When it comes to the Packers defense struggles over the last near-decade, we’re long past pointing out the problem.
It’s time to start finding solutions.
The bye week is supposed to be used to self-scout, so let’s do some self-scouting. I started on this track yesterday suggesting that the Packers, given their personnel, ought to be playing man coverage.
It would be presumptuous to suggest I know better than Dom Capers, but I’m a solutions-oriented person. Enough about the problem, let’s try to solve it.
I’m just throwing out ideas. Here’s another: Change fronts.
The interesting thing here is Green Bay is already doing it. This was the opening defensive snap on Sunday.
This is a classic 4-3 look with three defensive lineman, a stand-up defensive end (in this classic Nick Perry who is technically a linebacker), and three off-ball linebackers. Here, Clay Matthews is off the ball, which is apparently how the Packers are going to play a traditional base defense.
They opened the game against the Cowboys in the same look, just with the front flipped over the center:
This is a traditional 4-3 “over” look with the strong-side defensive end (Perry) lined up on the outside shoulder of the tight end, the weak-side defensive end (Dean Lowry) on the outside shoulder of the tackle, a three technique defensive tackle (Mike Daniels), and a nose tackle (Kenny Clark).
The personnel doesn’t change from a traditional 3-4 base defense for the Packers with Matthews and Perry at OLB and the three linemen; the difference is alignment with Clay off the ball, the line slanted to the strong side, and the linebackers behind.
Theoretically, this provides more beef for the Packers to stop the run, which is why we’re seeing it on first down on the first play of the game. They’re basically saying “We know you’re going to run, so here’s our best run formation.”
Here’s the problem: this isn’t the defense the Packers play most often. They’re in nickel — particularly with Nitro personnel — much more.
Dean Lowry comes off the field in favor of Damarious Randall, who plays the nickel corner. Jake Ryan gives way to Josh Jones at linebacker and the Packers trade size for speed.
This creates a Goldilocks problem for the Packers: the base defense can’t defend the pass. The Nitro can’t defend the run.
They need a front that is just right.
Here’s the end zone view to help illustrate the problem. This is the base:
Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark can eat up multiple blocks; if Dean Lowry can handle his guy, that should allow Perry to scrape down and the linebackers to stay clean to make tackles on running plays.
See the enormous difference between that and Nitro?
Which one would you run against?
The fact that Josh Hill, the tight end, is split out in the slot lightens the middle of the field even more with Josh Jones having to move out to account for him.
Now, the Saints have five linemen to block two defensive lineman and two edge players. That leaves one left over to get to the second level and account for Blake Martinez, and now Alvin Kamara is off and running.
My solution? Tweak the alignment, merge the personnel, and run something closer to Seattle’s 4-3 under alignment.
Here is a great illustration from our friends over at Big Blue View.
Now let’s see how the Packers’ personnel should match up here. Nick Perry becomes the Leo, playing wide and coming after the QB every down. Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark, and Dean Lowry all get to play their base 4-3 positions, only Lowry moves inside a shade while Clay Matthews has contain outside as the on-the-ball SAM linebacker.
Blake Martinez lines up at the MIKE ‘backer spot instead of Jake Ryan, and it’s Josh Jones playing WILL to provide the speed to cover ground.
Here’s what such a lineup would theoretically look like:
It’s Nitro personnel but in base with an third defensive lineman and no extra cornerback. It’s what might be more traditionally thought of as a nickel, except the extra defensive back is really a safety-linebacker hybrid.
This would mitigate their sub-package run game woes, while also give them a base defense with flexibility in the passing game.
Everyone fits into the position they’re best suited to play: Perry is the pass rusher. Daniels is the penetrator. Matthews is the versatile edge defender who can rush, defend the run, or play in coverage.
Jones plays the K.J. Wright role of speedy cover linebacker with Martinez assuming the Bobby Wagner middle position — though I’m not suggesting either Jones or Martinez are in that class of player yet.
The skillsets and how they thrive can be similar, and Martinez, for his part, has been playing an a Pro Bowl level so far this season.
Morgan Burnett may not be the hitter Kam Chancellor is, but he is better in coverage and Green Bay could spend less time in sub-packages with these players on the field.
That’s the secret to Seattle’s outstanding run defense: they can defend an 11 personnel passing game from base which means they don’t have to go to nickel as often as most teams.
It would create more 1-on-1 matchups between Mike Daniels and guards without center help, improving his pass rush opportunities. Kenny Clark gets to eat up two blockers inside, something he’s improved upon this season, especially when he’s playing with leverage.
And if Capers wants to send five, Clay Matthews gets a free release shot at the quarterback.
If Drew Brees slides protection that way? No problem. They run a loop with Matthews coming inside Lowry while he occupies the sliding guard and Matthews has another free run at the QB.
If Green Bay wants to get an extra true corner on the field, then they can get to their normal Nitro, taking Lowry off the field and putting Matthews on the edge with Perry opposite.
Let’s say Dom Capers wants to get crazy with Morgan Burnett out of the lineup. He could sub in Randall for Brice, keep their size up front and still have versatile, athletic pieces behind. Once Burnett does return, this also finds a way to keep Jones, a raw but promising player with size, speed, and instincts, on the field even in run-stopping situations.
Don’t expect a change overnight, but particularly as Clay Matthews ages out of pass rush dominance — he’s been an outstanding run defender this season — the defense must adapt to fit its players.
Green Bay wouldn’t have to change personnel to adapt to this alignment either, which makes an in-season change possible (though admittedly unlikely).
If there’s an offseason where big changes could be coming, 2018 looks like it could be it.