The Packers can’t play big boy football. When they lose, they get whipped in the trenches. They’re the most dreaded word in the football lexicon: soft. At least that’s what the critics (and cynical fans) insist about the Green Bay Packers. When they lose, it’s the run defense and opposing pass rush that takes them down, a fatal flaw that means teams can push them around, out-muscle them. It’s a matter of manhood, of pride. Physical teams give them trouble.
Here’s the problem: that’s a much better narrative than the reality. The truth is that for too long, the Packers defense has lacked speed at key positions, and now that they’ve gained it, they’re still not consistently playing with discipline and technique.
Winning in the trenches rarely comes down to the strongest guy. If it did, every team would just draft the players with the best bench numbers and the 500-pound squatting defensive tackles who can do front flips out of swimming pools. It’s an oversimplified version of how football works, one based on machismo more than actual understanding.
Dom Capers’ defenses had no answer for Colin Kaepernick precisely because he was always the best athlete on the field. The defining image of that short-lived rivalry will always be Kaepernick putting distance between him and Charles Woodson on a galloping touchdown run in the 2012 playoffs. Nick Perry boasted wonderful pure athletic traits, but he consistently misread mesh points and didn’t have the change-of-direction ability to handle Kaepernick on the edge. He wasn’t lacking strength or toughness, but rather burst and discipline.
This same problem manifested itself in 2014 with essentially the same defensive front and Russell Wilson. They didn’t get out-muscled by the Seahawks. They got out-flanked.
Fast forward to the 2019 Packers and the San Francisco 49ers. Raheem Mostert wasn’t doing his best Larry Csonka impression and trucking Green Bay players or dragging defenders like Jim Brown. He got to the edge and hit seams with his incredible burst. Long untouched runs don’t happen solely because a team loses the battle at the point of attack, but more often because the alley defenders lack the recognition, speed, and/or discipline to cut off the back and finish the play.
In the NFC Championship Game, Pettine tried to counter the 49ers with more base defense than he’d played most of the season. This was the “physical” play. B.J. Goodson and Blake Martinez’s athletic limitations hamstrung the defense anyway. They couldn’t get to outside zone runs or redirect to close down cutback lanes. Even with the speed of guys like Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos, their angles, processing speed, and tackling helped doom Green Bay.
To be sure, Preston and Za’Darius Smith needed to set a better edge, an issue of physicality, but plenty of teams who don’t consistently win 1-on-1 battles up front field better defenses.
Think of what the Buccaneers executed against the Packers offense. Green Bay couldn’t get Lucas Patrick or Elgton Jenkins to the second level to Tampa’s linebackers because they played too quickly, diagnosing the play and getting to the spot. Lavonte David and Devin White combine to be one of the most athletic linebacker duos in the league. Their speed ate up the Packers, not their physicality. Closing fast to the ball often results in impressive collisions, but the Green Bay didn’t get physically overpowered with brute strength. Speed swarmed them.
Look at the Seahawks, who came into Week 9 at 28th in ESPN’s Run Stop Win Rate, but who have a top-10 defense against the run by DVOA. It’s not because their defensive line controls the line of scrimmage consistently or is more physical. It’s because they have Bobby Wagner, one of the best linebackers of his generation and a physical marvel with speed, strength, and agility to be a force in every facet.
This is likewise true on the offense side of the ball. We often think about losing in the trenches as a battle of brute force, but pass rush requires considerably more than pure strength. In fact, one of the big knocks on a player like Rashan Gary coming out of college was that, for all his physical gifts, he lacked the refinement to win in pass rush situations.
Nick Bosa didn’t eat up the Packers’ front because he was too strong. He’s explosive, powerful and technically refined. When the Green Bay front couldn’t block the Chargers’ edge rushers, it wasn’t because David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga weren’t “tough enough” to block Melvin Ingram or Joey Bosa. Those are really good players who win in myriad ways including power with bull rush moves.
Billy Turner, with his massive frame and powerful upper body, literally has the nickname “Mountain.” Strength is not a problem. He’s not getting bullied by someone playing tougher than him. It requires hand placement, bend, agility, and precision. Too often we view football as a monster truck rally, when in reality it’s more like a ballet with shoulder pads, a dance that requires agility, artistry and craftsmanship.
The same is true with tackling. The Packers have been one of the poorest tackling teams in the league over the last few years. Some of their thumper linebackers were efficient tacklers, but efficient in the ways slow infielders are efficient in fielding ground balls: they consistently make the plays that come right at them, but they rarely get out of their zone to make one. This was the Ha Ha Clinton-Dix issue. He had “good” tackling numbers due in large part to his lack of aggressiveness, poor angles, and fewer opportunities to be in position to make tackles than a defense would want from an impact safety.
Oh, and he’s slow, which brings us back to the original problem.
That’s not to say physicality plays no role. To combat the power run game, Mike Pettine went to a 6-1 Under front as Ben Fennell pointed out in The Athletic, designed to create more 1-on-1 blocks for players who would otherwise struggle vs. double-teams. This, by the way, isn’t an indictment of those players’ toughness though. Beating double-teams is difficult and very few teams have a defensive front full of players capable of handling them, especially against run games as effective as the 49ers.
But Pettine paired that with a linebacker in Krys Barnes who has shown more than enough juice to get sideline-to-sideline in ways Martinez simply couldn’t. Remember, if physicality were the thing, guys like Antonio Morrison and B.J. Goodson would have not only played more but had a bigger impact on this group. Their lack of speed made them targets instead.
Better play from Savage (a 4.36 40 athlete) bolstered the Packers against San Francisco on Thursday after a tough start for the second-year safety. His poor play against the 49ers last year in the NFC Championship exemplifies why the issue hasn’t been physicality. He was the alley defender on a number of runs in that game and two weeks ago against the Vikings as well, and he simply missed tackles the defense insists he make.
It’s not that he’s not strong enough, but he wasn’t attacking downhill with force or finishing with good technique, preferring to dive at the feet of ball carriers rather than wrap up. If he didn’t otherwise show a willingness to hit—when he wants to be, he’s a missile—one could chalk this up to a lack of physicality. More likely though, it’s poor technique coupled with some bad angles.
Athletically, the Packers now boast more options. Players like Tyler Lancaster, Montravius Adams, and the tertiary Packers defensive linemen are playing better this season, which also helps, but they were always big, strong hogs upfront. What they lacked were the impact players behind them. Between Barnes, Christian Kirskey, and Kamal Martin, the linebacker group offers much more athleticism to get to ball carriers, and the safeties have the speed to play downhill to keep 12-yard runs from turning into 30-yard runs or worse. We saw the impact that can make on Thursday against a team supposedly too physical for the Packers. If they can keep up this level of consistency, they have the talent to ensure the only four-letter “s” word opponents will be saying is preceded by the word “oh.”