Defense in pro football is a weak-link game. The offense gets to largely dictate what it wants to do and where it wants to go with the ball. That’s a big reason why defense in the NFL is so difficult, particularly once injuries start to pile up and force reserves into roles that exceed their capabilities.
With the Green Bay Packers’ defense we see the weak links in the middle of the field, and have seen them for the better part of a decade. Like clockwork, Green Bay would seem to get routinely beaten by tight ends, slot receivers, and running backs because their linebackers would sieve yards in the passing game. Unfortunately, the middle is still a bit of a problem, but I think there’s actually a much larger one that gets overshadowed because of the dominance of Jaire Alexander: cornerback, particularly the opposite boundary corner.
Chandon Sullivan hasn’t been quite as good as he was in 2019, but in a much larger role has still been pretty effective as a slot corner, allowing only 5.7 yards/target (compared to his phenomenal 3.5 in 2019). Chandon’s numbers can’t quite keep pace with Jaire Alexander, who is enjoying a breakout season as a legit CB1, allowing a 42.3% completion percentage .
Despite having two good corners on the field for most plays, Green Bay still hasn’t put together a high-end pass defense, but that’s not the fault of their high-end players, but rather the weak link: Kevin King.
King came into the NFL as an athletic freak. He was one of the most athletic corners to ever come into the NFL, and checked off every box the Packers had used for their defensive backs. He was tall, rangy, fast, and posted strong change-of-direction numbers.
If you were to build a cornerback in a lab, it would’ve looked like Kevin King. Of course, King was not a perfect prospect. Guys with those type of athletic tools at corner don’t typically fall out of the first round.
PFF’s scouting report on King could not have been more dead-on for what he would turn into as a pro. Positives for King included his prototypical size/speed combination, his plus hands, and ability to play press coverage. The negatives included struggling on horizontal routes (namely slants and outs), struggling with high-end speedsters, poor tackling, and his grabbiness in coverage. That’s what they call a prophecy.
King hasn’t exactly had it easy in the NFL on the injury front. Multiple significant shoulder injuries have not only stolen time from him, but also hindered his ability to tackle and play his preferred brand of press coverage as well. His lower body has also been decimated by one injury after another. King has injured his Achilles and quadriceps, as well as multiple groin and hamstring injuries. The shoulder issues were no surprise as that was part of his college career, but the complete destruction of his lower body due to constant strains was an added negative.
2019 was the career year for King, but it looks pretty unsustainable in hindsight. He posted a career high 15 games played with 5 interceptions and 15 pass breakups. In Sports Info Solutions “Total Points Saved” it was by far his career best at 23 (for context: Jaire Alexander is at 29 in 2020).
But interceptions are fickle. There were underlying signs that King’s 2019 was a mirage and not the norm. Despite posting all those interceptions, King was a sieve when he didn’t pick the ball off, posting a career-worst 9.8 yards/target. He tacked on missed tackles on 17% of his attempts, which was actually an improvement from his disastrous first two years.
In 2020, the interceptions have dried up and so has any hope of a productive Kevin King. He is posting an awful minus-2 Total Points Saved in 2020. That ranks as the 16th-worst cornerback in football. PFF agrees with the quality of King’s play, giving him an atrocious 51.7 grade. Heading into free agency, King couldn’t have really had a worse year. He has tacked on more injuries and when he hasn’t been hurt, he’s been bad.
Unfortunately, Green Bay doesn’t have a ton of options at boundary corner. Chandon Sullivan lacks the athleticism and speed to play out there, and is much better served operating in the tighter quarters of the slot. Ka’Dar Hollman exists. Hollman has actually been alright in a very small sample size. His game against a pretty terrible Jaguars offense was quite effective, but there are big caveats there for both sample size and quality of competition. That leaves us with Josh Jackson.
I liked Josh Jackson coming out of college. He was a ball-hawking corner with plus instincts and plus hands. The one big problem for Jackson would be transitioning to the NFL. Iowa runs a very zone-heavy scheme (particularly Cover 4), which allowed Jackson to spend more time with his eyes on the quarterback and capitalize on his great hands. The Packers still run a lot of zone coverage (much to the chagrin of myself and many others), but Jackson can’t capitalize on squatting on players in the flats as much as he did in college. When Jackson has to cover down the field, you can see panic set in and he gets very grabby. It’s not like Jackson lacks the athleticism to play boundary corner in the NFL, he just doesn’t seem to trust himself in coverage.
I wish I could tell you that Josh Jackson has done really well, but I can’t. Prior to this season Jackson may as well have been on another team. His 2018 was a real struggle allowing 9.5 yards/target. In 2019, with a healthier Kevin King, Jackson hardly played defense across his 14 games. 2020 has probably been Jackson’s best year, but it hasn’t been one to write home about either. His yards/target have dropped into a very respectable 6.7 yards, but a closer look reveals that much of this was done against a 49ers team that had no NFL-quality receivers and Nick Mullens under pressure at quarterback. PFF is similarly low on Josh Jackson with a 51.8 grade.
It doesn’t appear that Green Bay has any good options opposite Jaire. King is a mess, particularly on in-breaking routes. Sullivan lacks the athleticism to play wide. Jackson can’t stop grabbing opponents. Hollman just hasn’t played. Green Bay’s wide left on defense is going to be a problem. The one hope is that Pettine will trust Jaire enough to leave him alone. In order to do this, it would require them to play more man coverage, though. The only way I can see this current pass defense really click is to leave Jaire alone with his man and provide vertical protection for Kevin King or Josh Jackson, allowing them to get more aggressive in the short-game. Given what we’ve seen from Mike Pettine so far, that seems unlikely. Don’t be surprised if “They found Kevin” ends up costing Green Bay in the playoffs.