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Understanding the Packers defense pt. 1: How does Green Bay match opposing WRs?

Let’s get into the nitty gritty of Joe Barry’s scheme.

NFL: AUG 19 Preseason - Saints at Packers Photo by Larry Radloff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This offseason, Acme Packing Company will do a deep dive into the Green Bay Packers’ defensive structure and how it changed over the 2022 season. We’ll break down these pieces into shorter, more consumable reads so they don’t come off as walls of text. With defensive coordinator Joe Barry set to return for 2023, it’s worth understanding why head coach Matt LaFleur feels as though this defense has the right tools to compete at a high level in the NFL despite the team finishing 20th in defensive DVOA (31st in rush defense) last season.

For the first portion of this series, let’s take a look at the most basic footprint a defense has: personnel. Specifically, we’re going to note how the Packers match their personnel to the number of receivers that opposing offenses field.

Football is a situational game (read about it from Bill Walsh himself) so we’re going to focus on “base downs” for this post. Excluded snaps include the red zone and third downs, as we attempt to focus on base downs in the middle of the field, which compose most of football games.

When you hear of personnel groups on the offensive side of the ball, you’ll often hear a two-digit code. The first digit signifies the number of backs on the field (excluding the quarterback) while the second digit tells you how many tight ends there are. For example, 11 personnel (one back, one end) and 20 personnel (two back, no end) are both three-receiver sets.

On the defensive side of the ball, personnel packages can generally be indexed into three groups: base defenses (four defensive backs), nickel defenses (five defensive backs) and dime defenses (six defensive backs). There are variations inside each of those groups, but if you’re looking at how defenses match the number of opposing receivers on the field, you really only need the count of defensive backs.

What we’ll consider “matching” opposing offensive personnel is playing nickel (five defensive backs) to three or more receiver sets or playing base (four defensive backs) to two or fewer receiver sets. We’ll consider the defense going “heavy” when they play base (four defensive backs) to three or more receivers and the defense going “light” when they play dime (six defensive backs) to three or fewer receivers or nickel (five defensive backs) to two or fewer receivers.

With that out of the way, let’s take a look at the numbers:

Four Wide (5 snaps, 0.7 percent) [10 personnel]

  • 5: Nickel (match)

Three Wide (455 snaps, 66.8 percent) [11, 20 personnel]

  • 396: Nickel (match)
  • 52: Base (heavy)
  • 7: Dime (light)

Two Wide (190 snaps, 27.9 percent) [12, 21 personnel]

  • 134: Base (match)
  • 56: Nickel (light)

One Wide (31 snaps, 4.6 percent) [13, 22 personnel]

  • 27: Base (match)
  • 4: Nickel (light)

The vast majority of the snaps the Packers’ defense saw in 2022 on standard downs were against two- and three-receiver looks (94.7 percent). While opposing offenses might have played with four wide at times — from a formation perspective — at least one of those players — from a personnel perspective — was a tight end.

For the most part, Green Bay’s defense matched personnel by the book. On 82.5 percent of base downs, the Packers “matched” their number of defensive backs to the offense’s number of receivers. They played “light” (9.8 percent) slightly more often than they played “heavy” (7.6 percent) last year.


Green Bay playing base to 11 personnel.


Green Bay playing dime to 11 personnel.


Green Bay playing base to 11 personnel.

For whatever it’s worth, the Fangio quarters-heavy tree — which is where the Packers' defense stems from — is noted for playing “light” against two-wide looks. This is apparent in the personnel charting, as Green Bay played nickel to 12 and 21 personnel (two-receiver sets) on 56 of 190 snaps (29.5 percent) last season. They even played nickel to 13 and 22 personnel (one-receiver sets) on about 13 percent of those downs.

What’s interesting is that for some reason they played heavy to 11 and 20 personnel offenses by playing a base defense on 11 percent of their opportunities. On paper, their raw counts suggest that they play “light” around as often as they play “heavy”, but that’s only because of how often they’re seeing three-receiver (11 and 20 personnel) sets compared to two-receiver (12 and 21 personnel) looks. From a percentage standpoint, their most notable tendency in terms of breaking from personnel “matching” is by playing two-receiver sets with a six-man box, which then puts a slot defender in a position to play in a linebacker role.