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Sunday's first drive illustrates Mike Pettine’s terrific plan to defend the Titans

Opening drives tell us a great deal about how offenses and defenses want to attack. The Packers’ opening salvo against the Titans showed a slew of fronts, a plan for Derrick Henry, and a superstar coming to life.

Tennessee Titans v Green Bay Packers
Derrick Henry couldn’t get it going against the Packers defense who put together a terrific plan to stop him.
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The opening series tips the hand of defensive coordinators, hinting at their priorities and their plan to stop the opponent. For most of Mike Pettine’s tenure in Green Bay, he’ll open the game in a base personnel grouping with a traditional 3-4 look against teams willing and capable of running the ball. Sunday night against the Tennessee Titans was no different.

Here, the Titans made it easy to load the box because they’ve condensed their formation, a move Matt LaFleur also uses to create muck for the defense to navigate on outside runs and to manufacture spacing in the passing game. In this case though, Arthur Smith allows Pettine to put 9 in the box to load up against Henry.

Notice Jaire Alexander playing of coverage. He, along with Darnell Savage who isn’t on the screen but was all over the field Sunday night, provide the safety net if Henry leaks out or they go to early play-action.

But the first drive can also tip the hand of offensive coordinators. Concepts land on the script precisely because they’re designed specifically to take advantage of tendencies and attack a defense before it can adjust. The Titans decided their counter to Pettine loading the box would be to go to lighter personnel—Tennessee is 31st in the league in three receiver sets—knowing the Packers would likely play with lighter boxes considering Pettine’s affinity for nickel.

But instead of taking defensive linemen out of the game, as this team has in the past for those sub-package looks, Green Bay stayed heavy at the line of scrimmage. They kept three true heavies on the field, buttressed by the Smith Bros and creating a numbers advantage for the Packers.

Technically it’s a “light” box but there are 10 Packers defenders within six yards of the line of scrimmage. More importantly, there are five guys at the line to take on blocks and keep Krys Barnes free. He still has to take on Henry in the hole, but at least this look, when executed properly, won’t let opposing linemen get to the second level where Henry can get loose.

The end zone angle shows exactly why this works.

Kenny Clark’s athleticism and power makes this work, but the numbers also add up. With Kingsley Keke and Dean Lowry in the B-gaps and the Smiths setting the edge, the Packers have every gap accounted for with Clark expected to handle his matchup, allowing Barnes to either fit inside or flow outside on a perimeter zone run like this one.

Henry picks up five yards, but leaves the Titans with a 3rd-and-medium and Henry comes off the field because he’s not particularly useful in the passing game. This allows the Packers to put their pressure package on the field with Za’Darius Smith reducing inside, Rashan Gary taking the outside spot, and the Packers going to a hybrid dime look.

These are the kinds of situations Green Bay lives for because they get to play their preferred style. It’s also where the personnel flexibility and unique talents of Darnell Savage become a weapon.

Barnes remains the sole true linebacker, but Adrian Amos becomes a de facto ‘backer next to him. Savage joins the bunch on the offense’s right side and the Packers have 10 guys again within six yards of the line of scrimmage. Vernon Scott, the third safety, plays deep here.

The Packers defended this play well, with Savage nearly getting his hands on the pass, but the Titans converted, setting up another first down. This is another situation where the playbook will be wide open, so how Green Bay chooses to defend it once again offers clues to Pettine’s philosophy.

Tennessee comes out in 12 personnel with two tight ends on the field, and the Packers stick with their base defense with Barnes and Christian Kirksey.

Once again, the condensed formation made the numbers game easy for the Packers, but Pettine also has to trust his cover players in these situations. A.J. Brown and Corey Davis, the latter of whom took the collar on Sunday night, present a dynamic pairing in the passing game. Green Bay had to believe Kevin King and Jaire Alexander, whether in man or zone, could stick with them, while still accounting for Jonnu Smith.

Cover ability like the Packers have doesn’t force Pettine to rob Peter to pay Paul when it comes to defense. Too often, Green Bay willingly played smaller in order to stop opposing passing games, but with the emergence of Savage, the growth of Alexander, and the cohesion this pass rush forged over the last two months, the Packers don’t have to make that difficult choice.

They can do both and they proved it against the most balanced offense in football.

This play turned out to be a play-action boot play and even with all those heavy people on the field, the Packers managed to cover up all the options for Ryan Tannehill who had to take off and use his legs to pick up yardage. That hurt Green Bay later on a beautifully designed and executed fake zone-read that Tannehill turned into a touchdown, but on this play, the quarterback had no choice but to take off.

With an offense as dangerous as the Titans, the Packers couldn’t keep showing the same look on early downs and expect Tennesee not to adust, so later in the first drive, Pettine went to a 6-1 front when Smith went to his three tight end package.

If you don’t love jumbo looks in the snow in December, then you don’t love football, because this is just fun. The Packers play four true defensive linemen, bringing in Tyler Lancaster for Christian Kirksey. They roll Savage down into the box and lay the corners off.

Even with all those wide bodies in there, the Titans boast the advantage at the line of scrimmage with eight guys to block Green Bay’s six. That means some combination of Alexander, Savage, Barnes, and Kevin King will have to get off blocks to find the ball carrier.

The Titans came back with the same personnel grouping but a different formation the next play and the Packers matched. When Tannehill saw that, he checked to a play-action pass, but Savage ran the route for the tight end Smith and notched one of Green Bay’s 10 PBUs in the game.

Remember how the Packers played that bunch formation earlier in the drive with Savage coming over in a man coverage look to that side? The Titans bring that formation back for 3rd-and-7, which sets up Savage as the slot Blitzer, ultimately forcing an overthrow.

The Packers showed the same look with Savage taking the inside man in the bunch with Chandon Sullivan on the tight end and King on the outside. Or at least that’s what Tannehill thinks. This was clearly something Pettine and Co. prepared for, knowing the Titans like to get to these bunch formations much like the Packers do on third down.

Add in Za’Darius Smith standing up inside to create even more confusion, and this presents terrific disguise while allowing a player like Savage to become a star before our eyes.

It wasn’t just well-executed defense on Sunday night. The Packers put together a terrific plan, showed myriad looks, and played to the strengths of their defense while mitigating their weaknesses. They’ve been playing quality football for weeks against mediocre-to-bad opponents. Against the Titans, they proved those weeks weren’t a fluke and Pettine has this defense playing fast, playing downhill, and playing well.