On multiple occasions this seasons, Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur articulated the kind of frustration fans showed over “soft” coverage, cornerbacks playing 8-10 yards off in short-yardage conversion situations or every defensive back lining up at 12 yards on a 3rd-and-10. A few weeks ago, LaFleur lamented a defense not “dictating terms” to opposing offenses and this off coverage embodies a reactionary style that likely contributed to defensive stars going to defensive coordinator Mike Pettine for changes.
While an alteration in style took place, as the Packers are playing more single-high coverage with Darnell Savage bolstered this defense over the last two months, these tendencies still linger. Still, this defense improved greatly since Week 8 and Pettine’s faith in his players drives that improvement.
“On third-and-short, I want us to get up in people’s faces and challenge ‘em because I think we have to the people that can get that done, especially when you look at our corner situation,” Pettine said recently. “I feel like it’s as good as anybody in the National Football League. And those guys have to be confident that they can go up there and press people and make it more difficult on the offense.”
An easy example of this play came on Sunday against the Bears, when Allen Robinson picked up an easy third down conversion on Kevin King:
I asked former NFL cornerback Eric Crocker about what he sees on this play and his answer was simple: Bad technique from King.
“He’s not in position to be able to read and react. It’s really lazy how he’s playing this. Too high and hopping. Playing with no sort of anticipation,” Crocker said.
This, of course, is not directly on the coaching staff. Jaire Alexander, for example, can play off because his click-and-close ability, with burst and short area quickness, makes him ideally suited to drive on throws. Coincidentally, Crocker agrees with LaFleur and sees the best use for King to be to play more press.
“If I were Packers, I would play King like [Richard] Sherman has played most of his career, from more of a press bail, where he’s still over the top and able to play his zone. But with his long movements he more times than not has to guess right or have the receiver run right to him.”
This speaks directly to LaFleur’s message. Normally we might hear LaFleur say, “We want to be more aggressive,” and assume he’s talking about the coaching staff or the scheme. But here it’s not that this is objectively faulty scheme, King just doesn’t play it effectively. More to Crocker’s point, if King lacks the twitch and pad level to consistently drive on these throws, then either he has to decide to play tighter or the coaches do (or both).
But not all completions against soft coverages result specifically because of how the cornerback aligns at the snap. For example, take the 4th-and-3 play on the first series. Pettine sends a slot blitz. Trubisky, whether he sees it or not, fires to Chandon Sullivan’s man and Darnell Savage can’t get there in time. Notice here, King sticks his foot in the ground and redirects with burst. If Trubisky throws to Allen Robinson, King’s length and ball skills provide a good chance to make a play on the ball.
It looks like two-shell pre-snap but they’re baiting Trubisky. The theoretical intention here is actually to encourage Trubisky to throw inside with Savage filling Sullivan’s vacated spot in the middle of the field against Anthony Miller. Savage hesitates for a split second with Miller at the top of his route, which gives Trubisky the window to fire the ball in. Plus, the pressure doesn’t get home, or even get close, so now it’s a shifty receiver 1-on-1 against a safety with a quarterback from a clean pocket.
Even for a quarterback like Trubisky, if he intends to go to Miller from the jump, and it seems like he does, this is relatively simple. Pettine banks on Savage’s ability to range down, coupled with the pressure to eliminate this. He gets neither. That is often the nature of pressure defense.
And it’s not the only time the slot receiver beat the Packers like this. On a 3rd-and-5 — the down and distance LaFleur referenced as part of his answer above — Trubisky finds tight end Cole Kmet from ... guess where: the slot. He runs uncovered into the middle of the field and even though Savage attacks like a missile, he can’t stop the Bears rookie before the first down marker.
This is a clever disguise from Pettine. They show single-high with Darnell Savage before the snap, and the mismatched press is something the Packers show regularly where one corner is pressed up, in this case King, and the other is off like Alexander is here.
At the snap, the Packers bail out of it into two-high with Savage flying down into the middle of the field. Chicago just happens to have the perfect call with this little duck-in route from Kmet and the swing route to hold Krys Barnes. Watch Montgomery pull Barnes out of the precise spot where Kmet makes this catch.
Without knowing the specific call, it’s hard to decipher if there’s a bust here, but with Alexander hanging underneath, presumably he has the flat to that side (some version of Cover-2). That means Barnes can stick a little closer to Kmet to make this a tougher throw, but you’re relying on disguise and—stop me if you’ve heard this before—the playmaking of Savage who almost makes the play.
Add this to the long list of plays Savage has nearly made along with the host of ones he has made over the last two months. Building a defense around Alexander’s ability to lock down his side of the field and Savage’s incredible speed in the middle makes for good process.
Now go back to that Sullivan play. Later in the game, the Packers win with a slot blitz on 3rd-and-short. Pettine already saw Trubisky beat a similar blitz, only this time there’s only one safety deep, making it unlikely they’d send Savage unless it’s a zero pressure (which this might have been). Adrian Amos would be the only guy to rotate down to take Robinson.
If this is a pass call, the Bears complete an easy first down. Instead, Savage snags the TFL. Relying on his playmaking ability proves to be a smart strategy here. It’s hard to complain about dialing up a slot pressure here relying on Savage’s playmaking when it works and fault Pettine for dialing up a slot pressure relying on Savage’s playmaking when it’s doesn’t work. Living and dying with a team’s best players, when those players are special like Alexander and Savage, usually makes for sound strategy.
Could Pettine make more calls to create advantages for Kevin King? Sure. But King could help himself with some better technique and an approach more advantageous for someone with his size, length, and athletic limitations. And even though there were more plays Sunday where guys sprung open seemingly for no reason, sometimes the offense dials up the right play and beats you. Banking on young studs like Savage and Jaire to cover up deficiencies is how this defense improved so much the last two months. A slight tweak in aggressiveness from the DC and CB2 could elevate them just in time to make a Super Bowl run.