Mike Pettine’s old boss Rex Ryan would be proud. After courting Damon “Snacks” Harrison this spring, reportedly offering the most money to the veteran nose tackle only for him to sign with Seattle, the Green Bay Packers finally got (a god damn) Snacks. And while it wasn’t that long ago Harrison wracked up an incredible 81 combined tackles, his impact for the Packers will be as much about the flexibility he provides as his actual production down-to-down.
This week, head coach Matt LaFleur called Harrison a “big-time pickup,” and the fact the former Seahawk got on the plane and practicing within 24 hours of being claimed tells us everything we need to know about how the Packers view this addition. He’s a clear upgrade over Tyler Lancaster as a rotational nose tackle and he’s still a stout run defender. In six games for the Seahawks, he played over 25% of snaps in every game, over 30% in three of them, and over 40% against the Jets when he had a season-high six tackles.
Forget the tackle numbers though, even though that’s always been one of his unique traits. As a nose tackle, he’s gone over 80 stops twice in his career, most recently in 2018 and previously in his All-Pro 2016 campaign. His run defense provides value on its own, but it’s so much more than that. With him on the field, Kenny Clark gets the kind of running mate to eat blocks inside he hasn’t had since a healthy Mike Daniels, albeit Daniels was a better player overall. The combination of those two provides useful flexibility for Pettine as he faces teams who want to spread the Packers out and still run the ball.
And that value isn’t just some esoteric idea, something that matters in theory, existing in the soft, squishy space of ideas we can’t actually measure. Eric Eager, a data scientist at Pro Football Focus, published a study on the impact of interior run defense the same day Harrison made his debut on the Packers’ practice field. His study found there’s tangible value, particularly in modern sub-package fronts, of having players like Harrison who can eat up blocks, defend the run, and still play sub-packages behind them.
Against the Titans, the Packers could play big with three true defensive linemen on the field and two linebackers. The emergence of Darnell Savage and Jaire Alexander open up the playbook to Pettine to allow more limited-space players like Krys Barnes and Christian Kirksey to stay on the field rather than go to sub-package safeties like the injured Raven Greene or Vernon Scott. Part of reason that works against Tennessee because they play the second-fewest rate of 11 personnel in the league. When there are two tight ends on the field, it’s much easier for the defense to counter with a heavier front.
Teams like Chicago and, in the playoffs, offenses like Tampa Bay and New Orleans will play significantly more with three receivers on the field. That forces the hand of Pettine to downsize his front, giving up space-eating for speed, a style he already wants to play but until now hasn’t quite had the personnel to successfully pull off. That’s where Snacks comes in.
By putting Harrison and Clark on the field together, they could easily eat up four blocks on their own, and even if only one of them gets the double, that assures the Smith Bros. face more single blocks. In formations where the Packers only play two true defensive linemen, they would otherwise be vulnerable to the run game, a gamble they make to counter with pass rushers and cover players.
As Eager’s work suggests, Harrison’s ability to stop the run makes it easier to play more the way Pettine already preferred to play, with more defensive backs on the field, because he’s a much more consistent run defender than Kingsley Keke or Dean Lowry despite their clearly superior pass-rush talent.
The emergence of Barnes as a down-to-down contributor at linebacker and Savage as a middle-of-the-field monster also lessen the impact of pairing Barnes with another linebacker rather than a safety hybrid player. In fact, Green Bay could play a relatively traditional—at least for Pettine—nickel front on a more regular basis thanks to the block-soaking capability of a player like Harrison. This change, with Savage more in the middle of the field as a robber defender, puts more alley defenders behind the defensive front, making it easier for Pettine to play fewer defensive linemen.
Pair Harrison and Clark with any two edge players, put Barnes and Kirksey behind them with Chandon Sullivan on the field, and the Packers can effectively defend the ground game or playing man coverage against almost any formation by a team in a three receiver set. Adrian Amos’ ability to cover tight ends, a trait many suggested the former Bear didn’t have in Chicago, provides Pettine with the option to play man or zone, a luxury he didn’t have in 2019 with Blake Martinez and B.J. Goodson on the leaky front.
Harrison offers more as a player than someone like Howard Green for that 2010 Super Bowl team. He has been and is now a much better player. His arrival won’t upset the apple cart with a team hitting its stride lately with a new identity under Pettine. Coming off their best performance of the season, the Packers defense not only gets better with Harrison; he allows them to be better playing a style where they were already thriving. It’s the perfect complement to maximize what they’ve been doing and help Snacks chase his first championship.