The Packers narrowly beat the Browns on Christmas Day 24-22 on the back of the defense’s four interceptions of Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield. Rasul Douglas led the way with two interceptions, bringing his total to five interceptions since being signed off the Cardinals practice squad in October and four interceptions in his last four games.
The defense also generated 4 sacks on only 14 total pressures with Rashan Gary leading the way with two sacks. Overall the defense, ranked 21st in Football Outsiders DVOA, played very well and kept the team in a game that did not feel as close as it actually was. Three of the interceptions led to three offensive touchdown drives and that made all the difference in the game. It’s going to be extremely tough for opposing teams to come into Green Bay in January to steal a playoff game if they continue with this level of play.
Interceptions lead to offensive touchdowns
First interception, 1st quarter, 1st-and-10 at CLE-8, 8:45 remaining
The first interception was on a first down shot play by the Browns known as “Blazer” in the Gary Kubiak/Kyle Shanahan tree, which Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski is a part of. The Packers are playing a 3-deep 3-under fire zone coverage on first down and the Browns are hoping safety Darnell Savage jumps the deep crosser.
The corners lock in man-to-man with any deep routes as the defense only has three zones underneath to account for. Savage initially jumps the deep crosser and then peels off when he notices the deep blazer post by Donovan Peoples-Jones 1-on-1 with corner Rasul Douglas in trail. Mayfield is baited into throwing the post but does so extremely late. Savage speed turns and gets back to cut the post and intercept the pass.
Had he not been there, the Browns likely convert for a big play but they were aided by his quick recovery and poor read by Mayfield, who had the deep crosser open at the far hash. The Packers offense marched down the field from midfield after this where Aaron Rodgers tossed his now franchise-leading 443rd touchdown pass as a Green Bay Packer.
Second interception, 1st quarter, 3rd-and-19 at GB-24, :43 remaining
The second interception was more of a bad throw by Mayfield but the defensive line did a great job of collapsing the pocket back into him and not giving him any room to step into the throw. This, combined with his shoulder injury, caused his pass to sail over the receiver and into the arms of Chandon Sullivan.
The Packers are in a cover-6 shell, cover-2 on the near hash, quarters on the far hash, and Chandon Sullivan locked on #2 in trips with safety help if #2 goes vertical. The defensive line is able to push the pocket into Mayfield’s throwing lane and he is unable to step into the throw properly. This causes the pass to sail on him. Rashan Gary and Dean Lowry, who ran a stunt with Preston Smith, were there in the backfield to force Mayfield’s off target throw.
On the ensuing drive, the Packers marched down the field again to score.
Third interception, 2nd quarter, 1st-and-10 at CLE-44, 2:00 remaining
On his first interception of the game, Rasul Douglas more than likely baited Mayfield into throwing the wheel route down the sideline. One common technique corners are taught to play in cover-3, which is what the Packers are in, is a “zebra midpoint 1/3rd” technique. The technique is more common in the Pete Carroll defensive system that gives defenses answers to playing multiple verticals in a base single-high coverage scheme.
The Browns are in a trips 3x1 in shotgun and motion the running back to create a four strong formation to flood the zone and mess with the coverage rules. The problem is the play call is familiar to the defense as it is a play the Packers offense uses with regular success. By motioning the running back, the offense is hoping a defender bites on the flat and opens space for a vertical route in a flooded zone.
Douglas, as the midpoint corner, plays his coverage between the #1 and #2 receivers so he has the ability to jump either vertical if it’s thrown. He peels off the new #2 and mid way between #1 and #2 and undercuts the throw by Mayfield as the receiver falls down. The pass floats a bit on Mayfield but likely would’ve been intercepted anyways.
Fourth interception, 4th quarter, 3rd-and-10 at 50, :50 remaining
On Douglas’s second interception, and their fourth of the game, the corner displayed an ability to get physical throughout the route and stayed in phase while running the receiver’s route for him at the top end.
The defense is in a cover-1 shell with a 5-man pressure underneath. The Browns are running a spot/dig high-low concept to create a throwing lane for the dig route to the left of a 3x1 trips formation on the single side. Douglas locks up with Peoples-Jones again and the two engage in contact/hand-fighting throughout the entirety of the route. Douglas gets a slight tug that allows him to get leverage at the top of the route and runs the top end of the route stem for the receiver.
At least three of the sacks recorded by the defense were there result of both high effort pursuit by the defensive line and the pass routes being covered downfield. One sack happened as Preston Smith beat his blocker immediately and tried to corral Mayfield but was unable to do so. This slowed down Mayfield’s reaction and allowed Gary to come in to clean it up.
The defensive rank does not do their performance this season any justice. The Packers defense is playing much better than the numbers suggest, something that will be important to watch in the coming weeks as their playoff tests do not get any easier after week’s 17 and 18. There’s every reason to believe they can keep it up with the possible return of Jaire Alexander to the starting lineup after being activated off of the injured reserve this week. When he plays is still up in the air but the fact that they activated him is a good sign for a defense that’s already strong.