Za’Darius Smith — he’s just like you. After the Green Bay Packers put together a successful, albeit unsexy, game plan to hold down the Chicago Bears’ offense with Mitch Trubisky and furthered a troubling proclivity to give up late-game points, the leaders of this defense, including the Smith Brothers, went to defensive coordinator Mike Pettine asking for a change. Whatever was said in the offices at 1265 Lombardi last week worked, with the Packers’ pass rush putting together 28 pressures in 41 dropbacks against the Philadelphia Eagles, getting Carson Wentz benched, and ultimately supplying the knockout punch in a 30-16 win. Along the way, they may well have unlocked a formula that can lead this team to a Super Bowl run.
Critics of Pettine, vocal on Twitter, point to a passive, we-dare-you-to-drive-it approach. Play off, play heavy zone (more than 75% of the time according to Pro Football Focus), and don’t give up the big play. Rush four, drop seven, and leave the designer blitzes in 2018 when the team lacked identity or impactful top-end talent.
The idea makes sense as the maximalist approach to the way Pettine views defense: don’t get beat in the passing game, because that’s the way offenses can most hurt you. Don’t give up big plays, make teams go 12 plays every drive, and believe opposing offenses will make enough mistakes — while your own offense won’t — and if a team does it, as the Colts did a few weeks ago, you tip your cap and try to make it work the following week.
The Packers are the No. 1 3rd-and-long team in the league so far this season, allowing just 16% conversions on 3rd-and-6 or more. This is a stat belied by some of the prominent conversions that stick out in the minds of those who’ve watched this team over the course of the season, when Pettine too often plays 10 yards off receivers and drops into deep zones to avoid giving up big plays.
“Everybody was getting frustrated. Wasn’t nobody upfront having the kind of year that we want,” Za’Darius Smith said after the game, echoing fan sentiments questioning Green Bay’s defensive approach, Preston Smith’s lackluster season until last week, and a tentative mindset Pettine installed in 2020.
“We had a chance to talk to [the defensive coordinator]. We told him, keep it simple for us man; we’ll get after the quarterback. And he did that for us and as you can see, we had a field day today,” Smith said.
When asked if the frustration over Pettine’s approached stemmed from the zone-heavy plan for Trubisky and the Bears, Smith responded with a concise and diplomatic, “Yes, sir,” as to answer affirmatively, but not go so far as to directly criticize the coaching staff.
“Anytime you go upstairs and go knock on a coach’s door in his office, it changes a lot. We’re just glad that coach listened to his players. Like I told you when I first got here, [Packers] coaches really care about their players. When someone’s not work it and we see it on the field, the communication to change it on the field, you can see it.”
Simplifying the scheme meant less zone and more man coverage. All that concern about giving up big plays? Forget about it, give the front more opportunities to hunt quarterbacks, and trust the secondary against a banged up receiving group and a gun-shy quarterback.
Against the Eagles, the Packers played over 56% man coverage by Pro Football Focus’ charting with a whopping 51% of snaps in Cover-1, the highest of any defense on Sunday. That’s more than double their season average of 24.5%. With Jaire Alexander locking down his side of the field, playing like the best cornerback in the league this season, Pettine shaded his single-high safety away from Alexander, the way the Seahawks used to do with Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman and how Pettine’s Jets used to with Darrelle Revis.
Pettine deployed ascending second-year safety Darnell Savage as a cover player against Philadelphia’s talented tight end duo and the only catch he allowed in three targets came when he slipped on a double move against Dallas Goedert.
Covering up receivers forces quarterbacks to hold the ball, giving the pass rush more time to get home.
“I thought the coverage on the back end, for the most part, was pretty tight,” Matt LaFleur said on Monday after getting a chance to watch the film.
“The rush and the coverage go hand and hand. If you’ve got tight coverage on an offense and that rush is barreling down on the quarterback, they feel that and they tend to lose their poise.”
It’s a simplification in its own way, the kind of symbiosis as old as the forward pass. Pressure helps coverage and coverage helps pressure; it’s the circle of life, or in this case death for opposing offenses. That relationship fell short most of the season. If the back end played well, the pass rush couldn’t get home and if the front disrupted the quarterback, a receiver would be running free. For most of the game against the Eagles, they played as one.
“I thought the effort by all 11 on the field was as good as we’ve seen this year,” LaFleur said, pointing out that it still wasn’t flawless. “Late in the game, when you have a team on the ropes and it’s 4th-and-18, you can’t afford to have a coverage bust in that situation.”
That bust, resulting in a beautiful running touchdown throw from the rookie Hurts, is precisely the kind of bust Pettine’s original approach set out specifically to avoid. Will the late-game miscue against a backup quarterback this defense hadn’t prepared to face be enough to force Pettine to revert? Or will their success winning 1-on-1 at every level trump one drive?
This pass rush suddenly looks like the unit we saw last season, especially early on, one capable of dominating the game for stretches. In a game where Kenny Clark never got going inside, Dean Lowry picked up the slack, forcing five pressures, tied for the team lead. Za’Darius Smith and Rashan Gary flew off the edge while Preston Smith built on his best game of the year against the Bears with a slew of key plays against Philly — including hitting Jalen Hurts’ arm on the game-sealing interception by Savage.
Against the best quarterbacks, the ones they’ll face in the playoffs, who we know just by just one-half of their name, the Packers won’t be able to consistently sit in a two-shell zone and expect it to work. They have the defensive backs who can stick to receivers and the horses to win upfront 1-on-1, and they don’t need Pettine to scheme up exotic double-mug looks to disrupt opposing quarterbacks.
More to the point, it’s how the players want to play, imbuing a sense of urgency and ownership. If they think it makes a difference, in their mindset and approach, then it does. We saw Sunday, though, the play on the field bears it out. Philly provided the ideal conditions for a test case and down the stretch they’ll have a few chances for tensile tests, starting this week against the never gun-shy Matthew Stafford.
Za’Darius’ message to his coach was clear: just let us go hunt and we’ll bring home supper. After the Seahawks let Russ cook, apparently even defenses want their spot in the kitchen. Much like in Seattle, Pettine obliged and his players rewarded his faith in them. Dinner is served.