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NFL Draft

Will Old Demon Affect Packers In Another NFC Championship?

  • The Draft Network
  • January 23, 2021
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On Jan. 19, 2020, the Green Bay Packers played the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. The 49ers were an eight-point favorite at close, as their ferocious defensive line had yet to meet a quarterback they couldn’t fluster and Kyle Shanahan had their running game purring like a kitten. It was a substantial line for a playoff game.

The 49ers covered it two times over. If not for garbage time, they might have tripled it.

Starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo attempted eight—eight!—passes in the entire game, as Shanahan ran the entire offense through running back Raheem Mostert. Mostert finished the game with 29 carries for 220 yards and four touchdowns, setting multiple playoff records and demoralizing the entire Packers defense along the way.

The run was a problem for Mike Pettine’s squad through all of the 2019 season. The Packers ended the year surrendering 4.9 yards/carry, and they allowed the second-worst success rate and EPA to handoffs on a per-play basis, per The San Francisco loss was a humiliating exclamation point on the season-long narrative: Pettine’s Packers couldn’t stop the run.

As much of the focus on Green Bay’s offseason and subsequent 2020 season falls on the offense—an incisive and immaculate machine yet to meet an equal foe—the defense has slid under the radar. This year, the Packers are 23rd in rushing success rate allowed—up from 31st last year—and 18th in rushing EPA allowed—also up from 31st. This without any significant investment in the defense. Linebackers B.J. Goodson and Blake Martinez were replaced with Christian Kirksey, Kamal Martin, and Krys Barnes; defensive tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison was added into the rotation only in Week 17.

Of course, “comfortably below-average,” while better than “basically the worst” is only a modest improvement—and it still means the Packers’ run defense is susceptible. The only Packers loss this season against a non-playoff team came when they faced the division rival Minnesota Vikings. In that game, Kirk Cousins only attempted 14 passes, as star running back Dalvin Cook carried the ball 30 times for 163 yards and three touchdowns.

Sound familiar? It should.

The same demons lurk in the shadows for Pettine’s defense. In 11 of 17 games played, their opponents have had more success running the football than they did across the season—and Green Bay suffers for a particular offense. In Week 17 against Chicago, against Minnesota (twice), and most recently against the Los Angeles Rams in the wild-card round, Pettine’s defense has surrendered a success rate greater than 50%. More than half of the opponent’s runs are getting the yardage necessary to create manageable down and distances, pick up first downs, and sustain drives.

Those offenses all run the football fairly similarly. Minnesota has been a wide zone rushing team for the last few seasons, and Sean McVay helped popularize the wide zone approach with his offensive explosion in Los Angeles. To help Mitchell Trubisky across the end of the season, the Bears deployed that same system that Los Angeles and Minnesota have used to coddle Jared Goff and Kirk Cousins: outside zone with boot-action.

And San Francisco under Shanahan? The same approach.

So why is Pettine’s offense susceptible to this rushing attack? It boils down to structure.

Pettine wants to play with light personnel, and he wants to play with speed. Like new Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley, lauded for his two-high approach and willingness to surrender small runs to stop the explosive pass, Pettine relies on two high safeties to discourage shot plays over the top of his defense. The Packers were among the league leaders in both Cover 2 and Cover 4 zone approaches across the season, and last year, were the only team to play more snaps in dime personnel (6 DBs) than nickel personnel (5 DBs), and more snaps in nickel than in base (4 DBs).

This plan largely works in the passing game. The Packers were 10th in dropback EPA/play allowed this season and seventh last year. They set out to stop the pass, and they did. Running teams didn’t care about that, and made them pay.

But with two safeties deep, the Packers lose an extra body in the box. That box count is a critical aspect of the Packers’ defensive image, as it encourages teams to try to run on them. Namita Nandakumar, an ex-Eagles analytics staffer, wrote a piece for FiveThirtyEight in which she showed that teams increase their rate of run plays against the Packers more than against any other team in the league. Throw in the fact that Pettine will line up his EDGE rushers, Preston and Za’Darius Smith, in their preferred wide, stand-up alignments, and you get very inviting angles in the running game. 

With wide EDGEs in the Smith Bros., teams will gladly take the space offered up the middle of the field, where Pettine will occasionally align only two down linemen. Against these looks, the zone runs of teams like Minnesota, Chicago, and Los Angeles, aren’t attempting to get outside of the tackle box. Instead, their athletic offensive linemen are climbing to the second level and quickly dominating the Packers’ box safeties and smaller linebackers. Those angles are all too easy for NFL teams who work the running game hard.

To eliminate some of these interior gaps, Pettine will rely on a bear front, which places a true nose tackle over the center, and two defensive tackles on or inside the tackles. The nose can play into either A-gap, and both tackles manage the B-gaps. This three-down front is a look that is currently en vogue in the college ranks, as it plugs those quick interior runs via alignment and forces runs to work outside—allowing more time for the safeties to come up in run support. The additional body also prevents the free climbers from immediately accessing the second level. This alignment has helped them extend runs to the sideline and play sounder defense—with Kenny Clark at the nose, it can be devastating.

Unfortunately, off-tackle runs are still able to get outside of this bear front. When Pettine adds the fifth defensive linemen, he often takes a linebacker off of the field—a 5-1-5 personnel grouping, so that he remains in nickel, of course. That leaves just one linebacker on the field, and the defensive tackles must keep that linebacker clean in order for him to fit the run in either direction, plugging up the final gaps in their front. But with Dean Lowry and Kingsley Keke as starters in the bear front (Clark plays the nose), the Packers don’t bring ideal talent to anchor against the run; and with Barnes and Kirksey the primary snap-getters at linebacker, they’re better off than they were with Martinez—but not by much.

Watch the double teams work against these bear fronts. The climbing linemen still have all too easy a time getting between the linebackers and the ball carriers, and the shaky play of the linebacking corps leads to missed reads and poor angles. With stronger defensive tackle and linebacker play, you can get away with bear fronts—but that isn’t the talent that the Packers have added over the last few seasons. Minnesota in particular had no issues creating displacement with double teams and taking advantage of overeager linebackers.

Pettine has other answers he’s thrown around this season—he lagged the nose tackle against the Titans with great success, and tries to play with “heavy” 3-techniques to steal gaps in the running game. Essentially, anytime Clark is able to make a big play, the Packers get a stop on the ground—they get flashy plays from Rashan Gary, the Smiths, and Barnes as well—and Pettine is fine living under those conditions.

Of course, Packers fans aren’t: the model is out for beating the Packers. A heavy running script with big personnel, zone flow against bear fronts, thick double teams on Lowry, and Aaron Rodgers on the bench.

That’s the bad news. The good news? Nobody left in the playoffs runs the wide zone offense.

No, really. The Rams were the biggest threat to the Packers’ defensive structure, and they actually had the best single-game rushing performance against Green Bay since their Week 1 game against Minnesota (as measured by success rate). Arguably, if the Rams had stayed committed to the running game late—the Rams’ penultimate drive had six dropbacks to one designed run, and ended with a punt down seven in the fourth quarter—they could have tied the game up in Green Bay.

But the Packers and Pettine survived the Rams in the same way their rush defense has improved from 2019 into 2020: not by getting good, necessarily, but by becoming just good enough to skate by. Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—who could not run the ball against the Packers at all in Week 6—Green Bay will see gap concepts like duo and power, which they’ve fit up with success this season. They won’t see wide surfaces to force their safeties in the box, and their linebackers can play quick against double teams to spill runs outside and get their corners and safeties in the fit.

Should Green Bay win, they’ll see the Kansas City Chiefs or Buffalo Bills—two modest running teams. Kansas City will run zone, but they do it out of the gun with light personnel and surfaces, and they don’t have the offensive line to bully Green Bay in their bear fronts. Buffalo doesn’t really run the ball at all, but when they do, it’s with pullers on power ideas.

Green Bay is back in the NFC Championship Game and the story will be the offense that got them there—rightfully so. But what got them kicked out of the playoffs last year wasn’t any weakness or failure of the offense—it was a running defense with an Achilles heel, exposed on national television for four quarters by an undrafted free agent running back and a merciless running game savant on the opposite sideline.

This championship game—and these playoffs—don’t have that enemy anymore. Green Bay’s flank is protected, and the defense won’t prove the liability it did last season. They’ll do their job. So long as Rodgers and the offense do their job, it’s tough to imagine the Packers repeating their embarrassing playoff exit from last season—or perhaps losing a playoff game altogether.

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