The past few weeks have been an almost constant stream of positive injury news for Packers fans. All-Pro CB Jaire Alexander was activated from IR on December 29, though he hasn’t suited up for a game yet. All-Pro LT David Bakhtiari was able to return to the field for the first time this season against the Lions. Rookie C Josh Myers was able to get playing time in the Lions game as well. This week, RT Billy Turner and All-Pro edge rusher Za’Darius Smith returned to practice. Earlier today, edge rusher Whitney Mercilus also made an appearance at practice. Green Bay appears to be receiving a huge shot in the arm as they head into the playoffs. Most of these players seem to be on track for the Packers’ first playoff game in the Divisional Round. All of them could be critical, but I want to take an especially close look at how the defense could be impacted by the return of Smith, Mercilus, and Alexander. First, let’s cover the edge rushers.
1. Za’Darius Smith and Whitney Mercilus Can Supercharge the Green Bay Pass-Rush
We’ll start with a somewhat obvious point. The return of Za’Darius and Mercilus is a huge boon to the Packers pass-rushing corp. Preston Smith, Rashan Gary, Dean Lowry, and Kenny Clark have done a fantastic job getting pressure in their absence. However, the backup rushers – such as Jonathan Garvin and Tipa Galeai – have been inconsistent and underwhelming at best. Even if Za’Darius is only 70 – 80% healthy, he’ll still be a huge upgrade as a rotational rusher. The return of Whitney Mercilus will have a similar effect, giving Joe Barry another effective, veteran rusher to rotate in when necessary.
Using Smith as a rotational edge piece is not the only way to get him on the field. In the past, we’ve seen him used as a rusher from the three technique or nose tackle positions. He’s been able to wreak havoc as a rover in subpackages, both against the pass and the run.
When he was on the field earlier this season, Mercilus also displayed some alignment versatility. Joe Barry lined him up both on the edge and over the guard on several occasions.
The idea of these two rushers on the field at the same time as Gary, Preston, or Clark should terrify NFC offenses. The Packers were already one of the top defenses in generating pressure. The return of Za’Darius and Mercilus could turn the Packers pass rush into a buzzsaw that can tear a path right to another Super Bowl win.
2. Za’Darius Gives Barry A Devastating Weapon On DL Stunts
One of my favorite defensive tools is the DL stunt or twist. Often used to enhance a four-man rush, stunts can help force miscommunications on the offensive line and give pass-rushers an extra edge. Joe Barry has employed stunts multiple times this season, but has really ramped up their usage over the second half of the year. Stunts like the ones GB uses are usually deployed in passing situations, and involve one pass-rusher crashing into the OL at an angle while another rusher loops around behind them. Za’Darius Smith has the strength, speed, violent explosiveness, and extensive toolbox of pass-rush moves to excel as either the crasher or looper. Whether on the edge or replacing a slower interior rusher like Dean Lowry, Smith could really bring the Green Bay stunt game to a new level.
Now that we’ve covered some of the ways Smith and Mercilus could help the defensive front, what could Jaire Alexander do for the secondary?
3. Jaire Alexander Can Upgrade the Packers’ Slot Coverage
As of right now, we don’t know exactly how the Packers will use Alexander once he returns. When the Packers are in base, he may take his old spot as one of the outside CBs. However, when GB goes into dime or nickel personnel, it seems likely that Jaire will slide inside to the slot CB position. The excellent play of Rasul Douglas and Eric Stokes leave Chandon Sullivan as the weakest link in the CB rotation. Jaire Alexander could help address this deficiency. In fact, we already have proof that Joe Barry is willing to move Alexander inside in certain situations.
Time will tell whether or not Barry chooses to pursue this strategy, but it seems like the most logical option given the skillsets of Stokes and Douglas.
4. Jaire Alexander In the Slot Would Allow Barry to Run More Coverages
While I think Joe Barry has done a good job running a variety of coverage types to this point in the season, having Jaire to erase slot receivers would allow him even more freedom. The most common coverage run by Green Bay is Quarters coverage, which has the safeties and outside corners each take a deep 1/4 of the field. One advantage to this coverage is how it protects the slot. A safety is usually overtop of the slot CB, which allows the defense to bracket slot receivers.
While it’s impossible to confirm from the outside, I think that it’s possible that Barry sometimes calls Quarters to protect Chandon Sullivan from getting burned. Having Jaire in the slot would alleviate this weakness. This could lead to more frequent man coverage or alternative zone calls like Cover 2. We could even see Barry turn up the pressure with a greater variety of blitz designs, since he no longer has to worry about Sullivan being on an island.
One aspect of this subject to note: Quarters coverage also has the advantage of keeping the slot CB largely out of run fits. The Packers may still choose to call Quarters coverage a fair amount, especially as Jaire gets acclimated, in order to protect his shoulder. If Alexander is forced to regularly get involved in the run game, he could be at greater risk of reinjury.
5. Jaire In the Slot Could Have a Ripple Effect on Personnel Usage
I think that if Alexander becomes the primary slot CB, new possibilities could open up for other players. One of the defense’s main coverage liabilities in recent weeks has been safety Darnell Savage. He has struggled in a variety of situations, such as when he allowed two touchdowns against Ravens TE Mark Andrews in Week 15.
With Jaire in the slot, the Packers should be able to play more varied coverages; specifically, I think it could provide the opportunity for them to play more Robber coverages with Savage. This was a changeup that helped the safety rack up four interceptions in the second half of 2020. At this point, the best thing for Savage might be this kind of simplified role, where he can read the eyes of the QB and make plays. More defensive flexibility could also lead to more blitzes and simulated pressures that utilize Savage’s speed and athleticism.
Darnell Savage isn’t the only secondary player who could benefit from a changed role. Chandon Sullivan performed well as a dime safety in 2019. If Alexander displaces him as the primary slot corner, he could very well return to a similar role for a playoff run.
We still don’t know exactly what the return of Za’Darius Smith, Whitney Mercilus, and Jaire Alexander will look like. There is no doubt, though, that their presence will give a valuable boost to the Packers D entering the playoffs. There are a variety of improvements, both direct and indirect, that they could bring.
I, for one, can’t wait to see what happens next.