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Packers-Vikings Film Room: Showing blitz on third down

Defensive Coordinator Mike Pettine showed some interesting looks on third down, but in one writer’s opinion, it wasn’t enough.

Minnesota Vikings v Green Bay Packers Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Green Bay Packers new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine wants to play a controlled type of aggressive defense. That should be a welcome sight for Packers fans, who too often saw their defense of recent years sit back on their heels and allow the play to come to them. This past Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, Pettine showed us his controlled aggressive scheme, particularly on third downs. Let’s take a look.

In the first quarter, the Vikings were facing third down and ten to go. There are two receivers and a tight end to Kirk Cousins’ right, Cook in the backfield to his left, and Laquon Treadwell split out wide to his left. The Packers counter with this:

Sure looks like an overload blitz, right? Four rushers to the left of center - from the offense’s perspective - would normally dictate the offensive line sliding protection that way and having Cook stay in the backfield in order to get four blockers on four rushers. But Cousins sniffed it out from the get-go; he picked up Brice squatting lower in the box than normal, and spotted the blitz coming from elsewhere. He knew some of the overloaded blitzers would bail, didn’t shift his linemen that way, and had Cook jump to the middle for protection. And what would you know, he was right - this is what happened as soon as the ball was snapped:

Out of the four to the defense’s right, Clay Matthews and Martinez bailed to cover the middle while only Kenny Clark and Josh Jackson rushed Cousins. The real point of the play, from the defense’s perspective, was to have Jaire Alexander as a free rusher from the left, as the pre-snap position made it look like he was lined up in coverage. Instead Jaire rushes the edge along with Nick Perry, while Reggie Gilbert rushes the middle - 5 total rushers. Kyle Rudolph gets a push on both Perry and Alexander and releases upfield, and Cook picks up Alexander once Rudolph goes out. Cousins had enough time in the pocket despite the blitz thanks to his recognition of the blitz, but here’s where the real kicker comes in, and what can make a defense like this work wonders. The coverage was good. Take a look (just not at HaHa Clinton-Dix, who never came within 7 yards of a Vikings player during the entire play):

Martinez had Rudolph underneath, Tramon Williams blanketed Treadwell, Kevin King covered Stephon Diggs well, and Kentrell Brice had Adam Thielen covered over the middle, with a little of underneath help from Matthews who had the middle zone. Thielen did work himself free of Brice in the next few steps, but Cousins hesitated slightly, and by then Alexander and Jackson had shed their blocks and got to the quarterback for a sack. Had Thielen ran any type of short route, it’s an easy pickup of 5 yards before Brice gets there, but Cousins didn’t need a hot route as he had the blitz picked up well. Here’s the play:

The exotic blitz coverage scheme looked to be a promising start for Green Bay, but the success was hit or miss throughout the game. By my counts, Pettine showed blitz on 9 out of 14 third downs. Out of those 9 plays, 4 of those came after halftime, and Green Bay was successful on 2 of those 4 after halftime, meaning the Vikings offense didn’t get the first down. However, on one of those two successful plays, Treadwell dropped a pass that would have been an easy first down, so the real success rate of the defense was 1 of 4 where the blitz was shown in the second half and overtime. When the Packers didn’t show blitz, they were even worse off.

Packers’ Third Down Defense

Quarter Yards to Gain Yards Gained Blitz Shown First Down # of Rushers
Quarter Yards to Gain Yards Gained Blitz Shown First Down # of Rushers
1 10 -8 X 5
1 1 2 X 5
1 3 14 X 4
2 5 0 X 4
2 10 0 X 4
2 7 16 X X 4
2 6 1 X 4
3 4 -7 X 4
3 5 0 X 3
3 1 5 X X 6
3 1 23 X 5
4 4 6 X 4
OT 9 0 4
OT 3 6 X X 4

On the only play where the Vikings did not get a first down and no blitz was shown, Treadwell had another dropped pass, meaning the defense got away with one. It was to be expected for the Vikings to have a high third down success rate, as the Vikings have a very good offense with two elite talents at wide receiver and the Packers’ best cornerbacks are a rookie and a 35 year old, but allowing any team to go 50% on third down means your defense is in for a long day.

The successes on third down didn’t come from sending extra rushers or having a free blitzer, instead, Green Bay found success on third down when they showed blitz and covered the hot routes underneath. This gave Cousins pause, and allowed the four rushers - who varied depending on the play - time to pressure the quarterback on their own. Look at this next clip, and focus on Cousins’ eyes:

It’s clear he wants to go to one of the crossing routes underneath, as he expected a blitz from his right side. Instead, Green Bay again dropped some linebackers in zone coverage, which took away his first and second reads. By the time Thielen gets open in the middle, Kenny Clark had won an arm-over move and got to Cousins for the sack. Here it is again, from the line view. One problem with Capers’ defense was that the blitzes were rarely disguised which allows the quarterback to shift the protections, and the coverage behind the blitz was too passive which made for easy completions.

Occasionally the fake blitz scheming by Pettine didn’t have the proper coverages behind it. In this next clip in overtime, the Vikings are facing a 3rd down and 2. They lineup with in a bunch formation to the left, and Green Bay has 8 people up on the line of scrimmage to cover two eligible receivers in Dalvin Cook and Adam Thielen. On the bunch side, there are technically three people over there, but Tramon Williams is 8 yards off the line of scrimmage and Haha Clinton-Dix is so far back he isn’t even in the frame.

This is the easiest call in the world to make for Cousins; check to a smoke screen to any one of the three receivers split wide, and you’ll easily pick up the first down. Fortunately for him, offensive coordinator John DeFilippo had the play already called and wouldn’t you know it; the Vikings picked up the first down easily.

Tramon Williams made a great effort and Blake Martinez sprinted his way over there as soon as the ball was snapped, but he was always going to be too late in getting there. Compare this play with the very first play in which I highlighted where each cover man was up on the line; while a bunch formation makes it tough for all three defenders to play tight to the line of scrimmage, you can certainly have two guys within 5 yards and the other just another 2 or 3 yards behind. By bringing up Williams and Clinton-Dix, you reduce the length of time it takes to get to the ball and increase your chances at stopping the third down.

Overall, while Cousins and company put up some big numbers against Green Bay, there were some signs of life from the Green Bay defense. Pressure was being applied by four rushers, a tactic that won the Giants a super bowl in 2007, and the coverage behind the pressure was improved from a year ago. I think Pettine needs to be more aggressive with his rush tactics and actually use blitzes with more frequency, but the foundation is being set for an improved defense.