Last season, the Green Bay Packers proved that Dom Capers got something right. Stay with me on this.
When he began sacrificing size up front for speed, playing more nickel, and hoping to be more disruptive with speed, Capers realized the evolution of the passing game required a fundamental change in the way defenses prioritized getting stops. Giving a team an advantage running the ball was a trade-off worth making and if Capers had more capable players in the secondary, endured better health from his key pass rushers, or simply had a more modern plan for addressing opposing quarterbacks, it may have paid off.
Capers took a lot of heat from Packers fans because the run defense often suffered. Complaints about the Packers playing a “4-1” or “3-2” defense were made out of an antiquated notion about how the game is played (mixed with the kind of macho nonsense permeating most comment sections of many sports websites).
Mike Pettine’s arrival in Green Bay won’t alter the approach to defending opposing offenses. Pettine insisted from Day 1, the top priority for the Packers was stopping teams through the air, something, at which, Pettine’s defenses have historically had incredible success accomplishing.
Here’s the list of his passing defenses by DVOA
2009 Jets: 1st
2010 Jets: 7th
20111 Jets: 2nd
2012 Jets: 10th
2013 Bills: 2nd
2014 Browns: 2nd
2015 Browns: 27th
Leading six top-10 passing defenses in seven years of coaching across three different teams is essentially an unprecedented feat in modern football. It’s a credit to Pettine’s flexibility and adaptability to adjust to his players.
Looking at his run defense rankings may give you some idea of how Pettine accomplished such a milestone.
Here are his run defense rankings by DVOA:
2009 Jets: 7th
2010 Jets: 2nd
2011 Jets: 4th
2012 Jets: 15th
2013 Bills: 19th
2014 Browns: 31st
2015 Browns: 26th
In order to remain effective covering, disguising, and defending against the ever-evolving spread attacks in the NFL, Pettine moved to more multiple safety looks, downsizing his lineups and making them more vulnerable to the ground game.
Think about how incredible that 2014 Browns season was: that defense finished 2nd against the pass and 31st against the run. That’s a disaster in one entire phase of defense right? But here’s the silver lining: overall, that Cleveland defense finished 11th by DVOA.
Aaron Rodgers would kill for the 11th-ranked defense, no matter how it came to pass.
Stopping the run is a cliche that goes beyond adage or even truism. Teams have preached this from time immemorial. It’s a fundamental tenant of the game. Except it isn’t anymore.
Of the top 10 defenses by DVOA last year, just one had a pass rank lower than 11th, but three had a rush rank of 21st or lower. And given the “top-10” is an arbitrary cutoff, it’s worth noting that the 11th and 12th defenses by DVOA were 29th and 25th respectively vs. the run but each were each top-10 against the pass.
In order to be a good defense in the NFL, one has to be good at stopping opposing passing games.
Just look at the Packers last season. A top-10 run defense (8th), but the sixth-worst passing defense and Green Bay finishes 20th overall. Flip the field and you’ll notice the same trend. Mike McCarthy managed to coax the third-best rushing offense in the league out of two rookies in the backfield and a banged up offensive line. But because Brett Hundley couldn’t consistently beat teams through the air, the Packers scuffled to 20th in total offense thanks to the 25th passing attack in the league.
If “run the ball and stop the run” were still an effective gameplan, the Packers should have been a first-round bye team.
The shortcomings in that gameplan are simple. When Mike Pettine says the quickest way for a defense to get beat is through the air, he’s right. It’s true, more bad things can happen when a team passes the ball, but more good things can happen too, even for the worst passing teams.
The Chiefs boasted the best run team in football last year on a per carry basis, putting up 4.7 yards per carry on 405 attempts. The Ravens posted the worst passing offense in football last year on a per attempt basis with 5.7 YPA on 567 attempts.
Teams pass much more than they run and when they pass, they’re much more efficient.
There have been times when the Packers have given up the chance to get Aaron Rodgers the ball back late in games because they can’t stop opposing rushing attacks. Getting beat up on the ground demoralizes a team, beating them up physically.
All that can be true and still the emphasis of any defense should be the passing game, even if it means sacrificing something in the run game.
Luckily for the Packers, their front should be even better this season with Kenny Clark, Mike Daniels and Muhammad Wilkerson manning the fort and Blake Martinez patrolling in behind. Clay Matthews, for all the flack he took for not being a great pass rusher last year, was an outstanding run defender. Without much help from Pettine, this should once again be a top-10 unit against ground games.
But even if it’s not, even if Pettine sacrifices size to play Oren Burks in base or Josh Jones at linebacker because it improves this passing defense, that’s a tradeoff the Packers—and any team—should be willing to make.
Even Dom Capers realized that.