Tunnel-Vision Approach Needed on Defense to Beat 49ers

Bill Huber

GREEN BAY, Wis. – This past offseason, general manager Brian Gutekunst directed an incredible overhaul of the Green Bay Packers’ defense.

In free agency, he spent lavishly on outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith and safety Adrian Amos, and he used his first-round picks on outside linebacker Rashan Gary and safety Darnell Savage. With those five players replacing the overpaid and underperforming tandem of Clay Matthews and Nick Perry at outside linebacker and the mishmash of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Kentrell Brice and Jermaine Whitehead at safety, the Packers rocketed from 25th to ninth in points allowed and from six wins to 13.

None of it mattered in the biggest game of the season. The San Francisco 49ers ran roughshod over the Packers in the NFC Championship Game. They won 37-20 by rushing for preposterous 285 yards and scoring on six consecutive drives.

On Wednesday, despite being irked by the defense’s effort, coach Matt LaFleur decided to retain Mike Pettine as his defensive coordinator.

Why?

For years, NFL offenses have trended toward the college game of spreading the field, throwing the ball and creating perimeter mismatches. As a counter, NFL defenses put a higher premium on pass rushers and fast guys capable of existing in today’s speed-based game.

Video: LaFleur likes how players battled all season

“A wise coach told me a long time ago you can fly to Miami a lot faster than you can walk there,” Pettine said in September about prioritizing pass defense over run defense. “You’re going to get beat through the air. That’s the bottom line.”

As offenses evolved and defenses adapted, I started to wonder what would happen if an offense went into throwback mode and featured a power running game as its primary mode of attack.

That takes us to what happened on Sunday night in Santa Clara, Calif. Of San Francisco’s 51 offensive snaps, 42 were runs. The Packers never got close to stopping that running attack.

Why?

The defense built by Gutekunst thrived because it rushed the passer and it covered receivers. Including playoffs, the Smiths piled up an astounding 29.5 sacks. As a unit, Green Bay finished sixth in the league in opponent passer rating. It was a defense tailored for today’s game. In the last five drafts, the Packers selected 12 defensive players in the first three rounds. Throw in the Smiths and Amos, and that’s 15 “key” defensive additions the past five years. The position totals were five cornerbacks, four outside linebackers, three safeties, two defensive linemen and one inside linebacker.

Where did the Packers fall short on Sunday? The pass rush and coverage elements that had been the personnel focus were irrelevant because the 49ers never had to pass the ball. What they did was run it, and Green Bay was ill-equipped to handle it. To be sure, it wasn’t quite what I had envisioned for years – a power-based running game just pounding the ball downhill again and again and again at an undersized defense. But the impact was the same. Green Bay’s defensive line was pushed around and the inside linebackers couldn’t cope. Not coincidentally, those were the two positions with the fewest “key” additions the past five years.

Football is about matchups. Green Bay’s defense is capable of matching up against just about every offense in the NFL. But it’s not capable of matching up against the 49ers. The teams could meet again tomorrow, next week or next month and there’s absolutely zero reason to believe the results would be different.

Two misses on third-round picks who might have changed the equation, defensive tackle Montravius Adams in 2017 and inside linebacker Oren Burks in 2018, didn’t help. At No. 12 in 2019, Gutekunst selected Gary, who did next to nothing during his rookie season, while Pittsburgh traded up from No. 20 to No. 10 to get new-age linebacker Devin Bush. Bush, who was picked for the all-rookie team, has what Blake Martinez lacks and every defense craves – a three-down skill-set with the speed to cut off someone like Raheem Mostert, who sprinted through alleys to rush for 220 yards and four touchdowns.

As Gutekunst looks ahead to 2020, he needs to have tunnel-vision focus on San Francisco. He’s assembled a team capable of beating everyone else in the league. Now, it’s about getting Pettine the players necessary to beat the 49ers. That’s a legit sidekick to Clark on the line and a legit three-down linebacker. Accomplishing that will take care of everything else, including providing the necessary belief that the Packers can win with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line in 12 months.

Comments (11)
No. 1-11
think1sttalk2nd
think1sttalk2nd

Spot on and well done. For years the packer # 1 need going away was a skill position player. It still is. But no skill position player is going to change the results of the packer DL and IN LBs. Fact is GB did not take away the run much at all. Zimmer gave up the run, Nagy gave up the run. Zeke averaged over 5 ypc but got only 12 attempts. It was taking advantage of bad coaches. San Fran does not have that and does not appear to be moving in that direction. Pretty much it is a brainless coach who expects Martinez behind Lowry to stop a running game. 17 games to try. What is the definition of insanity

Footballfan55
Footballfan55

Really good analysis. I think your exactly right, if the two teams played again tomorrow it would be the same result. I think that tunnel vision is important but they also need to remember that to get back to the position they were in the defense needs to be able and adapt in different situations.

Bill Huber
Bill Huber

Editor

They have the ingredients for everyone else. They lost four games this year. Two were to SF, one to Philly after Davante got hurt and they couldn't quite punch it in, and that bizarro game against the Chargers. The Packers can beat everyone else in the league. Now, it's about beating SF. Figuring out speed at inside linebacker isn't just a SF thing but it's a priority against the Niners.

haubrich.peter
haubrich.peter

I read that the philosophy of the Packers is this analogy: "if you were traveling to Miami, would you rather fly through the air or travel on the ground?" Most teams pass way more than run. Not so in this case and it showed. I also saw a 5 DL and 5 DB defensive alignment at times. My suggestion is to go back and see how we used to contain Barry Sanders and dictate matchups. Let's be clear that George Kittle is a nightmare for us to cover if we force SF to pass.

GRIDIRONCoach
GRIDIRONCoach

The Film Doesn’t lie as both Smith’s literally quit during the Niners game. When things go well for them they prosper but any adversity they quit. This is a true definition of Front Runners......

think1sttalk2nd
think1sttalk2nd

Some really good analysis. Keep it up! I was wondering if you knew of a web site, preferably free, that allows sorting of snaps by more than one player. Example, I would love to start comparing who was on the field with Gary and who was on with Kyler. The % of the time both Smiths were off at the same time.

Bill Huber
Bill Huber

Editor

The NFL has a media site that has every personnel grouping (as in the 11 players on the field). Give me a few examples.

Bill Huber
Bill Huber

Editor

That line is part of this story. Here it is:
“A wise coach told me a long time ago you can fly to Miami a lot faster than you can walk there,” Pettine said in September about prioritizing pass defense over run defense. “You’re going to get beat through the air. That’s the bottom line.”
I'm not sure looking at Barry Sanders film applies. That defense had Reggie White and legit was one of the best in NFL history. Wasn't that Detroit team run-and-shoot, or was that in their past at that point?

draftfreeagent1.
draftfreeagent1.

Thoroughly assess seasonal items such as missed tackles, blown coverages and significant runs up the middle. Use the baseball analogy that the biggest strength of a team is "up the middle." Pick players based on that scenario.

Bill Huber
Bill Huber

Editor

I'm doing my positional grades and will get to a lot of that. I keep missed tackles all year, though I'll use PFF or Sports Info Solutions for apples-to-apples comparisons across the league. The league keeps data on runs up the middle, etc.


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