When most offenses line up with two running backs and a fullback in the backfield, they’re expecting to see heavy personnel across the line of scrimmage. A couple 300-pound defensive tackles, run-stuffing inside linebackers, and a box safety.
Instead, last Sunday night the Chicago Bears saw a host of players with 20’s and 30’s on their jerseys. New Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine went with six defensive backs or more on over 60% of snaps against Chicago, a team without proof of life as an explosive passing offense. In fact, if the idea most teams have is take away the strength of the opponent, Pettine took the precise opposite approach: let the Bears run all day.
It was a Jedi mind trick on Matt Nagy, who out-coached himself a number of times trying to get cute with third-and-short pass calls when running the ball would have sufficed. In all, the Bears ended with a better per-play efficiency running the ball than passing it, a staggering figure in a vacuum, but unsurprising when taken in context.
This image represents Pettine’s gameplan in microcosm. A full house backfield and yet Pettine is playing dime with a third safety.
Perhaps even more startling, Pettine played rookie corners Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson in linebacker looks later in the game, even against two-back personnel for the Bears.
It looks like someone got substitution happy in Madden.
The question moving forward will be does Pettine deploy this same grouping once Oren Burks and Josh Jones return from injury. Jermaine Whitehead, who played safety and linebacker in Week 1, only saw 11 snaps. That’s not many for Burks to consume when he returns.
Regardless of when Burks is able to get back, this week’s matchup with the Vikings could be another week where Pettine goes DB heavy (an dissonant, if apt phrase), with Minnesota boasting one of the best receiver duos in football.
One quick aside, this tact of allowing teams to run could make solid sense more broadly for a team with Aaron Rodgers under center (or in the pistol as he’ll likely be this week). More running means longer possessions, which in turn means fewer possessions. Green Bay can bet on being more efficient with their offensive chances than their opponent, so welcoming a game with fewer chances for each team makes perfect sense.
Another boon of giving opponents advantageous run looks is the Packers can bet their front can get enough first or second-down stops to put offenses in third-and-longs. A first-down stop turns into 2nd-and-9 for example. Do you run again, hope to get four or five yards and risk getting stopped once again to set up third-and-long? The same conundrum exists for teams passing on first down. If it’s incomplete, it’s 2nd-and-long once again facing the unenviable task of throwing into a wave of speedy defensive backs. This is how Pettine created so many three-and-outs for the Bears: win early without the advantage, compounding the advantage the later in the set of downs the offense moves.
And although Mike Pettine didn’t bring a ton of extra rushers, the Packers were solid at creating pressure without it. In fact, they created pressure on 37.2% of snaps in Week 1, the seventh-highest rate in the league. Much of the Bears’ success in the second half offensively, such as it was, came off Mitch Trubisky scrambles when there was nothing open down the field. That’s not a consistent recipe for success for most teams outside of the Panthers and Seahawks.
With Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs posing a much larger threat than Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and company, the Packers could play a swarm defense with man coverage from its boundary corners and some roving zone from tertiary defensive backs, a scheme Pettine showed at times against the Bears.
Minnesota doesn’t have a running back like Cohen who will consistently split out wide and run routes or get jet sweeps. The Vikings also lack a move tight end with the athletic ability of Trey Burton. Those factors likely contributed to the way Pettine deployed his defensive backs, but taking a similar approach could make sense in Week 2.
If rookie linebacker Oren Burks can return, that would mean fewer snaps in dime and more in nickel without having to sacrifice much coverage ability. We could also see more rotation from the linebackers, both on the ball and off. Pettine could use Burks more in passing situations given the coverage limitations of Blake Martinez. He’ll likely still want to find ways to get Josh Jackson on the field after he excelled in coverage against Burton. Maybe he becomes the tight end stopper and zone rover given his background as a zone corner at Iowa.
Was Week 1 just a fluke? Once Burks and safety Josh Jones get back we’ll find out, but given what Pettine has said all along about stopping the pass, at the very least it’s a tact we’ll likely see at times in future matchups. One such matchup could be coming this week with Kirk Cousins and a talented skill group on deck.
Cousins possesses more experience, accuracy, and savvy than Trubisky, but he also lacks his athleticism to create with his feet and has a tendency to force throws into coverage more often. The Vikings’ offensive line struggled mightily against the 49ers front in Week 1, especially in the run game. That makes Pettine’s potential strategy even more effective. Green Bay might be able to control the line of scrimmage even with a light box given their advantage in the trenches. If the Packers can stop the run with just five or six in the box, that make life so much easier on the secondary and vice versa.
On the last play of the game for the Bears, Nick Perry sacked Trubisky to seal it, but it was the coverage on the play that won the game. Trubisky had to hold the ball, giving Perry time to get in the backfield. For as often as we talk about the pass rush helping the secondary, it was clear in Week 1 the secondary can help the pass rush as well. Against a talented skill group with a shaky offensive line, that could be precisely the kind of advantage Green Bay needs to slow down its NFC North rival.