receivers like many of his peers have in the past. Instead, on multiple occasions, the Eagles defenders played a lot of soft coverages in both zone and man to man schemes. “Soft”, or “Off” coverages are when the cornerbacks start around 5 yards off the line of scrimmage and, upon the snap of the ball, immediately backpedal to cover anything over the top, leaving the underneath routes open.

Let’s take a look at two different ways that the Green Bay Packers took advantage of this type of coverage.

First Play: First Quarter, 3:40 remaining

This one was just too easy.

The Eagles start out with 8 men in the box to counter the three running backs that the packers have in the backfield, playing a Cover 1 defense. This means that the cornerbacks are in man to man coverage on the outside receivers, the safety has deep zone coverage, three of the four linebackers are matched up with the running backs, and the extra man in the box can be used in a myriad of ways.

As Randall Cobb motions to the top of the screen from the backfield, the Eagles scramble to change their coverage. The free man in the box, #23 Rodney McLeod, begins to retreat to his normal safety spot while the lone deep safety, #27 Malcolm Jenkins, starts to slide over to the bottom of the screen. Leodis McKelvin, the top corner, slowly starts to backpedal. With Nelson’s loss of speed this year, I’m not exactly sure why they’re playing so far back, but you’d have to ask Jim Schwartz about that.

The coverage then shifts from Cover 1 to Cover 2 Zone; the two safeties now split the deep zone coverage, the cornerbacks have the outside short zone, while the linebackers cover the underneath hook zones.

Cover 2, when run well, can be a tremendous defense. Depending on the positioning of certain defenders, however, there are weak spots to attack. In this case, the cornerbacks play a soft zone; their dropbacks are a little deeper and are in position to cover intermediate routes. This puts increased pressure on the linebackers to cover all short areas of the field. What really makes this play effective, though, is the route combination by Cobb and Jordy Nelson at the top of the screen.

In order to increase the traffic and coverage responsibilities of the linebackers, Cobb and Nelson both run in-breaking routes; more specifically, Cobb runs a drag route and Nelson runs a seam route trying to split the coverage of the safeties.

If the outside linebacker (or in this case, Safety Malcolm Jenkins) sits on the flats to the outside, Cobb will be open before he gets to the inside linebacker’s zone. If that defender sticks with Cobb, the flat will be open. In this case, the linebacker gets drawn to the inside defending Cobb and Nelson, leaving Ty Montgomery able to leak out of the backfield with no one near him.

All Rodgers has to do is dump the ball off to his playmaker and let him pick up the easy yardage.

Second Play: First Quarter, 1:41 remaining

It’s clear that the Philadelphia defense has shown this type of coverage before, the Packers coaching staff identified it during the week’s preparation, and made changes to their gameplan. In previous weeks, it seemed as if the offense wouldn’t break the huddle with more than 10 seconds on the play clock. This just isn’t ample enough time to make the reads and checks that Rodgers wants to make. During week 12 against the Eagles, the offensive playcalls came in quickly and allowed the offense to play the exciting up-tempo style we’ve all seen before. Look at the play clock below:

The offense, going no huddle, is ready to snap the ball with 18 seconds to go. With 10 seconds left on the play clock, Rodgers begins to make adjustments as the defense has revealed their hand.

The defense again shows Cover 1, but instead of motioning a running back from the backfield, Rodgers changes the playcall.

Both cornerbacks are again backed off of their receiver with Leodis McKelvin, covering Jordy Nelson at the top of the screen, more so than his Eagle teammate. He starts backpedaling before the snap, giving Nelson more cushion than a waterbed on the moon. Seeing McKelvin back off, Rodgers checks to a smoke screen to Nelson and lets Jordy do the rest.

It’s important to note what the rest of the offense does here. All linemen run block to their left side, and all of the running backs (except Montgomery, who fires straight out) take steps to their left in order to sell the run to that side. What’s most important, however, is the blocking of right tackle Bryan Bulaga.

The defensive end to Bulaga’s side, Brandon Graham, is the only defender in a position capable of affecting the quick pass to Nelson. If Bulaga fires off the line for a downhill run block toward Graham, the end is taught to set the edge, maintain separation, and read the play in an upright position as the run is either going up the middle, or coming toward him. Graham’s body positioning would be in a good spot to jump into the passing lane. If Bulaga gets into his pass set, there is a yard of separation (something all defensive lineman want) for Graham to quickly get his hands up and tip the pass. If Bulaga instead blocks down to the inside leaving Graham open, this definitely reads as a run. What kind of pass protection scheme leaves a speed rush defensive end to go unblocked? Graham has three options to cover in this scenario; a kickout block coming his way from another lineman or possibly running back, a run to his far right side and he now has backside contain, and he has to respect the threat of a read option. It’s a lot to think about over the course of a week, much less a split second.

Graham, having seen a lineman down block many times before, has his body’s instincts take over and read the play as a far-side run. He takes two steps forward and begins to change direction down the line of scrimmage as he follow’s Bulaga’s block by the time the ball is sailing over his head.

Graham’s eyes see what’s happening the entire time and his torso tries its hardest to follow the ball in a flurry of limbs, but his legs are just too far behind to make any difference and the pass is completed with ease.

Monday night’s game against the Eagles was both a good example of the Packers’ offensive strengths and the Eagles’ schematic failure to shut down those strengths. If the Green Bay coaching staff can continue to find ways to exploit schematic mismatches, I have full confidence in the offense going forward. The defense, however, is for another discussion entirely.

If there are other plays, players or schemes you would like to see covered by Bob in his film breakdowns, leave a comment below!