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Why it Worked, NFC Championship round: Packers’ defensive line holds steady

The final score wasn’t pretty, but don’t blame the run defense.

NFL: NFC Championship-Green Bay Packers at Atlanta Falcons Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016 Green Bay Packers’ defense was scented with an essence of Dr. Jekyll, but overwhelmed by the stink of Mr. Hyde (no, not necessarily you, Micah). On one hand, there is the sensible, stout run defense, headlined by Mike Daniels and an improving, young defensive line. On the other hand, there is an injury-filled, confused pass defense with a pair of excellent safeties that have to make up for a poor cornerback unit. In a pass-first league, that type of defensive roster makeup will make it very tough to compete for a championship, and Packers fans experienced that last Sunday at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons.

Well, enough bemoaning the deficiencies. I take pride in being a positive person, so let’s talk about the positives of last Sunday - the Green Bay run defense. As a team, Atlanta’s rushing stats were 30 attempts for 101 yards, a 3.4 yard average, with 2 touchdowns. Removing Matt Ryan’s scrambles, (Joe Thomas, please make a tackle on a quarterback who’s nickname is literally frozen water) the stat line reads 27 attempts for 78 yards, a 2.9 yard average, with one touchdown. Respectable, considering the quality of the opponent and game flow allowing the Falcons to run out the fourth quarter. So let’s try to boost some spirits and go to the film to see how the Packers contained the Falcons’ running game!

Play 1: Tevin Coleman 1 yard loss, tackle by Nick Perry

I mean...come on. Perry gets the stat sheet credit here, but Mike Daniels and Morgan Burnett were not far behind.

Watch this isolated shot of Nick Perry, and see how he absolutely embarrasses Falcons right tackle Ryan Schraeder.

Perry, lined up in a stand-up 7 technique, sets his angle to where Pat DiMarco is lined up at the start of the play. Schraeder’s blocking responsibilities here depend on the path that Perry takes; if Perry bull rushes through his chest, Schraeder has to set his feet, lower his pad level (cliche yet vital) and win the battle of strength. If Perry jumps inside, Schraeder can either collapse him down the line (typically not the right choice unless the linebacker is looping), or try to cut him off by getting his head to the inside and turning his hips outward. This is why a lineman’s legs have to be as thicker than If Perry jumps outside or takes a deep pass rush route, all Schraeder has to do is use Nick’s momentum against him and wash him down the hash marks past the advancing Tevin Coleman.

But here is where Perry’s advancement as a defender has shown up. His first step with his left foot is outside, downfield; it’s a pass rush step designed to get depth. The next step, almost simultaneously as his first, is to bring his feet back together and square up to Shraeder, as if he is going to try and bull rush him. This is counter #1 - a hitch step. Schraeder recognizes counter #1, and sinks his shoulders ready to plow into Perry. However, since all of this has happened before Tevin Coleman was handed the football, Perry hits Schraeder with counter #2; the grab, or pull-through. Which is remarkable, because one of his hands is completely wrapped up. Perry’s outside grab move is quick yet effective; since Schraeder will be stepping forward and lowering his shoulders to drive Perry back, his weight will be in front of his feet. Using that imbalance of weight against him, Perry’s grab move - using his right hand, while clubbing with his left - pulls Schraeder further forward while Perry steps to the outside, leaving a stumbling Schraeder behind him.

What makes this work (and what makes football amazing) is the speed at which it all happens; if Perry was a second slower, Schraeder would have initiated contact with Perry, knocking him back and gaining the upper hand. Had Perry still made a successful grab move and stepped outside, he would have removed himself from the blocking hole by stepping around the blocker instead of plugging the hole, creating a larger running lane. But since this was all done so quickly, instead of Coleman having ample space to run through, he was devoured in the backfield.

That’s 400 words on one play and I haven’t even mentioned Mike Daniels’ move. Moving on.

Play 2: Devonta Freeman 2 yard loss, tackle by Ha Ha Clinton-Dix

This one is as easy as it gets. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who was walked up into the box, comes in clean off of the right side of the defense to make a good tackle in the backfield. I’m not sure exactly what the Falcons offensive line was doing on this one; again, the poor running back - this time Devonta Freeman - was going to lose yardage no matter what here. Just look at the penetration as soon as Freeman is handed the football.

The important thing here is that Clinton-Dix doesn’t sprint in with his head down and make a diving tackle; once he gets into the backfield, he breaks down, keeps his hands wide, and completely wraps up Freeman. It’s a skill taught in the earliest stages of football, but it’s refreshing to see a good form tackle being made in the NFL as it happens far too infrequently.

Play 3: Devonta Freeman no gain, tackle by Dean Lowry

This run stop isn’t a great individual move or a defender coming in unblocked; this is team run defense at its finest. The initial area to watch on this play is the depth of the defensive line. Watch again, and notice how all of the linemen stand their ground and do not give up an inch. They also don’t try and swim by their linemen; as explained earlier with the Nick Perry tackle, if the defender moves around the blocker in order to get penetration, it creates a potential avenue for the running back to squeeze through. Instead, the combination of Clay Matthews, Dean Lowry, Kenny Clark, and Julius Peppers stands strong and uses the blockers’ girth against them, clogging any inside running lanes. Watch the clip again and you’ll see that no actual Packer player tackles Freeman. Devonta runs into the back of his own linemen, hoping his 5’9” frame could squeeze a hole that never materialized. Lowry gets credit for the tackle, but he was really just the first guy to fall on top of an already defeated ball carrier.

Play 4: Devonta Freeman no gain, tackle by LaDarius Gunter

Defensive linemen in Dom Capers’ scheme function best as block eaters. Their primary responsibility is to occupy as many blockers as possible in order to free up linebackers. Mike Daniels excels at this; he is lauded as one of the better defensive linemen in the league, even though he doesn’t fill up the stat sheet. Down near the goal line, it’s especially important for defensive linemen to get low and cause chaos of any blocking schemes.

On this play, Datone Jones is the primary block eater; initially left alone by tight ends Toilolo and Hooper, Jones doesn’t hesitate to get backfield penetration and meet his blockers in the hole. Falcons right guard Chris Chester is the man responsible for kicking out Jones here, but his path gets disrupted by Mike Daniels. Daniels starts the play lined up over right tackle Ryan Schraeder, and on the snap of the ball, Daniels gets a good jump and beats Schraeder to his inside. Chester takes his drop step to get out to block Jones, but Daniels’ quick penetration forces Chester’s feet to get tangled up with Schraeder’s, and Chester is slow getting out to Datone. This delay means Jones is already in Chester’s face before the play can develop, and also causes the fullback Pat DiMarco to have to help Chester out in the backfield - that’s two blockers for one defender. This extra attention on Jones frees up space for Joe Thomas to scrape over and force Freeman to run into a waiting Gunter.

All things considered, Green Bay’s run defense held up well, particularly early in the game when their personnel was often the nickel or sub packages. For a team that gave up 44 points to a great offense, at least the run defense could be counted on to provide some stability.

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