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Packers Film Room: ‘Penny’ front, leaky run defense, & Sammy Watkins’ usage

Today we break down the Packers “penny” front defense as well as look at the run defense and how Sammy Watkins was used.

Syndication: Journal Sentinel Mike De Sisti / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Green Bay Packers defense played better in week two than they did in their opening game, surrendering just 10 points in a 27-10 win over their division rival the Chicago Bears. Pass rushers Preston Smith and Rashan Gary recorded three total sacks (Smith with two and Gary with one) while Jaire Alexander recorded an interception.

The defense held Bears quarterback Justin Fields to just seven completions on 11 attempts for 70 yards. In the run game, however, they surrendered 160 yards on 19 attempts between the Bears two running backs David Montgomery and Khalil Herbert.

The run defense was a bit alarming and is right now an area of concern which we will look at later in this article. Plus we’ll take a look at Sammy Watkins usage. First, let’s take a look at how the Packers were able to sack Justin Fields and what coverages and fronts they played to execute this to near perfection.

Penny front and coverages

The Packers rely on fronts commonly associated with Vic Fangio and Brandon Staley. A lot of defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s scheme principles are borrowed from his time working with Brandon Staley in 2020 with the Los Angeles Rams. While not exclusively off that tree, there are a lot of similarities primarily because they fit the Packers defensive personnel.

One similarity is their usage of the “penny” front, 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, five defensive backs).

The front relies on a “3-0-3” defensive line alignment, which is two defensive ends 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 limit 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.

Against the pass, it gives the defensive front five single 1-on-1 matchups with the offensive line. And on two occasions, the defense was able to sack Justin Fields through a combination of sticky coverage and these 1-on-1’s.

First sack, 2nd quarter 14:47, 1st-and-10 @ CHI 20

The Bears come out in 11 personnel here (one running back, one tight end) and line up in a 3x1 nub trips. Nub designates the tight end in-line on the line of scrimmage instead of in a flexed out position out wide. They are running a play action sail/flood concept from trips with clear out route, a corner route from #3 and a post route from #2. The tight end runs a shallow crosser from the other side to “flood” the zone.

The Packers are in a 3-3-5 penny front with cover-6 coverage behind it, cover-2 to the tight end side, quarters to the trips side. The defenders over the trips are playing, the nickel defender and the corner. Safety Darnell Savage (No. 26) rotates down to the box as the buzz safety.

The rotation of Savage down to the quarters flat zone allows him to get under the corner route and mess with Fields’ progression read. Fields likely wanted the corner route here, as it is common to throw because the post and clear out route lift the coverage. The pass defense was ready for this one. Savage undercuts the route taking away the throwing lane.

Up front, the Bears offensive line holds decently well but when Fields pulls the ball down to scramble, Preston Smith is able to chase Fields down by going all the way around the pocket to sack him.

Sack two, 3rd quarter 14:24, 2nd-and-3 @ CHI 29

On this sack, Rashan Gary (No. 52) shows why he is one of the league’s top pass rushers. He is lined up way outside of the Bears tight end in a super wide-9 alignment. This is an advantageous position to rush the passer from and he is rushing against Bears right tackle Larry Borom (No. 75).

The Bears are lined up in a trips formation again running off the coverage for the pivot route underneath from the #3 receiver in trips. They need three yards and this is the best way to pick it up, with Darnell Mooney (No. 11) 1-on-1 with linebacker DeVondre Campbell (No. 59). But Campbell is a very good linebacker and sticks to Mooney throughout the entire route.

The pass coverage is cover-1 and with every route blanketed, there is no where for Fields to escape to, especially as Gary collapses the right side of the pocket with a nice speed to power bull rush on Borom. He pushes Borom back into Fields before disengaging and sacking the quarterback.

Packers run defense struggles

The Packers run defense struggled in week one versus the Vikings and gave 126 yards on 28 carries. That trend continued and got worse in week two against the Bears, who’s two running backs rushed 19 total times for 160 yards. David Montgomery, who ran for the bulk of those carries and yards (15/122) averaged 8.1 yards per carry and Khalil Herbert (4/38) averaged 9.5 yards per carry.

Neither running back scored a single touchdown but the defense left some gaps due to missed assignments or lack of aggressiveness in fitting the run.

First, rookie Quay Walker was out of position on a few runs and did not fit his gap assignments well early on this game. Run fits change with the run action. Linebackers fit the inside gaps on inside runs or hammer the fullback/lead puller or blocker on either side to spill the ball carrier. On outside runs, they fast flow and act as force and spill players on the edge to force and spill the defender back inside.

On cutbacks, the linebacker away from the call must read the running back and for this inside run, Walker would track the running back’s inside shoulder, keeping his inside shoulder to the running back. When Montgomery cuts back, Walker does everything right until he lets Montgomery get outside as he falls back to take the cutback

He falls back or “folds” into the backside C-gap but stops in an attempt to make a tackle. Because he stopped his feet, he allowed the receiver to block him from the side, allowing the running back to cut off this leverage and gain chunk yardage.

On the same drive, on an outside sweep run to the defense’s left, Walker is the linebacker away from the call again and therefore has to fast flow over the top to fill.

He cannot get caught in the traffic and take an underneath path to the running back. He gets cut off by the center working to the second level and he should already be outside and over the top of the center in the second level. These are rookie mistakes that will be corrected with time.

Also in the run game, while the penny front above was great against the pass, it did not fare so well versus the run, something it should do with ease. But players were out of position and slow to react.

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 2-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 as needed.

That’s not what happens here. Kingsley Enagbare (No. 55) sets the edge and stays in the C-gap while the gap-and-half defensive end Dean Lowry (No. 94) pressures the B-gap and the edge defense spills the ball carrier back inside to Jarran Reed.

Jarran Reed (No. 90) has a prime opportunity as his defense rallies to the ball carrier to tackle him for a minimal gain but he completely misses the tackle.

Whether it was the Penny front or 3-4 base defense, the Packers were gashed due to bad run fits and poor tackling. This must be cleaned up going forward.

Sammy Watkins’ role becomes a little clearer

Prior to week one, I wrote an article for Acme Packing Company that laid out how I thought the Packers might use wide receiver Sammy Watkins in the passing game. In it, I showed what routes he primarily had success with under Matt LaFleur when both were with the Rams in 2017.

Through the use of play action “drift/strike” routes, run-pass option quick slants, play action deep shots, and RPOs in various goal line situations, it became clear the Packers were looking for someone who could replicate some of the lost production when Davante Adams chose to sign with the Raiders. On Sunday night, he was featured in at least three of the concepts I covered.


Watkins caught two passes on drift/strike, a play action concept designed to take advantage of a quick strike route over the middle at a depth of around 10 yards in the space behind the linebackers reading the run fake.

One pass came out of the shotgun and the other pass came from under center. No matter which way it is run, it is probably the simplest and most effective play action concept the Shanahan coaching tree regularly runs.

RPO dart

The RPO dart is one another way to get Watkins and his speed involved in the passing game.

Rodgers reads the pre-snap, takes the snap and immediately throws the ball out to Watkins on the left of the offense but he’s unable to bring the pass in as it falls incomplete.

Corner post

Rodgers threw a deep shot late in the game downfield to Watkins on a corner post route where Watkins sells the corner route for a couple of steps before breaking back across the field.

Rodgers found him deep for a 55 yard completion when the single high safety tried to cut the crossing route from the top down and Watkins raced right past him.

Overall, it was a better week for the Packers offense and defense though there are some issues that need to be cleaned up. The passing game found a much better rhythm and the defense tightened up when it needed to though they still need to find ways to close the gaps in the run and make the tackles that were there. It does not get any easier with the Packers on the road in Tampa Bay to face the 2-0 Buccaneers.