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Where is the Packers’ secondary vulnerable and why should they get better?

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The Packers struggled to defend core NFL concepts last season thanks to injuries at cornerback, no consistent pass rush, and poor safety play. They’ve addressed those concerns this offseason and could see a big leap in 2019.

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Green Bay Packers
The Packers secondary struggles last year, but there are reasons to believe it can be significantly better in 2019.
Wisconsin-USA TODAY NETWORK

It’s never just one thing. Kevin King couldn’t stay healthy, Tramon Williams had to play out of position, the safety spot was a sink hole the size of Door County, Josh Jackson developed slowly, and the pass rush couldn’t consistently generate pressure. Pointing to any single one of these improving doesn’t provide compelling evidence this defense will actually improve. We have myriad reasons to be hopeful, but first we must understand the problem.

Football Outsiders broke down every defense, identifying which teams defended which routes the best, while pointing out which routes tend to be thrown the most. Their findings for the Green Bay Packers offer insight into where this team must improve to buoy a secondary that struggled most of last season.

Against curls, the most common throw in the NFL, the Packers finished just 24th in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average). The Packers were also 30th in defending the left side of the field, compared to 19th on the right. Jaire Alexander vs. Whoever Else Was Playing provides reason enough to explain that disparity, but that disparity presents a major problem.

If Kevin King isn’t going to stay healthy, that leaves Tony Brown and Josh Jackson to step in. Jackson’s training camp derailed before it even got going thanks to a foot injury, but he was impressive in limited time last week. Brown’s play warrants major consideration for playing time even without injuries to King and Jackson. Improvement there could boost these numbers on their own.

Curls, depending on depth, tend to be five-step drop throws, which means the potential to disrupt them increases with a pass rush. (Likewise, shorter throws are more difficult to defend with pressure.) For a team that got sacks but not consistent pressure, simply trying to defend these throws with pass rush would have been a foolish plan. Add the Acme Sackers to the mix and throw in Rashan Gary, and suddenly Green Bay bares its teeth getting to opposing quarterbacks. For all the complaints about Preston and Za’Darius Smith’s lack of sacks, they are consistently pressuring quarterbacks. Disruption is production. Forcing a quarterback to move off his spot or throw sooner than he wants unsettles the timing of these throws.

To prove our theory related to the driving factors in the defense’s lack of success, we can look at other similar situations and how the Packers fared. Against drag routes, plays that require speed at corner and pass rush to defend, Green Bay finished a pathetic 31st. Out of 32 teams. Yikes. They were only marginally better defending digs, at 22nd in the NFL. One caveat here is that a significant driver of their lack of success was run-after-catch yardage. The Packers were No. 1 with a bullet allowing the most RAC on drag routes, giving up 11.1 yards on average. Second-worst was 8.2, an enormous gap relative to the data. This speaks not only to coverage ability, but tackling as well as a factor to be discussed shortly: safety play.

First, the tackling problem. Anyone who watched the Packers last season—and really going back half a decade or more—understands the inconsistency wrapping up. To wit, Green Bay finished dead last defending running back screens and 28th defending the flat. Rally to the ball and make a tackle. It seems easy, but it’s something the Packers failed to do far too often last season. That’s on the cornerbacks, safeties and linebackers to clean up, though it should be noted Blake Martinez has been one of the more reliable tacklers in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus’ data.

We can look at routes that tend to require synergy between cornerback and safety to illustrate how all these factors work in conjunction, On post routes, plays where a cornerback can reasonably expect some level of help from a safety and would benefit from pressure on a five or seven-step drop, Mike Pettine’s group was abysmal at 30th in the NFL. Washington destroyed the Packers with deep posts thanks to Kentrell Brice being out to lunch. The Lions did the same with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix taking his turn in the clown suit.

If a team lacks quality safeties, a consistent pass rush provides the only defense. Green Bay had neither last season. Meanwhile, the Bears were No. 1 defending deep balls, No. 2 against digs, and No. 5 against posts. In short, they owned the deep middle of the field. Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks deserve more than a little credit for that work, but so too do Eddie Jackson and new Packers safety Adrian Amos.

Amos demonstrated elite ability in zone coverage in the deep half and deep middle of the field, while putting on tape some of the best robber safety plays in the league the last two years. It’s not just his hard hitting, but his assignment-sure play and sound tackling kept even completed throws from being bigger gains. His ability to patrol the deep part of the field, combined with the speed and playmaking of Darnell Savage, offer a roadmap for how the Packers can improve in a hurry. Just getting players who will likely be in position to make tackles, even if they miss some, offers a significant upgrade over what Pettine fielded last season.

One of the few brights spots for the defense was defending out routes, where they were 10th in DVOA. However, volume explains some of that success. Much like when Davon House had solid numbers in terms of avoiding targets, opposing offenses didn’t feel the need to test the Packers there. Why throw at House, when they could throw at Quinten Rollins or LaDarius Gunter or any number of myriad sub-replacement players the Packers have trotted out over the years? The same is true here: why throw out routes, difficult and risky throws, when the middle of the field is so soft? They are one of the most common routes to throw in the NFL, but not necessarily against the Packers.

If there’s reason for optimism the Green Bay cornerback room turns things around, there was one place they were elite: defending go/fly’s. Only the Colts were better at defending deep shots down the sidelines and they play almost exclusively two deep safeties. Josh Jackson’s best route defense was on go’s where he gave up just one catch in five attempts with a pair of PBUs. Jaire Alexander, Tony Brown, and Kevin King all boast excellent speed and ball skills and on 9 routes, the sideline becomes the extra defender. Trust me, the sideline was better than anyone the Packers had at safety last season. There’s talent in that cornerback room, talent Brian Gutekunst boosted with the addition of Ka’Dar Hollman, the impressive sixth-round rookie.

It’s not hard to see the obvious flaws in the 2018 Packers defense, nor is it difficult to recognize how key additions in the offseason should mitigate those concerns this season assuming reasonable health. In year one under Mike Pettine, Green Bay didn’t take the jump it hoped for in replacing Dom Capers, but such a leap could simply be delayed a season thanks to player upgrades. Accepting flaws and taking steps to alleviate them mark the offseason each of the last two years for Gutekunst and Co. This may be the year those efforts start to pay dividends.