Defenses are basically just puzzles that need solving. Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine focuses on stopping the pass with lighter defenders while daring teams to run the ball, relying on the general inefficiency of running to do the work for him. That puzzle has been solved by quite a few teams, most recently by Dalvin Cook and the Minnesota Vikings.
The Indianapolis Colts are a trickier puzzle to solve than most. They are by any measure, one of the league’s truly elite defenses. By DVOA they are 4th overall — 4th against the run and 4th against the pass — and their well-rounded nature makes it difficult to identify obvious weak points. It’s not as simple as going run-heavy or pass-heavy (though you certainly do want to lean pass-heavy), but a deeper dive reveals that there is a right way to attack this team amongst the dozens of wrong ways.
First and foremost, the Colts have extreme splits against receiver types. They are first overall against “second receivers” and seventh against tight ends. After that, the dominance ends as they are only 16th against opposing number one receivers, 23rd against “other receivers” (slot and lower), and 25th against pass-catching running backs. It sounds like the plan of attack should be fairly simple, and Davante Adams should come up huge like he always does, but I’d caution against assuming too much here. The Colts have had a weird schedule involving plenty of teams without clear primary and secondary receivers, and Football Outsiders’ split categorizations can get a bit squishy sometimes. The only true number one receiver to really dominate the Colts was Allen Robinson back in week 4. They shut down Kenny Golladay, Adam Thielen, A.J. Brown, and DJ Chark, and depending on who you want to consider a “number 1” it’s easy to see this number as slightly flawed.
The bottom line is that Davante may still have his work cut out for him. If Allen Lazard is back, this all gets much easier as Aaron will be able to more easily take the better matchup, but given that he’s no sure thing, the better way to look as this may be through location targeting, not matchup targeting.
Huck It Deep
Let’s briefly discuss the Buccaneers and 49ers — not the last version of the 49ers Green Bay faced with literally everyone hurt, however, the 2019 version that knocked the Packers out of the playoffs. Both feature excellent defenses with fast inside linebackers. Both dare you to throw the ball short, and then close quickly, denying you YAC. Most people will remember Lavonte David from the Bucs game, as he clearly stood out as the dominant force of the short middle. The Colts have their own set of fast linebackers lead by Darius Leonard. Indy plays a 4-3 base, which sets them slightly apart, but it’s a mostly cosmetic difference.
Like the Bucs and 49ers, the Colts want you to throw short. They will pick the ball off if you’re not careful, but they’re not reliant on it, and 41% of their defensive drives end in punts, which is second best in the league. Throwing short and running the ball will lead to kicking.
Deep throwing will lead to touchdowns. The best corner on the Colts, according to Pro Football Focus, is Xavier Rhodes. He’s having a comeback season, and when targeted in the short or medium, he has been especially good. But Rhodes is 30 years old and he clearly lost a step last season. When targeted deep left, the Colts have a +39.6% DVOA (not a good number, as positive numbers always favor the offense). Deep right is slightly better, but still below average at +18.4% DVOA. They’re excellent in the middle of the field thanks to safeties Julian Blackmon and Tavon Wilson, but deep outside, they’re vulnerable.
Green Bay has failed to solve this puzzle before. Matt LaFleur’s offense involves the vertical passing game, but it’s a small minority of total play calls. The Packers like to set up their deep shots with complementary concepts earlier in the game, but those setup plays tend to blow up against faster defenses. This game calls out for an aggressive passing attack that gets the most out of Davante Adams’ route-running and Marquez Valdes-Scantling’s deep speed. Every bubble screen will be a disaster. If they don’t take the lid off the defense early and often, there’s a good chance this is the Buccaneers’ game all over again.