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Packers can follow familiar formula to stop Rams offense

Load up to stop the run, dare them to beat you deep, and play games with the quarterback. It’s the kind of strategy that stymies the Rams and just happens to be the style of defense Mike Pettine has moved to in the second half of the season.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Los Angeles Rams Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Belichick sent Sean McVay back to the drawing board. Using a modified bear front, third-down blitzes, and disciplined zone coverage, the New England Patriots built on what Belichick’s protege Matt Patricia unlocked earlier in the 2018. Don’t worry about the eye candy pre-snap motion; stop the run and make Jared Goff make accurate throws. It’s a strategy the Green Bay Packers know well, one they have employed to varying degrees a host of times this season, including recently to great success against the Titans.

Defensively, Belichick and Brian Flores rendered Super Bowl LIII a snoozer in a 13-3 rock fight, the lowest scoring Super Bowl ever. And they did it by playing more zone than they had most of the season, loading the box to stop Todd Gurley and the outside zone, switching fronts and coverage looks late in the playclock to confuse, and then on third down blitzing Goff into submission.

Not every team employs the greatest coach of all-time or one of the best young coaches in football, but the rest of the league caught into the methodology.

Here are the Rams offensive rank by DVOA since McVay took the job in Los Angeles:

  • 2017: 6th
  • 2018: 2nd
  • 2019: 16th
  • 2020: 10th

After the Super Bowl, McVay started playing less 11 personnel with three receivers, and more with two tight ends to create better matchups for his offense. Still, Goff’s deficiencies pre- and post-snap linger and even if John Wolford starts instead, he’s making just the second start of his career as an undrafted, undersized, street free agent. The approach, in terms of trying to stop them, looks much the same.

Coincidentally, it’s a game plan that plays well into how this Packers defense coalesced over the last two months. Listen to McVay praise Belichick (and Brian Flores) for their game plan and notice the similarities to what Green Bay has been doing:

In the early downs, all they ended up playing was some single-high buzz structures and some quarters principles. Then on third down, they had their designers and things like that. It was a great game plan.

Let’s start with the early downs, a crucial piece of this for the Packers defense. The Rams struggle on 2nd-and-long, finishing the regular season 27th in success rate on 2nd-and-8 or more. They’re just not built to play behind the sticks and although it’s disadvantageous for any team to play that way, some offenses provide more answers. Having Aaron Rodgers, for example, leads to some better outcomes and 2nd or 3rd-and-long.

It’s not just that the Packers know and run this outside zone scheme, but the Titans under Arthur Smith run it as well. Green Bay mixed formations well, attacking Tennessee’s run game with Derrick Henry and holding him mostly in check in the Packers’ impressive Week 16 win. And they did it with these kinds of heavy fronts.

Though Pettine wants to downsize, playing this way locks down gap integrity, allows Krys Barnes to flow to the ball, and all but assures 1-on-1 pressure opportunities for the Smith Bros, Kenny Clark, and Kingsley Keke if the offense decides to throw. Getting to the passing game on early downs would be the smart counter to these fronts, but then you have to deal with deciding where to go with the ball.

You can’t go to Jaire Alexander’s side, where he was Pro Football Focus’ No. 1 graded cornerback, thriving in whatever kind of coverage Pettine calls on a given play. The middle of the field squeezes with Darnell Savage patrolling in that robber role, often as the buzz defender in a Cover-3 buzz look as McVay specifically notes. And if Goff wants to test Kevin King, that’s the most advantageous spot, but with his length and aggressiveness at the catch point, the chances of completing balls to that side all afternoon aren’t great.

Stop the run on first down, get to second-and-long where the Rams struggle, and force them to throw on third down. That’s when Pettine can get to what McVay called “designers,” which just happens to be one of Pettine’s specialties. Ironically, the addition of Za’Darius and Preston Smith encouraged Green Bay away from the designer blitzes Pettine used to such great effect with the New York Jets under Rex Ryan and to a lesser degree in 2018 with a defense bereft of high-level pass-rush talent.

In fact, double-mug blitz looks and aggressive pressure packages beguiled Goff and McVay in the regular season matchup between these two teams in L.A. that season. This is the exact situation McVay has in mind above: on 3rd-and-10, the Packers show a six-man pressure and even with Kyler Fackrell and Reggie Gilbert on the edge (gulp), this ends in a sack.

Part of what makes this play isn’t even the mug look. This is a six-man pressure, but it’s not the six guys in this shot who are rushing. Jermaine Whitehead drops out and Tramon Williams comes off the slot. Todd Gurley recognizes it thanks to some help from the center, who alerts the slot blitz pre-snap. But that draws Gurley away from Blake Martinez, who beats the center across his face for the sack.

If Martinez doesn’t get there, Williams likely does as this ends up as a summit meeting in the backfield.

Over the last two months, when the Packers have boasted one of the best defenses in the league (5th in EPA/play since Week 8), they have dabbled with slot blitzes more than early in the season. They’re already using Za’Darius Smith as a rover who can line up just about anywhere and Savage as a blitzer both as a run defender and pass rusher, showing explosive potential. On 3rd-and-long, Pettine has started to worry a little less about getting beat over the top and more about how he can attack opposing quarterbacks once again.

On the flip side, L.A. will get some 3rd-and-reasonable situations where they need to get 4-6 yards. This was the first drive of the game for the Rams. The Packers walked Clay Matthews into the A gap, but he never truly threatens. Nick Perry drops off the edge and the Packers have every option covered. Goff goes from left to right through two of his reads, tries to step up and buy time, then meets Kenny Clark in the backfield.

Three-man rushes in the red zone deserve to be killed with fire, but few DCs generate as many positive plays with three-man rushes as Pettine because they’re usually off disguises. If he can keep Goff guessing about who is coming, where they’re coming from, and where guys are dropping, he can create turnover opportunities.

In fact, since 2017, only Jameis Winston has turned it over more than Goff and in just two games with temperatures below freezing, Goff tossed five interceptions with no touchdowns. And if it’s Wolford, the Rams can’t expect him to decipher pre-snap and process post-snap significantly better. The difference is really more about Wolford’s ability to create with his legs when the play breaks down.

There’s some Trubisky in the game plan here in terms of how Pettine can attack Goff or Wolford. The processing degrades significantly if the first read isn’t there and if a defense forces his to consistently make reads and throws on 10, 12, and 15-yard drives, neither guy has proven he’s reliable and accurate enough to do it consistently. If these disguises can fool a veteran like Ryan Tannehill, they’ll work against Goff. And if these fronts can slow down Derrick Henry, Cam Akers will have a tough time to do better.

This is 1300 words to say that if the Packers play the way they’ve been playing, it’s the perfect way to slow down this Rams offense and give Green Bay a great chance to win.