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Bears defense presents tough matchup for Packers’ desire to play multiple tight ends

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Green Bay has four tight ends on the roster and has been utilizing them in preseason, but Chicago’s defense is stout in those matchups.

NFL: Green Bay Packers-Training Camp
Lance Kendricks should get plenty of opportunities in the passing game this season, but it may not be wise to play him much against the Bears.
Green Bay Press-Gazette-USA TODAY Sports

When the Green Bay Packers have had a tight end who can split out to create mismatches, their offense has been unstoppable so long as Aaron Rodgers is under center. In 2018, Green Bay might have four players capable of filling that role.

On Wednesday, Ben Fennell of The Athletic wrote about the myriad ways in which Mike McCarthy and Joe Philbin can deploy a deep group of tight ends for the Packers this season. Many coaches and players consider 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, and one receivers) the most difficult formation to defend in football because it can be used in heavy sets to pound the run or spread out to create favorable matchups in the passing game with linebackers or safeties on pass-catching tight ends.

The Packers signed Jimmy Graham, Marcedes Lewis, and Lance Kendricks before them to create precisely such an advantage. And they used it much more last season than previous years. As Fennell points out, the Packers used multiple tight end sets nearly twice as often in 2017 compared to 2016, a year when they led the league in five receiver sets.

Blame Brett Hundley for part of this trend, as the offense became much less diverse, much less dynamic and much more dependent on the run. But multiple tight ends doesn’t mean a plodding offense. The Eagles won a Super Bowl with an explosive offense, despite using multiple tight ends 30% of the time, nearly double the Packers’ rate in 2017 (which was already doubled from the year before ... see where this is going?).

Here’s the problem for this week’s game: the Chicago Bears aren’t the team against whom the Packers may find success rolling out these new two tight end sets.

A year ago, Vic Fangio’s unit finished 11th in the league defending tight ends, according to Football Outsiders. To take that a step further, their DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average) against 12 personnel was -13.7%. That number in a vacuum doesn’t mean much, but hold onto it for a second. Against 11 personnel (three receivers, one tight end, one back), they had a DVOA of 1.8%.

To put those DVOA numbers into context, the Vikings had the second-best DVOA in football last year defensively. They were monsters. Their defensive DVOA overall was -13.9%. The Browns finished with the 16th ranked defense by DVOA last year at 2.0%. In other words, against two tight ends the Bears played like the stifling Vikings defense, but against three receivers and one tight end, they were a league-average unit.

Digging into their roster, those numbers start to make sense.

Chicago boasts a solid duo of outside cornerbacks in Kyle Fuller and Prince Amukamara, flanked by an ascending pair of safeties, Adrian Amos and Eddie Jackson. The front, with Eddie Goldman, Akiem Hicks and whomever the regular third defensive linemen will be this season, provide an incredibly stout unit. Linebackers Nick Kwiatkoski and Danny Trevathan are solid in coverage despite neither possessing top-tier athletic tools, and together this base defense has a lot of talent.

But put them in nickel situations, spreading them out and forcing those corners to play on an island with Bryce Callahan coming in to play the slot, and things start to get hairy for Fangio’s unit.

The Bears were just 20th defending No. 1 receivers and 26th against “other” receivers last year, despite having a top-7 defense against No. 2’s. Those numbers tell the story: Chicago has a solid group of corners that lacks elite talent or great depth. Put them all out on the field, make them win their battles consistently, and they won’t hold up over the course of the game.

Chicago possesses the classic “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” defense, which means the way to attack it is by isolating those parts.

Green Bay already features 11 personnel as its base formation, though Joe Philbin came in to help bring formational and personnel creativity. But the Packers may not have to change much to attack this defense in an effective way.

In two games last season, Packers quarterbacks competed 36/51 passes for 391 yards with 5 TDs and just 1 INT for a 139.9 QB rating. That includes one game in which Green Bay had to start four guards and a center on the offensive line on a short week and another game with Hundley under center.

Jordy Nelson may be gone, but his touchdowns were red zone Rodgers specials, production Jimmy Graham can replace. Davante Adams carved up the Bears defense last year even with Brett Hundley at quarterback with five catches for 90 yards including the clincher down the sideline on third-and-10. He could have had a bigger game in the Thursday Night matchup had he not been knocked out by a Trevathan cheap shot.

Adams now steps into the No. 1 receiver role with Rodgers, a place where Chicago already shows vulnerability. Getting Randall Cobb matched up with Bryce Callahan in the slot should give Green Bay yet another offensive advantage with Geronimo Allison likely spending most of his time opposite Adams on the boundary. Given the Bears’ issues with No. 1’s, expect Adams to have a big day and for Cobb to eat in the middle of the field.

Fans should hope Philbin, McCarthy and Co. start experimenting with these talented tight ends. They kept four for a reason and they present unique skills to be exploited against most teams. Week 1 simply may not be the week to trot it out.