Two months ago, Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry stated that safety Darnell Savage would be an “unbelievable” nickelback. With 2022 in the rearview and redemption on the horizon, Barry and Savage had a successful start to 2023 when the former first-round pick was plugged into the slot position, full-time, for the first time in two seasons.
Prior to last Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Vikings, the Packers’ primary nickel was either Rasul Douglas — who is now starting at outside cornerback in place of the injured Eric Stokes — or Keisean Nixon — who was limited to just three special teams snaps vs Minnesota as the potential All-Pro returner was still battling through a groin injury. Enter Savage.
Savage has gone through a rollercoaster of a season. Struggling as a tackler, he was benched in Week 12 against the Philadelphia Eagles after starting 57 of 57 available games in his Packers career as a safety. He then eventually replaced his own replacement, Rudy Ford, mid-game against the Miami Dolphins in Week 16. This Vikings game was set to be the first start for the former first-round pick, whose fifth-year option for 2023 was already picked up by Green Bay, since he was handed back the reigns.
Based on Acme Packing Company’s charting of the game, Savage played 35 of 41 slot snaps available before the Packers pulled their starters. The reason that both Savage (45) and Ford (50) got so many defensive snaps last week, their first time over a significant period of play, was that Ford came off the bench in these nickel sets to play high safety for the displaced Savage.
The slot alignment is where Savage made his pick-six against the Vikings. Lined up in coverage against receiver Adam Thielen, Savage was able to react to a broken-up pass and put six points on the board.
The other six slot snaps in the game went to fellow safety Innis Gaines, who played the slot when starting safety Adrian Amos was asked to play an inside linebacker role in the Packers’ nickel set out of dime (six defensive back) personnel. With Amos at linebacker and Gaines in the slot, Ford and Savage played the high safety positions together.
The deployment of those four safeties allowed Green Bay to play receiver Justin Jefferson, who had nine receptions for 184 yards and two touchdowns against the Packers in Week 1, with specific guidelines on crucial downs. If Jefferson was an outside receiver, Green Bay would typically play “cloud coverage” toward him — meaning that a cornerback would play a shallow zone to him with a safety playing a deeper zone over the top of him. If Jefferson lined up in the slot, the Packers often ran a bracket coverage, exhausting two players to double-cover him in man-to-man.
The result? Green Bay was up 41-3 before they swapped in their second-team defense against the Vikings midway through the fourth quarter on Sunday. Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins completed just 16 of 29 (55 percent) passes against the starting defense for 149 yards (5.1 yards per pass), three interceptions and two sacks.
The question now is if this was a game-planned solution for Jefferson or if the Packers will continue this strategy versus the Detroit Lions in Week 18 and potentially the postseason. Again, Nixon was the team’s starting slot until he was injured, so it’s uncertain if his return to the defensive side of the ball would push Savage back to full-time safety and Ford to the bench.
Either way, Green Bay’s pecking order in the secondary is otherwise clear. Outside of possibly Nixon, the Packers seem more confident in Savage in the slot right now than anyone else on the roster. Gaines currently fits in as the third slot on the depth chart behind Savage and Nixon. At safety, the next man up is Ford, but they’ll play Savage over him as long as Savage isn’t lining up in the slot.