One of the defining plays of the Green Bay Packers’ 17-13 loss to the Las Vegas Raiders on Monday Night Football was a third-quarter dropback when 265-pound pass-rusher Preston Smith was asked to cover former Packers receiver Davante Adams in the slot. That play call has a time and place, but calling it in that situation against that formation with that matchup in the slot won’t earn defensive coordinator Joe Barry any new friends.
First of all, we need to talk about what the call was on the defensive side of the ball. The Packers were in a “3 Deep, 3 Under” defense similar to a “stock” Cover 3 zone with a safety playing the deep middle of the field and the cornerbacks playing the deep sidelines. If you want a clean diagram of a basic Cover 3 call, you can find it below courtesy of our friends at Pro Football Focus.
The difference between this “stock” Cover 3 and what the Packers ran on this play was that Green Bay only had three underneath defenders in coverage, because the team sent five pass-rushers at the quarterback instead of the typical four. Those three underneath defenders are why the called variation of Cover 3 is generally known as “3 Up, 3 Under.” You can find a diagram of the Packers defenders’ responsibilities below.
Now, here’s where we run into our first problem. This 3 Up, 3 Under coverage is very common in the NFL, but teams usually don’t run it with a stack linebacker blitzing — as the Packers did with Eric Wilson, who was brought into the game after an injury to starter Quay Walker — and a pass-rusher (in this case Smith) dropping into coverage.
What possessed Barry to make this call? I’m not sure.
It’s not uncommon for 3-4 teams to drop an outside linebacker into coverage in base defense looks, as it’s really the only way to “play coverage” with seven players in that personnel group. Maybe it was a tendency breaker at that down and distance or that area of the field. Either way, the team should have checked out of the play when they saw what the Raiders came out in.
I cannot understate this: The formation that the Raiders put on the field is probably the worst one that the Packers could have faced in this situation. One of the weaknesses of 3 Up, 3 Under coverage is that because the underneath coverage is down a man compared to “stock” Cover 3, a single linebacker has to cover a lot of ground in the middle of the field. He has the almost impossible task of having to track inside breaking routes from both sides of the field at the same time.
This is one reason why there’s a certain school of thought that believes that you cannot expect results from this coverage when the offense is in “spread” formations. In this case, the Raiders made Green Bay cover the full width of the field by coming out in an empty look that had targets line up outside the numbers on both sidelines, which in theory should have occupied both the cornerbacks playing the deep zones to the sideline and the flat defenders who were expected to cover shallow zones in that area. One of those flat defenders was Smith.
To make a long story short, Isaiah McDuffie, the lone off-ball linebacker who didn’t blitz on this play, was hung out to dry because of the width of the formation and his assignment.
If you watch the play with this new context, you’ll probably notice that Smith — lined up in the slot at the top of the screen — is actually playing Adams with outside leverage. On paper, he’s supposed to take #2 (in this case Adams) to the flat. If #2 goes inside, he’s supposed to work back to #1 in the flat. If Adams runs a slant and gets away from Smith, it’s not because Smith isn’t doing his job — though, who knows how that track race would have turned out — but because Adams is now entering McDuffie’s zone. At this point, against this formation, McDuffie’s zone now covers just about everything in between the numbers and below the post safety covering the deep middle of the field. Lucky him.
This 3 Up, 3 Under coverage isn’t a bad defense in isolation, but it’s horrible for the situation. In a world where you’re facing a “condensed” — rather than “spread” — formation, it can be very useful. An example of a condensed formation, from an APC article back in 2021, is shown above. In a situation where the “outside” receivers are just a few yards removed from the offensive tackles, a linebacker playing the shallow middle of the field isn’t such a big deal. It’s only when the Raiders widened the windows between McDuffie and the flat defenders with their spread-out empty formation that McDuffie is put in a no-win situation, no matter who would have been in the slot “matched up” against Adams with outside leverage on a slant.
Ultimately, that slant route went 21 yards for Adams’ longest gain of the night, assisting the Raiders in taking a four-point lead that they never gave up.
There are plenty of solutions for the issues that the Raiders presented in this specific play. Defenses can check into new plays based on their opponent’s look just as well as offenses can. In this scenario, you’d hope that someone on the defense would have noticed the empty spread formation — featuring five potential pass-catchers stretching from sideline to sideline —and gotten the team into a better coverage on a passing down.
That falls on defensive coordinator Joe Barry. I would be interested in hearing if the team had a way to check out of those types of looks. I know that both of the team’s preferred starting inside linebackers and starting safety Darnell Savage were out of the game at that point, so I’m unsure if this is a “we didn’t have a check for that” type of failure or simply a “the guy we relied to make the adjustment didn’t see it because he wasn’t prepared as a backup coming into the game” type of failure. Either way, Barry isn’t getting any benefit of the doubt from the Packers’ faithful.