In 2022, the Green Bay Packers defense looked to take the next step with Joe Barry at the helm, implementing his own version of a Vic Fangio-style split safety scheme. While Fangio’s defenses are known for being top-5 or -7 in the league in any given year, Barry’s defenses so far have finished 20th (2022) and 22nd (2021) in Football Outsiders DVOA and 27th (2022) and 19th (2021) in EPA/play.
This has not been good enough for a defense that boasts such star players are Kenny Clark, Rashan Gary (though Gary was injured halfway into 2022), Jaire Alexander, and Preston Smith. Of course, in 2022 the Packers struggled to stop the run while the secondary held its own against the pass. Unfortunately, for as good as the secondary was, their run support left a lot to be desired.
This season, Rudy Ford presumably steps in at safety in place of Adrian Amos, who left in free agency for the New York Jets. Devonte Wyatt and TJ Slaton will slide in along the defensive front after the departures of Dean Lowry and Jarran Reed, themselves not big losses as both Reed and Lowry were two of the main culprits in a season-long struggle against the run.
And in the first round of the NFL draft, the Packers looked to bolster their defensive front with their first-round draft pick selection, Lukas Van Ness out of the University of Iowa, who is a very strong defensive end against the run, can set an edge and is hard to move off his spot.
So when and where did it go poorly for the defense and when did the turnaround happen? The rest of this article and the next in this series will look at the highs and lows and what the scheme truly offers the personnel and vice versa. Plus, a breakdown of the defensive fronts, their strengths and weaknesses, and which ones the Packers should stay away from in the future.
What went wrong in 2022?
The Packers' run defense was one of the worst in the league. They were ranked 31st in the NFL in DVOA versus the run, 31st in rush EPA/play, and 31st in run success rate. That’s…horrible. And it was through some combination of schematic challenges and player execution through poor tackling and missed assignments.
Schematic challenges - “Penny” 3-3-5 front and its execution issues
The Packers relied 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 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 five-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 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.
Schematic weaknesses versus New York Jets
The defense stayed in their 2-4-5 nickel defense and a 3-3-5 penny front defense when the Jets were up 24-10 and grinding the clock with the running game late. The defense had two defensive linemen, four linebackers, and five defensive backs on the field as the Jets posted gains of 12, 12 and 25 yards to get into scoring position for a field goal late in the fourth quarter. They gave up another eight-yard run on this drive in their 3-4 base personnel.
Putting five defensive backs in on obvious running downs with that score is inexcusable from a defensive coordinator whose defense has already struggled to stop the run this season. The problem is, their other nickel front that is designed to stop the run has also been inefficient at times, and the Packers gave up 25 yards on the toss play. Their penny front has been gashed in the run game, a front that is designed to stop the run and allow a defense to gain numbers versus the pass.
The other issue is personnel usage in these situations. Tedarrell Slaton played 20 snaps but only saw two on that final drive and was out-snapped by Dean Lowry by 12 snaps. Devonte Wyatt played just seven snaps all game and none on that final drive. Yet, when the line-up includes both Slaton and Wyatt inside, the run defense does not give up more than three yards per carry, per the NFL’s Game Statistics and Information website. That is a problem with an obvious solution.
Player execution versus Buffalo
A season-long struggle against the run while in their “penny” 3-3-5 front continued well into Week 8 versus the Bills.
This 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 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 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.
Later in the game, the Packers are playing with a 6-1 front defense that gets 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.
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 feet, he might have been able to shed the blocker a little more effectively and at least slowed down the running back.
Eagles and quarterback running game gash Packers defense for 363 rushing yards
The Packers run defense improved after the late season bye week but not before getting gashed for 363 rushing yards by the Eagles, including 157 rushing yards from quarterback Jalen Hurts, however, 87 of his rushing yards came off scrambles in the passing game. Not good, but not totally terrible either.
Overall, the defense did just fine versus mobile quarterbacks in the designed read option plays but were hit hard by scrambling quarterbacks with some mobility.
In part two, we’ll break down where the turnaround occurred and what to expect for in 2023 if the Packers want to continue to build on their late-season defensive successes.