The Nitro package may finally be seen in all its glory in the upcoming season, only it won’t be called that, won’t really look like that, and will be called by Mike Pettine instead of Dom Capers. OK, so I’m fudging it a little.
When the Green Bay Packers drafted Oren Burks, the former safety-turned-linebacker from Vanderbilt, it signaled a paradigmatic continuation of Green Bay’s play to become a group of interchangeable, athletic pieces on defense. Capers wanted to play three safeties, with one as a de facto linebacker in order to guard against spread offenses while maintaining some semblance of size in the box. One of the key mistakes he made was insisting that player be Morgan Burnett rather than Josh Jones, the bigger, more physical player.
Burks is technically a linebacker, but may not actually be one for the Packers. In college, they call these players “star” defenders. He can play in the slot against tight ends, in the box as a run defender, or roving in zone coverage. Sounds like Nitro right?
Mike Pettine can use Burks in that role, but could just as easily do the same with Jones while playing Kentrell Brice deep or even adding a corner and going extra small in what might normally be considered a dime defense personnel grouping.
The verbiage doesn’t matter. The names don’t matter. Jones will play in the box, so will Burks — assuming he plays over Jake Ryan and he should, but more on that later — giving Pettine a versatile duo of players who can run, cover, and stop the run.
To further explain the value here, let’s rewind to 2015, the last time Mike Pettine was coaching and take a look at how his team defended Peyton Manning and the eventual Super Bowl champion Broncos.
This two tight end set gave the Browns problems because they didn’t have the linebackers capable of handling the diversity of formations Denver deployed. Here, Pettine uses a traditional 3-4 look with two linebackers, a cornerback to the inside of the slot receiver, and safety Jordan Poyer playing and in-between alignment.
On early downs in 2017, Green Bay played a somewhat similar personnel grouping and had success stopping the run, en route to a top-10 defense on the ground. This is where Jake Ryan earns his money.
But what happens when that same group of offensive players suddenly spreads out? Here, Pettine goes to a four-down alignment, but with the same players on the field — this was no-huddle so there was no time to make substitutions.
With the Broncos splitting out their tight ends, Pettine sends his outside linebacker to go cover. For the Packers, this would likely be Clay Matthews while Perry stays on the line with his hand in the dirt. That leaves the safety to cover the other tight end, which for the Packers will almost certainly be Jones.
The matchups in a case like this favor the Packers much more than they did for the Browns given the quality of each team’s personnel. What makes this play from Denver particularly effective is that both linebackers fall for the run fake and Emmanuel Sanders ends up getting lost in the wash, wide open for a first down.
Personnel and scheme can’t make up for mental mistakes.
But if one of those linebackers were Jones (with Brice outside) or Burks instead of Jake Ryan, they’d be in a position to recover even if they’re fooled. Athletic talent can overcome mistakes at times. Considering how stout the Packers are with their defensive line, going small and daring teams to run it against them while playing undersized box defenders makes sense. The trade off is flexibility defending the pass, while Pettine has stated outright is his No. 1 priority.
Here’s another great example. This is third-and-five against sub-package personnel for the Browns. There are two true defensive lineman with an edge rusher and a standup outside ‘backer playing over the guard. They only have one true linebacker on the field and yet his inability to cover costs the Browns a chance to get off the field.
Manning identifies his running back lined up against the linebacker in man coverage on the outside. Even if Cleveland has the defensive backs to cover everywhere else, it just takes one mismatch to kill the drive.
This would probably be Blake Martinez last season and would likewise equal death for the Packers’ defense. In 2018, Burks can be the dime linebacker, the role Jones was supposed to fill last season before injuries to other players forced him into a much larger role.
Burks handled duties like this in college with regularity, given all the spread looks in the SEC and around college football. Pettine could even go ultra-small with Jones in the role initially designed for him but that would likely mean playing Kentrell Brice, an underwhelming player to this point.
Instead, the move would be playing Burks as the lone true linebacker, allowing Jones to play deep or cover a tight end in the slot. That maximizes the number of high-pedigree athletes on the field at once.
If Josh Jones plays a more traditional safety role, Oren Burks has to start next to Blake Martinez in base. It’s really that simple. Jake Ryan simply can’t handle the duties required of him in the modern NFL.
Worrying about Jones playing deep or not is like worrying about who an NBA shooting guard is defending. With all the switching that goes on, he’s inevitably going to have to guard a little bit of everyone. Expect Pettine to use Jones like a switchy wing defender in 2018, playing him in the box, in the slot, in a two-shell look as a deep safety, and possibly even some as the sole deep defender in a single-high look.
Damn the details, he’s going to be everywhere.
If he’s not, the Packers have a problem because Jake Ryan can’t cover well enough to stay on the field in base. Martinez’s breakout campaign last year means he’s the only run-stuffing linebacker the Packers have to play. Putting Burks in the rotation along with Jones as box defenders gives Pettine a switchy, versatile defense that would make the Warriors and Rockets proud.
Long live Nitro.