The Risks and Rewards of Green Bay’s Defense
Throughout most of last season’s NFC Championship Game, the Packers played risk-averse football. Twice head coach Mike McCarthy opted to kick field goals from inside the 2-yard line. On a second-and-30 and then on a third-and-19, defensive coordinator Dom Capers abandoned his unit’s suffocating man coverage and opted to play prevent defense. The Packers, respectively, gave up plays of 11 and 29 yards. Both came on the drive that ended with Seattle’s fake-field-goal touchdown (a contrastingly aggressive call).
Late in the game, protecting a 12-point lead, the Packers predictably handed the ball to James Starks and Eddie Lacy, who were stuffed on back-to-back three-and-outs. And, perhaps worst of all, after safety Morgan Burnett hauled in the defense’s fourth interception of the game, he went to the ground instead of attempting to capitalize on a relatively clear path to the end zone. (Why did Julius Peppers instruct him to do that?!) There was still 5:04 left to play.
The extreme caution was the main reason why the Packers, who should have handily won that contest and gone on to face a Patriots team that they’d beaten in Week 13, found themselves in overtime at a raucous CenturyLink Field. Only then did they finally abandon their caution. On first-and-10 from the Green Bay 35, with Seattle driving, Capers dialed up a Cover 0 blitz—something almost no defensive coordinator does on that down and distance from that part of the field. But Capers had made similar calls a few times before, including a previous meeting against the Seahawks. There was also a variation of a “Cover 0” the previous week on the much-debated Dez Bryant “no catch” play that sealed the divisional round win over Dallas.
Unfortunately for the Packers, Russell Wilson knew all this. The risk with a Cover 0 blitz is that while you’re guaranteed to have an unblocked defender going after the quarterback, you’re in pure one-on-one matchups across the board. Those can go against a defense, even when played well. That’s what happened here. Wilson calmly floated a deep ball to Jermaine Kearse, who hauled it in despite near-blanket coverage by cornerback Tramon Williams. Kearse’s touchdown sent Seattle to a second straight Super Bowl and denied the Packers an opportunity to claim a second Lombardi Trophy in the Aaron Rodgers/Mike McCarthy era.
How aggressive or cautious will the Packers be in 2015? Offensively, Rodgers will answer this question almost exclusively. He commands much of the game from the line of scrimmage. While we occasionally see him scale back and be somewhat wary against certain coverage looks, Rodgers is a certified gunslinger who can fit balls into tight areas. He might be the best raw-arm talent the game has ever seen; the rules of footwork and pocket mechanics don’t necessarily apply to the 31-year-old. In Green Bay’s simplified spread West Coast-style offense, it reasons that Rodgers will remain very aggressive. He played that way for most of the 2014 season, finishing with 38 touchdowns against five interceptions. (Absolutely remarkable.) If and when McCarthy wants to dial things down, he can feed the ball to the methodical, bruising Lacy.
The risk/caution question becomes delicate on defense. What is the best approach to take playing opposite a prolific offense? There are two contrasting schools of thought. One says you play minimal risk and force offenses to mount long drives against you. That way, you’re compelling your opponent’s offense to keep up with yours. Because if you’re confident that your offense can score, why risk the possibility of giving your opponent easy points? The downside: should teams successfully drive against you, your offense remains sidelined while the clock ticks, creating an artificially close contest.
The second school of thought says you treat your offense’s explosiveness as a green light to take chances: try to create turnovers and sacks. If you connect here, you can create double-digit scoring swings through field position (and the occasional pick-six or scoop-and-score). The downside, of course, is, what we saw in overtime in the NFC Championship Game.
Typically, a high-risk, high-reward defense has been Green Bay’s M.O. in its six years under Capers. It led to a Super Bowl title in 2010 and a 15-win season in 2011. But do the 2015 Packers have the personnel to prosper under this style? In those earlier years, they had a future Hall of Fame hybrid player in Charles Woodson and a commanding defensive line that allowed them to be steady against the run, even when aligned in a light six-man box (which they often were).
Today’s Packers are very versatile in the front seven, but perhaps not as explosive as they appear on the surface. Third-year pro Micah Hyde often plays the Woodson role. Hyde is a respectable talent, but certainly not a Canton-bound difference-maker. The front line still has B.J. Raji, but he’s been injury prone. Datone Jones, a 2013 first-round pick, is as physically gifted as any inside-edge players before him, but that’s yet to translate into productivity. In fact, 2012 fourth-rounder Mike Daniels has been the much better player thus far.
Hallmarking the versatility of Green Bay’s often-amoeba front is the NASCAR grouping of Julius Peppers, Nick Perry, Mike Neal and Clay Matthews. Peppers, 35, still flashes, but he no longer the same player he once was. Perry and Neal are coming off their best seasons, but still aren’t everydown forces (we’ll get a much clearer outlook on their long-term formidability this season). Matthews is still elite, but because of the shakiness around the rest of this defensive front, he’s been cast into a more nondescript inside linebacker role in the base 2-4 nickel package.
Matthews moved inside last November, as the Packers were by then desperate for sturdier run support, especially out of their versatile but lighter fronts. At least it worked. Matthews was very good attacking lead-blockers and hunting down ballcarriers. Each month, the Packers gave up fewer rushing yards; by December, opponents were averaging a mere 82.75 yards on the ground.
In certain obvious passing situations, Capers still found ways to utilize Matthews’s pass-rushing prowess. When not aligned on the edge, the 255-pounder would be part of a roving front, often blitzing inside. But there are plenty of cases when Matthews still must drop into coverage, which, with questionable pass-rushing firepower around him, is why blitzes will remain a staple of Capers’s scheme in 2015.
As you probably know by now, blitzing requires sturdy man coverage in the secondary. (Case in point: those Cover 0 plays against Dez Bryant and Jermaine Kearse.) In Davon House and Tramon Williams, the Packers had two solid corners teamed with 27-year-old boundary defender Sam Shields. But both recently left in free agency. House, who played outside in nickel last season, will be replaced by first-round rookie Damarious Randall, who played safety at Arizona State but possess NFL-quality coverage abilities. (He might be raw though.) Williams, who often played the slot in nickel last season, will be replaced by fourth-year pro Casey Hayward, who’s been an excellent inside defender when healthy (which hasn’t been quite often enough). Hayward is proficient in man coverage, but he has a great feel for zones, which the Packers often play on the inside in their hybrid concepts.
The safeties are also part of the coverage equation, of course, and here the Packers have two talented and interchangeable ones in steady veteran Morgan Burnett and budding star Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. If Clinton-Dix becomes more consistent in his downfield reads and open-field hitting, he has the physical strength, lankiness and rangy burst to become a superstar, giving Capers a whole new dimension for disguises behind pressure looks.
Still, we’re talking about multiple ifs in the secondary. Actually, in this entire defense. Which is why Capers’s aggression will be even higher risk/reward. But that’s the toll for becoming a champion. Even in Green Bay, the Lombardi Trophy doesn’t come to you—it must be pursued and captured.
Packers Nickel Package
1. The selection of wide receiver Ty Montgomery in the third round tells you the Packers, who already had Jordy Nelson (out for 2015 with a torn ACL), Davante Adams and Randall Cobb, plan—or at least had planned—to use more four-wide receiver sets in 2015 and beyond. That means more of Cobb coming out of the backfield. Here he is extremely difficult to match up against, particularly with man coverage. Either an ill-equipped linebacker takes him, or a backup cornerback must step in and play in an unfamiliar area of the field. It’ll be interesting to see if the four-receiver sets still come to fruition now that Nelson is gone. He’s replaceable in the starting lineup, thanks to Rodgers’s brilliance, but now there’s a lack of depth at wide receiver.
2. Who will be the featured tight end in 2015? Andrew Quarless had a tumultuous late summer and has never been a great practice player, which is why he seems to lose his starting job at the beginning of every year. But Quarless’s ability to split out as an X-iso receiver (something the Packers love to do near the outer parts of the red zone) and his decency as a blocker have always landed him (eventually) back in the starting lineup. But this time, there’s a competent counterpart to Quarless: 2014 third-rounder Richard Rodgers. Aaron Rodgers has said that the former Cal slot receiver may have the best hands on the team. The coaching staff is said to be comfortable with Richard Rodgers’s blocking, and presumably he’ll only get better in this facet. He too brings formation flexibility, which is valuable in a no-huddle offense. Don’t be surprised if a full changing of the guard occurs at tight end in 2015.
3. No offensive line, save for maybe Pittsburgh’s, has improved as steadily over the past few years as Green Bay’s. Left tackle David Bakhtiari remains nasty but is now less mistake-prone; left guard Josh Sitton is one of the game’s best interior run-blockers (especially when going to his left, which the Packers know); center Corey Linsley was forced into a starting role as a fifth-round rookie last season and was too effective to be removed from the lineup; T.J. Lang has found a home at right guard; and at right tackle, Bryan Bulaga is not great on an island in pass protection (almost no right tackle is), but he understands the system and has developed good enough technique to overcome the physical diminishments that knee and hip problems have caused. This group improved steadily in the running game last season and was surprisingly sound in pass protection.
4. Alert to all defenses: you must press Green Bay’s wide receivers. They’re too good on quick slants to be afforded a clean release off the line. And Aaron Rodgers will destroy you here. Not only does he have the snappiest release in football, he’s also remarkably accurate throwing to moving targets, which is why the Packers are always near the league lead in run-after-catch yardage.
5. You could argue that James Starks is a better fit for this offense than Eddie Lacy. Starks is quicker, which suits a running game that often takes place out of spread three-receiver formations. But what the Packers have figured out is that you don’t have to sacrifice many of your ground game concepts out of these spread sets—especially if you employ as much zone-blocking as they do. Lacy gives Green Bay’s otherwise finesse formations a power element, something nickel defenses aren’t accustom to confronting.