Overall, the Green Bay Packers’ defenses struggled throughout much of 2022, primarily in the running game, as teams gashed the interior of the Packers' defense. As previously mentioned in the first article of this series, Green Bay finished 20th in Football Outsiders DVOA and 27th in EPA per play overall on defense in 2022. Those rankings were heavily weighed down by the run defense.
Versus the pass, the Packers' pass defense finished ninth in DVOA and 14th in drop-back EPA per play. By Week 9, the pass defense ranked 18th in DVOA. By the bye week, they ranked seventh in DVOA. By the end of the season, the pass defense ranked ninth overall and from Weeks 14-18, ranked second in the league.
Their four-game winning streak at the end of the season was kickstarted in large part due to the nine interceptions they grabbed over that span of games. In two of those games, they recorded six interceptions, including three versus the high-powered Miami Dolphins in a critical road win for Green Bay.
Defense starts to generate turnovers
In their three interceptions versus the Dolphins in Week 16, the Packers made some in-game adjustments that put the clamps on the Dolphins' high-powered offense after they hit on three explosive pass plays for 84-, 24- and 52-yard gains that led to two touchdowns.
In the second half, the Packers started sitting in more split safety/two-high coverage defenses (quarters, Tampa-2, etc.) to limit explosive passes downfield and started sitting in the middle of the field seams to take away the pass on run-pass option plays and other bread and butter middle of the field concepts the Dolphins like to run.
First interception, week 16 4Q, 14:08 remaining
The Packers are in a five-linebacker, two-defensive linemen defensive front playing a 6-1 front.
They have cover-6 behind it that turns into quarters coverage on the motion.
The Dolphins are running a play-action dagger concept after the motion by receiver Tyreek Hill.
The Packers' defense shifts into quads/quarters coverage and with an umbrella over the top of the routes. The underneath defenders zone off into the throwing lane and Tua forces a pass that’s high and over the out-stretched hands of Hill and into the hands of Jaire Alexander, who returned it for 23 yards.
Second interception, 4Q, 6:09 remaining
The second interception ended up being a miscommunication between Tua and running back Raheem Mostert but the Packers were protecting the seam to the near flat.
The defense shows two deep safeties pre-snap that rotates into a 3-deep/3-under fire zone called “Swill Philly” in the Fangio lineage.
Mostert ends up running what he called the wrong route in his post-game press conference availability and Tua looked to be throwing it where he thinks Mostert will turn to look for the ball. Most likely, they were trying to run a stick/flat concept but Mostert ended up running down the seam and linebacker De’Vondre Campbell picked the pass cleanly just outside the hash and returned it for 14 yards.
Third interception, 4Q, 1:34 remaining
On the final interception by Rasul Douglas, the coverage baited Tua into this throw. The Packers have employed this coverage regularly with good results, a version of Tampa-2 coverage. Its use under Joe Barry this season and some last season almost always comes on third down or in high-leverage situations for the defense. This particular coverage is “Nickel Brooklyn,” the Vic Fangio tree’s own version of Tampa-2 coverage.
Usually, Barry will drop a third safety into coverage as the middle run-through player between the safeties but here, Campbell zones off to the deep middle hole to carry a vertical route if necessary (middle run). The corners play a “smash flat” technique to jam and deny the outside receivers a free release and reroute them before playing the flat.
Douglas jams the number one receiver outside and then zones off when the receiver goes shallow underneath the coverage across the field. Douglas reads this out as a smash concept variant (corner by the slot with a receiver short underneath) so he zones off back under the corner route as Tua is throwing the pass. Tua left it short and probably didn’t anticipate Douglas getting there from a press alignment. Douglas returned it for five yards.
How can the Packers defense evolve and get better?
In pass coverage, the Packers' defense plays better when they present a two-deep safety coverage shell pre-snap that stays in a split safety coverage or rotates to some form of quarters, cover-6, or Tampa-2. Those coverages give them answers when playing some premier talent or young quarterbacks because they can often confuse and muddy the picture post-snap and force quarterbacks to speed up their process.
If Joe Barry wants to build on his successes from last season, then employing these coverages a little more will be a very effective way to do so. These examples from Week 10 of last season versus Dallas illustrate the complexity rotating coverages post-snap can present to the quarterback. On third downs versus the Cowboys in that game, Barry called more cover-2/invert cover-2/Tampa-2 “robber” coverages than he had all season to that point.
Cover-2 invert or Tampa-2 invert switches the responsibilities of usually a nickel defender and one of the deep safeties. This can be run from a three-safety deep defense that’s more common in the Baylor or Iowa State defensive schemes world where they invert the responsibilities of the corners and safeties as well.
On the first third down of the game, the Cowboys are running a smash-drive concept, a flood concept designed to overwhelm one side of the field.
The Packers are in a split safety hybrid coverage that is considered a two-deep, five-under coverage where the underneath coverage is playing man coverage across the board with the nickel aligned to the passing strength, the two receiver stack formation to the offense’s left. The safeties are playing cover-2 to the nickel side and quarters technique to the tight end side away from the pass strength.
Prescott drops back to pass but the quarters side defenders are giving no ground and keeping everything in front of them. He initially looks to the corner route but it is covered top-down and the timing is as the receiver and defender collide with each other.
Dak threw a pass so errant that I think there was a miscommunication somewhere between him and his receivers (something that happened a lot in this game for Dallas) plus the combination of that and the defenders being physical and throwing off the timing of the routes caused the pass to fall incomplete to no one.
The Packers have also employed some cover-2/tampa-2 robber coverages this season and some last season and it almost always comes on third down in high-leverage situations for the defense. This particular coverage is “Nickel Brooklyn,” the Fangio tree’s own version of Tampa-2 coverage.
The wrinkle Barry employs is instead of the middle linebacker dropping to the deep middle hole to carry a vertical route (middle run), the middle safety in the three-safety shell to the deep part of the field takes the middle run responsibility and plays the vertical route over the middle from the top down. The corners play a “smash flat” technique to jam and deny the outside receivers a free release and reroute them before playing the flat.
The Cowboys are running “989” double go which is a pass concept with two vertical go routes outside (the 9 route in the route tree) and a post/middle read route by the slot receiver inside (the “8” route). The middle read route is dependent on the coverage. Against two deep safeties, the read becomes a bender/post where the receiver splits the two defenders more upfield in “middle of the field open.”
Against single high coverage (cover-1 or cover-3) “middle of the field closed” the receiver breaks across the safety’s face straight across the field like on a dig route.
At the snap, all three Packers safeties rotate to cover-2 robber. Safety Rudy Ford, the deep middle hole safety, backpedals as Lamb thinks he can get upfield between the safeties and breaks on the pass as Prescott throws it.
Lamb should have either adjusted his route or Dak should have thrown it over Ford’s head. Either way, there seemed to be some confusion rather than miscommunication because the Packers had not previously run this version of cover-2 robber, so the Cowboys likely have never seen it.
Bracketing the best receivers
The Packers were embarrassed in Week 1 at Minnesota. Justin Jefferson had 184 receiving yards in that game with two touchdowns. Last season he racked up 1,800 receiving yards total and in the three previous games before the Week 17 game in Green Bay, Jefferson racked up 479 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns.
In Week 17, he posted just 15 receiving yards on one catch and no touchdowns. How did the Packers do it? By playing zone and man bracket coverages. In this game, Barry’s game plan gave Jefferson a heavy dose of cover-1 “double jersey” and cover-2 bracket coverage principles to bracket Jefferson.
They played cover-1 double jersey, a bracket coverage to a specific player in the game plan, if Jefferson was in the slot, and cover-2 corner squat/underneath with 1/2 field safety shell coverage if Jefferson was outside.
Cover-1 Double Jersey #
Cover-1 double jersey is a bracket coverage and the Packers played a few snaps of it throughout the game against Jefferson. The rule in the slot is “deuce” where the bracket comes from the overhang defender with outside leverage and the safety with inside leverage. The rule out wide is “cone” with the corner maintaining outside leverage and the safety playing robber with inside leverage.
The coverage is game-plan specific and lets the defense follow the #1 receiver wherever he goes with a bracket from the safety.
Here, the Packers have what would be considered a “deuce” tag with a bracket on Jefferson in the slot with Jaire Alexander in the slot and Rudy Ford the safety with the inside bracket. The Vikings run a good horizontal man coverage beater with Jefferson on the dig route and a short choice route underneath that pulls a defender out from the middle of the field.
Ford comes down and robs the inside and Cousins has to look elsewhere for the throw. Kenny Clark hits Cousins as he throws and the pass is behind Adam Thielen and batted away by Rasul Douglas.
Later in the first quarter, the Vikings tried to run Jefferson on a dig over the middle with the choice route underneath that opens up the middle of the field against man coverage, similar to the play above. Alexander has help this time from Adrian Amos as the robber safety to that side. Here they’re playing “cone” with Alexander outside and Amos with inside leverage as the robber.
Amos drives on the dig from the top down so Cousins looks back to the right and finds his check down. The main purpose of these man coverage brackets is to give the defenders better leverage against really good receivers and put them in better positions to defend passes or discourage the throw.
Cover-8 is the Fangio tree for cover-2 and nickel to the passing strength and quarters/cover-4 coverage to the weak side (Half-Quarter-Quarter). This is the opposite of cover-6 where the quarters side is to the strong side away from the nickel.
In cover-8, the slot defender plays the vertical curl zone and has a squat/flat corner to his side and a deep safety over the top. The vertical curl defender is in a prime position to not only help play a bracket coverage, but can also peel and cut off another route in his field of vision.
Jefferson is in the slot here with the nickel in the vertical curl in coverage. Safety Innis Gaines is playing over the top with a bit of inside leverage and a safety with help over the top. The Vikings are running a dagger concept and as the outside receiver breaks in on the dig, Gaines peels off and stays in the vertical curl as Jefferson is picked up by the deep safety.
Cousins is already moving through his progressions here and sees the Packers defense squeezing the throwing lanes and doesn’t have anywhere to go so he takes off running for a 19-yard gain.
Playing more split safety coverages has its advantages as shown above and in the previous article, we also saw some disadvantages, mainly in stopping the run. It’s not easy to play with two-deep safeties against the run, especially if the safeties are unwilling to tackle or miss tackles or when the defensive interior players can’t hold their gaps long enough for the safeties to come down, all issues with the Packers defense last season.
The addition of Lukas Van Ness along the defensive line with interior players Tedarrell Slaton, Devonte Wyatt, and Kenny Clark should bolster the run defense. Getting Rashan Gary back will also help.
In addition to this, adding depth at safety with the signing of Jonathan Owens, who will likely compete with Rudy Ford to start as the second safety next to Darnell Savage. Owens also brings a nice dimension to the run defense as a safety that can make open-field tackles.
The Packers did what they needed to do to address personnel issues on the field this offseason. Time will tell if there will be a shift in the scheme or if they feel confident staying in a predominantly quarters/2-deep coverage defense. This year will tell us a lot about Barry and how the Packers plan to address what’s traditionally been the weaker side of the ball for multiple seasons now.