In Week 1, the Green Bay Packers looked like they were playing with 13 men, a blur of white, yellow, and green. Jaire Alexander lurking at every turn. Darnell Savage patrolling the middle. Preston and Za’Darius Smith coming off the edge. Kevin King’s long, springy limbs getting into passing lanes. Based on what we’ve seen since Week 2, Raven Greene’s versatility provided an even bigger cushion than we realized. Since then, the Packers defense has sprung leaks, struggled to find a suitable overhang defender replacement, and can’t quite get its swagger back for long stretches of time.
But how could one player, an undrafted free agent no less, upset the balance so significantly?
The same way a lack of speed has often thrown the Packers offensive geometry off kilter, so too does the Greene injury. Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos function best as rovers. Putting them in the middle middle or deep half every play robs them of their playmaking and versatility in coverage. They’re rare safeties who can run with athletic tight ends and make plays out of their zone.
Putting Amos in the box as a de facto linebacker limits his effectiveness, particularly as the defensive line struggles to maintain leverage at the point of attack. With the cadre of overhang defenders Pettine has tried, mixing and matching for personnel and situation, he can’t be as aggressive with a less reliable group around his dynamic safety duo.
This trickles down into how the Packers play in coverage. Blake Martinez’s limitations in coverage force Pettine’s hand, as do B.J. Goodson’s — and he has been the more impactful linebacker of the two this season. If they’re going to give up size by playing these three safety nickel looks, the run defense suffers. That would be one thing if it were helping them stop opposing passers.
Giving up the most 40+ yard plays in the NFL undercuts the effectiveness of that strategy. Not all of that falls on the Packers’ uninspiring group of linebackers and sub-package safeties. Kevin King and Jaire Alexander each generate outstanding, impactful plays, but have been beaten over the top and King in particular has been a walking missed tackle. Losing a back-line defender makes that problem worse, a problem compounded by having to play Savage or Amos nearer to the line of scrimmage.
Most importantly for the Packers, the question they have to answer now with Greene on IR is do they have an answer on the roster?
Despite an unimpressive season from Martinez, Goodson and Oren Burks remain chained to the bench. Blake is the most experienced in this defense, the signal caller, and a tackling machine, but his lack of playmaking ability handcuffs this defense, particularly dealing with speedy backs and tight ends. The Packers don’t often get Martinez matched up against those players, but that’s part of the problem: they can’t. Because he can’t do it, even for a snap or two. They drafted Burks to be that player and spent all offseason working like he’s going to be a major part of the defense, and now a downhill run-stuffing linebacker has taken his spot?
Burks’ run instincts aren’t why Brian Gutekunst traded into the third round to draft him. He’s the best cover linebacker on the team by a country mile, so why not give him some more chances in obvious passing situations? It’s possible that’s the plan as he works back from yet another injury, but the Packers miss his speed and athleticism out there regularly.
He was supposed to be who Raven Greene turned out to be. Can he give them something approximating with Greene did as a do-it-all maven who also, by the way, would be undersized playing in the box as a run defender? He’d have to play for us to find out.
Chandon Sullivan’s versatility and playmaking make him a better fit as a deep safety when Pettine wants to bring Darnell Savage or Adrian Amos into the box but there or as a slot corner are the only places he can win. Will Redmond lacks the instincts to be a consistent factor back deep, but he rallies to the ball in zone coverage and his cornerback background comes out in man. Much like the group of linebackers, there are things they do well, while presenting clear deficiencies for opponents to attack, while hamstringing Pettine in how they can be deployed.
Perhaps this week the Packers activate Ibraheim Campbell and give him a shot at that hybrid linebacker spot, giving Pettine the Greene replacement he seeks. It’s fair to wonder why, given how this overhang defender group has played, that hasn’t happened sooner. Campbell may not be healthy, which would complicate matters, but he’s played in this defense already, so the learning curve should be minimal.
Eventually, the answer may turns out to be Greene himself. Although that ankle injury that sidelined him in Week 2 looked gruesome, he’s still potentially eligible to return. Campbell can be activated off PUP, and Jace Sternberger took one designation off IR, but the Packers have another at their disposal. If Greene can be get back (maybe after the bye?) He could slot right back into his role and make this defense fit once again.
Ted Thompson wanted it to be Josh Jones, a safety the Packers planned to immediately convert to dime linebacker. We could even go back to Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, who were drafted to be hybrid players but couldn’t quite get there for myriad reasons. Brian Gutekunst added Oren Burks and Raven Greene hoping to fix this problem. Ibraheim Campbell played the best in this role over the last few years, but a major injury leaves his status uncertain, as it does for Greene.
For the Packers to get back to being the suffocating defense we saw early in the season, they need to find a solution in a hurry as matchups with NFC playoff contenders loom the next two weeks. Up first? The biggest matchup nightmare in football right now in Christian McCaffrey, not to be outdone by George Kittle and the most explosive stable of backs in the league on the road. With the trade deadline passed, the solution to this problem will have to come from on the roster, and it will have to come quickly for Green Bay to keep pace in the conference.