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Struggles in zone coverage make Kevin King’s long-term fit with the Packers a question

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Why Green Bay should friend zone Kevin King.

Green Bay Packers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

The Green Bay Packers’ defense wasn’t bad last year, which is a nice change. What’s not a nice change is just how much it looked like a Dom Capers defense in that they really focused on pass defense while suffering mightily on run defense, and that lack of run-stopping eventually cost the team in the playoffs. Green Bay was also extremely dependent on interceptions to get stops, which is a dangerous place to be in the modern NFL.

While they were a pretty good defense, they also never seemed to add up to the sum of their parts. By DVOA, they were 9th against the pass and 23rd against the run, good for 15th overall. That’s fine, but between the Smiths and Kenny Clark, they presented one of the most fearsome pass rushes in the league. Jaire Alexander looks to be outstanding, and the safety position is stronger than it’s been in years. They did have some obvious problems like Dean Lowry’s regression and poor play from the inside linebacker position, but they also suffered from a serious, but subtle problem highlighted in the just released Football Outsider 2020 almanac. Namely:

The Packers defense struggled when blitzing last season, allowing 7.8 net yards per pass with 30.2% DVOA. Possibly connected: The Packers had the NFL’s biggest gap between defense in man coverage (8.9 yards per pass, 40.1% DVOA) and zone coverage (6.8 yards per pass, 6.2% DVOA).

(Please note that higher DVOAs are bad for defenses.)

Most teams play a mix of zone and man, and most teams are better in one than the other, but it’s rare for a team to be so good in one and so poor in another. The chief reason for this is the divergent skillsets of Kevin King and Jaire Alexander. King consistently rates as one of the best man corners in the NFL by many metrics. Doug Farrar, writing at Touchdown Wire, recently ranked him 11th, and wrote:

At 6’3″ and 200 pounds, King is one of the better new wave of big, physical press conerbacks developing right now. Aggressive to a fault off the line of scrimmage (and occasionally too grabby), King makes quick slants and drag routes very difficult for opposing receivers, because he has the size, physicality, and short-area quickness to erase those concepts.

King also excels in the Red Zone, which, combined with his man prowess, makes him pretty valuable. But King is also a weird player, and he struggles mightily in zone. That’s a problem because Jaire Alexander excels in zone and, more importantly, because the Packers played 68% of their snaps in zone last season (15th in the league, smack dab in the middle).

Alexander was ranked 6th among zone corners by Farrar, which does square with his tape. I suspect Alexander will one day excel in man as well, but for now, he does still get himself beaten too often.

Alexander is an excellent fit for Pettine’s defense, and it would be nice to pair him with a better complement. While you may think that diversity among the corners would allow for the team to remain flexible on defense, it instead creates holes regardless of what style they play.

King’s flaws were especially problematic. He was one of the worst zone defenders in the league, making him an easy target in the Packers’ otherwise formidable zone. King was also a poor tackler against pass-catchers (he was oddly good against running backs), allowing 4.9 YAC per reception, 12th-worst in the league. His adjusted yards allowed, according to Football Outsiders, ranked 77th in the league. All of that said, King’s red zone play and physical presence against larger receivers was extremely valuable in and of itself.

Ideally, the team would specialize in either zone or man, and fall into the other to create confusion. The Packers lean zone, but no more than an average team. Given that they excel in it, it would be nice if both starting corners also specialized in it.

The Blitz

Let’s revisit the Packers’ “possibly related” issues with blitzing. When Green Bay brought 5 or 6 rushers they were atrocious. Thank goodness for the Smiths. When you blitz, you always expose your secondary. If you’re in man, you usually have one fewer safety in the back end, and if the rushers don’t get home, you get burned. If the team stays in zone, it’s common to have a resulting mismatch that can be exploited. With Kevin King struggling in zone, having to cover more space with no protection behind him, he got burned. A lot.

This was compounded by would-be Packer blitzers being kind of bad at it. Here’s a list of Packers defensive backs with a sack last year:

  • Adrian Amos (1)
  • Kevin King (1)

That’s not good. It’s actually kind of amazing. The good news is the Packers don’t really need to blitz very much with the quality of their pass rush, but it does remove some flexibility from the playbook. The more you can’t do, the easier it is to plan for what you can do.

I have grown to like Kevin King, but I like Alexander more and I like my defenses to make sense. If you cloned Alexander everything would work so much better. To be fair, if you cloned King everything may also work so much better, but this team plays zone a majority of the time. King would probably fit in best as some kind of weird red zone nickel, but he’d fit in better on another team, like the Lions, who played man more than any other team in football.

I wonder if we might see Chandon Sullivan start to cut into King’s time next year. He was fantastic in a small sample last season, and I think he also just fits into the scheme better. King is a free agent after this season, and if there is a season, don’t be surprised if he’s involved in a surprise trade. He has value, nice counting stats, and would fit nicely elsewhere.