The Green Bay Packers’ defense was among the NFL’s worst at generating turnovers in 2018. Only one team had fewer interceptions than the Packers’ seven, a number that represents a huge dropoff from the 17 they had just two years earlier. Under new coordinator Mike Pettine, the Packers used primarily press-man coverage schemes, largely allowing quarterbacks to predict before the ball was snapped what they would see from the defense after.
Defensive coordinators largely try to generate confusion in the offensive players, but often — especially with Pettine — the attempts are focused around disguising pass rush pressure. The defense would try to sow doubt in the heads of offensive linemen as well as the quarterback, but seemingly only in terms of where the pressure would come from.
This week, ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky broke down some film from the Indianapolis Colts, whose defense has been a revelation with new personnel and a new coordinator in Matt Eberflus. The Colts, Orlovsky argues, aim to confuse the quarterback by disguising their coverages.
One of the advantages of pre-snap motion, something that is all the rage in modern NFL offenses, is that it helps define whether the defense is in man or zone coverage. That in turn helps the quarterback determine which receivers should be open, or at least how to move through his progressions. The alignment of certain players, such as splitting a running back out wide, can also help force the defense to show its hand early.
The Colts, however, are gaming the traditional system. They will show signs that they are sitting in man coverage — lining up a linebacker out wide and sending a cornerback across the formation to follow a receiver in motion — but drop back into zone coverage instead. That runs counter to what quarterbacks are taught since youth football, and it had some great results in the Wild Card round against the Houston Texans.
Take a look at Orlovsky’s analysis:
IVE NEVER SEEN THIS BEFORE!! @colts fans YOUR DEFENSE LIES-and that changes everything against the @chiefs this weekend! @mchappell51 @holderstephen @zkeefer @getupespn @colts_coverage #NFL #colts pic.twitter.com/PpAwmj1Aol— Dan Orlovsky (@danorlovsky7) January 10, 2019
After watching that piece, it’s clear that one of the factors that Orlovsky mentioned is something that any defense should be able to execute: have a defensive back follow a receiver across the formation, then drop the whole unit back into zone. There may be a bit of a gap in the zone, but spacing the defenders appropriately and having enough awareness in the back seven to not leave portions of the field uncovered is something that most teams should be able to pull off.
However, it’s the Darius Leonard piece who truly holds the key to this concept. Splitting a linebacker on a running back out wide then trusting that player to hold up in zone coverage is something that you can’t do with just any linebacker. Leonard is a first-team All-Pro this season precisely because he’s not your ordinary linebacker. His 40-yard dash at the 2018 Scouting Combine was a 4.70 — right at the midpoint for off-ball linebackers — but that’s deceiving because he pulled a hamstring on his only attempt and did not run at his Pro Day. He’s an excellent athlete with very good movement skills, essential qualities to playing coverage on the boundary.
The Packers have two players who can play inside linebacker and who have the athleticism necessary to hold up in a similar role: Josh Jones and Oren Burks. While Burks’ snaps on defense dropped off to almost zero after week 9 against the Patriots this season, he absolutely has the physical ability to stay with running backs and receivers. His athletic testing puts him in the 82nd percentile or above in every movement drill, showing echoes of his past as a safety.
Likewise, Jones finished out 2018 as a de facto linebacker, playing next to Blake Martinez with regularity while still being listed officially as a safety. His speed makes him a candidate here as well. The fact that he is classified as a defensive back may make this a bit less deceptive, but when combined with following a motion man on the other side of a formation, it still makes for a pair of signals to the offense that the defense is matched up in man.
The cliche goes that the NFL is a copycat league. Since Mike Pettine has the personnel to do so, he should absolutely borrow this idea from his counterpart in Indy to help sow some seeds of doubt in opposing quarterbacks.