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A more hybrid defense could help struggling ILB De’Vondre Campbell bounce back

The Packers should think about divorcing personnel from alignment.

Chicago Bears v Green Bay Packers Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Green Bay Packers' defense is struggling this season, particularly in the ground game. Yes, the Packers are allowing the most receiving yards in 2022 to crossing routes through the air, but more importantly their two-high shell defense isn’t stopping the run nearly as well as many had hoped. According to Pro Football Focus’ Mike Renner, Green Bay allows .25 expected points per play on average in their two-high defenses this season, more than 50 percent worse than the 30th-ranked team in the league. Only the Miami Dolphins are in the conversation for playing run defense as poorly as the Packers have with two safeties playing deep in 2022.

One of the biggest reasons for this is the regression of inside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell. When receiver Davante Adams was traded to the Las Vegas Raiders, it wasn’t just the draft picks exchanged that were supposed to improve this Packers team but also the cap space that Adams’ absence freed up. That same cap space was used to retain players like Campbell, who almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to be re-signed by the team if Adams inked another deal with Green Bay.

Coming off of a First-Team All-Pro season, Campbell signed a five-year, $50 million contract this past offseason which very likely locks him into a roster spot until at least the 2025 season, at which point he will be a 32-year-old. In terms of pure cash, no off-ball linebacker is going to make as much as Campbell will in 2022.

Despite that, Campbell has been struggling. Take a look at the video of some of Campbell’s plays from 2022 below to see for yourself:

Per The Athletic’s Matt Schneidman, Campbell had already missed more tackles going into the team’s Week 5 matchup with the New York Giants than Campbell did in his entire All-Pro season. The drafting of first-round pick Quay Walker was supposed to stabilize the Packers’ defense and allow them to play more nickel sets, but that nickel transition hasn’t been helping Campbell. One of the selling points for Campbell as an All-Pro last season was that the Packers were playing so many penny looks, a 3-4 front on the line of scrimmage that featured just one inside linebacker. That allowed Campbell to play sideline-to-sideline, a role in which he looked far more comfortable than the nickel-heavy spot he’s been playing in 2022.

Green Bay’s nickel defense, with two inside linebackers, in Week 1.
Green Bay’s penny defense, with one inside linebacker, in Week 1.

Over the last two games, the Packers have played just 17 of 109 snaps (15.6 percent) in penny. It’s understandable that Green Bay wants to play their first-round linebacker, but their lack of quality defensive linemen (other than Kenny Clark) and Campbell looking less athletic and physical in nickel is hard to overlook.

Maybe the best way for the Packers to set the defense straight this season is some sort of mix between their nickel and penny formations, which they typically use in the same situations. Could the team play penny with nickel personnel? In theory, one of Rashan Gary or Preston Smith (outside linebackers) could line up on a guard with one of Campbell or Walker (inside linebackers) playing on the edge. At the very least, it would keep opposing offensive coordinators on their toes as the Packers’ personnel packages wouldn’t outright declare how Green Bay’s defense would line up while they’re still in the huddle.

It’s just a thought, but jamming three bodies on the defensive interior (penny) generally dissuades teams from running the ball, not because of the personnel but because of how hard it is to pull guards when they’re both covered. If Green Bay can accomplish that with nickel personnel, which is the best way to get “their best six” box defenders on the field, even better. If they can dissuade the run, get their best players on the field and get 2021 Campbell back, that could go even further.