The Green Bay Packers run defense has struggled all season and the Sunday night game is yet another microcosm of everything wrong with that phase of the defense. The defense gave up 104 rushing yards on 21 carries to the Buffalo Bills running backs, ~5 yards per carry, including multiple runs that went for 7+ yards per carry. They gave up an additional 49 rushing yards on quarterback scrambles to Josh Allen.
Currently, through eight weeks, the run defense ranks 29th in the NFL in EPA per play at +.050 and 28th in run success rate at 46.5%. That means that opposing offenses are gaining nearly one successful rushing attempt every two rushing attempts. Per Sharp Football Analysis, a rush attempt is considered successful when it gains at least 40% of yards-to-go on 1st down, 60% of yards-to-go on 2nd down and 100% of yards-to-go on 3rd or 4th down.
Players are reportedly concerned and lack confidence in the defensive staff per reporting that was done on Monday after the Bills game by ESPN staff writer Rob Demovsky:
According to sources close to members of the Packers’ defense, players have grown frustrated with the defensive scheme and playcalling. One source said there has been “a declining confidence in the defensive scheme and what’s being called, and it’s led to overall frustration with the defense.” Another source confirmed that sentiment.
The issue with the run defense seems to be a combination of scheme, players playing out of position, and players hesitating in filling their run assignments in the second level. This is an issue I have briefly covered throughout this season. And it does not look like any of these issues will be corrected any time soon.
Penny front issues
Joe Barry is playing a blend of schemes (which is also a problem) as the defensive coordinator right now. He’s implemented some of the Fangio defensive scheme fronts and principles with his usage of the “Penny” front.
The Penny front is a sub-package front that allows a defense to play the run effectively with two deep safeties. The front is a 5-1 front and the personnel grouping is run out of a 3-3-5 group (three defensive linemen, three linebackers, and five defensive backs.)
The front relies on a “3-0-3” defensive line alignment, which is two in the B-gaps and a nose tackle over center (Bear front) or sometimes a “tite” front alignment with a 4i-0-4i alignment, the “4i” being a shade over the inside shoulder of the tackle.
Outside of the three down linemen are two pass rushers, usually stand-up linebackers in a wide-5 or wide-9 technique alignment (wide-5 is outside the tackle with no tight end, and wide-9 is outside the tight end). This 5-man front allows the defense to comfortably play with two-deep safeties against the run but also limits the downfield passing attack. The coverage typically rotates down with a safety who has no single run fit assignment and is allowed to fit the run as needed.
Gap assignments in the Penny front allow the defense to fit the run from two deep safeties or at least remove one safety from the fit to allow him to read and fill as needed. To do this, the defensive players up front must play an extra half of a gap depending on where the run goes to. The 3-tech defensive ends in the B-gap play a “gap-and-a-half” by playing the B-gaps and squeezing the outside half of the A-gaps while the nose tackle two-gap’s the inside half of both A-gaps.
The idea is to clog the middle while being able to out-gap the defense on the edges by playing their primary gaps and allowing the linebackers and safeties to fill them as needed.
The play was doomed the second the ball was snapped. First, the run call was a good one as it allowed the Bills to get an extra blocker on the edge to neutralize outside linebacker Rashan Gary as he tried to “box the fit” by attacking the outside shoulder of the puller. He got driven to the turf.
Second, the front is in a 3-1-3 with the defensive ends in the B-gaps and the outside linebackers outside the tackle and tight in a 5-technique and 9-technique. Usually “Penny” front alignment is 3-0-3 so the three down linemen can play the gap-and-a-half technique.
Now there is an A-gap bubble. Third, Dean Lowry (No. 94), is unable to defeat the double-team block. The double team occurs because the Bills have a puller.
There is no defender in the A-gap, the B-gap is blocked, and Gary loses the edge. However, the defense could have still contained this play for about five yards had the safety and corner also not overrun the alley trying to fit the run.
De’Vondre Campbell, as the backside lever player, keeps backside leverage but cannot get over the top of the tackle once the run gets the edge and gets pushed out of the play. There was no defender to spill the ball carrier back inside adequately enough to slow the play down.
6-1 (40) defensive front
Later in the game, the Packers are playing with a 6-1 front defense that got gashed for a 17-yard gain. This was a defensive front that Vic Fangio modified to counter the wide zone teams in the Shanahan tree and is widely employed by teams that play those offenses, also known as a 40 front.
The 6-1 front prevents zone running teams from using combo and double team blocks to open running lanes for the running back because it forces each blocker along the line of scrimmage into 1-on-1 blocks that they have to sustain rather than being able to execute combo blocks/scoop blocks up to the next level. The defensive front allows the second-level defenders to slow play the run and fit as needed along the front since no blocker should be able to reach them.
The Bills are running duo with a seven-man blocking surface that includes an extra offensive lineman lined up outside the tight end to the offense’s right side. The front actually holds up decently well versus this blocking scheme though Dean Lowry again gets driven to the turf. He still holds the B-gap and forces the running back to bounce outside the tight end where safety Darnell Savage tries to fit.
Savage completely whiffs on the tackle in the hole and the running back gains 17. Had Lowry also kept his feet, he might have been able to shed the blocker a little more effectively and at least slowed down the running back.
It is time to see what the depth behind players like Dean Lowry (like Devonte Wyatt) can do and find ways to work TJ Slaton in as well. Unfortunately, there is nothing to be done about the safety and corner depth, and they also played poorly in the passing game as well. Barry has a lot to clean up and the schedule does not get any easier in the second half of the season.