GREEN BAY, Wis. – What happens when you build an inside linebacker corps with late-round draft picks, undrafted free agents and an injury-prone veteran?
The answer is nothing good when it comes to playing pass defense.
The Green Bay Packers rank 28th in the NFL in opponent passer rating, an incomprehensibly bad number considering they have a lockdown cornerback in Jaire Alexander and two other quality starters in Kevin King and Chandon Sullivan.
Where the Packers have been exploited again and again and again is at linebacker.
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With 40 days until the start of training camp, the men in the middle of the mess are Matt LaFleur and Jordan Love.
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By the reckoning of Pro Football Focus, Packers linebackers have given up 54-of-58 passing for 546 yards with four touchdowns and zero interceptions. That 93.1 percent success rate could scarcely be higher in a game of catch at practice.
Coverage is one reason why Green Bay let Blake Martinez depart in free agency. The replacements, however, haven’t been up to the task and, in fact, have been worse.
Of the 77 off-the-ball linebackers to play at least 20 percent of the coverage snaps this season, three of the bottom five in terms of yards per coverage snap play for Green Bay. Ty Summers, a seventh-round pick last year, has given up a league-worst 2.15 yards per coverage snap. Krys Barnes, an undrafted free agent this year, is next-to-last with 1.99 yards. Christian Kirksey, who is on injured reserve for the third time in as many years, is fifth from the bottom with 1.81.
In terms of snaps per reception, the Packers have the dubious distinction of holding down the bottom three spots, with 4.3 snaps per reception for Barnes, 4.4 for Summers and 5.5 for Kirksey.
Quarterbacks have completed all 20 passes against Summers, including both touchdowns vs. the Texans.
Independent of who is in coverage, on passes thrown 0 to 9 yards downfield and between the numbers, opposing quarterbacks are 56-of-66 for 513 yards and one touchdown, according to PFF. For sake of comparison, Aaron Rodgers is 32-of-38 for 308 yards and four touchdowns.
To be sure, some of the production against Green Bay’s linebackers is a byproduct of opposing quarterbacks steering clear of Alexander and King.
“I think you’ve got to look at what type of coverages you’re in, how teams are attacking you,” LaFleur said as part of the accompanying video. “A lot of it is predicated on what the offense is doing. So, yeah, I’m not overly concerned.”
The coverage deficiencies of the linebackers are one reason why defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has relied so heavily on his dime package. That would be a sound strategy if the Packers had a weapon in that hybrid linebacker/safety role. But, safety Raven Greene – himself a former undrafted free agent – hasn’t been a huge upgrade over the linebackers in terms of coverage. According to PFF, he’s allowed 13-of-16 passing. His 1.76 yards allowed per coverage snap ranks next-to-last among 91 safeties with 20 percent playing time.
With athleticism and 34-inch arms, perhaps rookie fifth-round pick Kamal Martin will be the coverage factor the Packers have lacked for years. Martin turned in a promising debut at Houston after opening the season on injured reserve. According to PFF, he allowed 2-of-2 passing for 28 yards in 21 coverage snaps. In obviously limited duty, his 10.5 coverage snaps per reception and 1.33 yards per coverage snap are by far the best among the team’s linebackers. To deem him the answer is obviously premature but the first taste was promising.
If that turns out to be the case, it wouldn’t come as a surprise to his coach at the University of Minnesota.
“Absolutely,” Golden Gophers defensive coordinator Joe Rossi told Packer Central when asked after the draft if Martin could be a three-down player. “One, he’s a good blitzer but then he’s really good in coverage. He can man backs, he can man tight ends. Obviously, those guys at the next level are better than he was playing against on a regular basis but, in the Big Ten, we’re going against NFL-type players week in, week out. If he was matched up on a tight end or running back, I always felt like we had the advantage. I think for sure he can be a three-down player.”
If Martin turns into that kind of player, he could be more than the cure to a chronic problem. He could be the missing piece to the defensive puzzle.
Between the Numbers, 0-9 Yards Downfield
From Pro Football Focus
Game 1, Kirk Cousins: 9-9, 94 yards
Game 2, Matthew Stafford: 11-13, 111 yards
Game 3, Drew Brees: 14-16, 114 yards, 1 TD
Game 4, Matt Ryan: 8-9, 74 yards
Game 5, Tom Brady: 3-4, 28 yards
Game 6, Deshaun Watson: 11-15, 92 yards
Totals: 56-66, 513 yards, 1 TD.