As Packers fans know all too well, the issues with the 2022 defense were numerous. The front seven struggled incessantly against the run game. The secondary miscommunicated and broke down in coverage. Once Rashan Gary went down, Green Bay’s remaining pass-rushers struggled to apply pressure.
One of many failures was that of Green Bay’s “Penny” package, a nickel personnel group that removes one of the inside linebackers, rather than taking out a defensive lineman, in order to put in a nickel DB. In theory, the Penny package can be incredibly useful. Maintaining a five man front can create more one-on-ones in pass-rush situations. Penny formations can also prove more stout in the run game, clogging up interior lanes with defensive line bodies and forcing running backs to bounce the ball outside for the safeties and sole inside linebacker to clean up. Unfortunately, the Packers’ iteration of the Penny often disappointed.
Failures of the 2022 Penny Front
There were quite a few things that went wrong when the Packers got into Penny in 2022. Interior defensive lineman, such as Dean Lowry, often failed to hold up well enough to force runs outside. Even when the interior did its part, the mop-up defenders struggled to hold up their end of the bargain.
To make matters worse, the rigidity created by Green Bay’s scheme and personnel often hurt their defensive efforts. With an outside linebacker room constructed with players who mostly weigh upwards of 260 lbs., Green Bay lacked the ability to consistently drop an edge player into coverage. The result? Most Penny fronts became five man rushes in pass-rush situations – meaning that the secondary was weakened and usually had to play more predictable blitz coverages. This didn’t matter as much when Rashan Gary, the most effective pass-rusher on the the Packers front, was available to generate quick wins and draw increased protection.
Here’s an example. In this clip the defense is in Penny, and Gary creates pressure quick enough to prevent the QB from taking advantage of the mismatch (LB vs. WR) at the #3 receiver spot.
However, once Gary went down, Green Bay’s defense faced a conundrum. Sending more five-man rushes seemed to be necessary to fill the pass-rush void left by Gary. However, getting too varied and creative in the pressure paths meant dropping those massive outside linebackers into coverage on a more frequent basis. The Packers opted to send more pressure, but did so in relatively basic ways – often by resorting to five-man Penny rushes or sending a single rusher from the second level in their 4-2-5 packages. Offenses, faced with a five-man rush that wasn’t getting home quickly, found ways to pick apart the weakened, vanilla secondary.
Here the defense is again in Penny. This time, they can’t get pressure fast enough and the QB takes advantage of the basic blitz coverage to throw and convert a one-on-one.
However, despite these failings, the Penny seems to be the best way to keep a coverage advantage against offenses while still maintaining some semblance of stoutness against the run. Even considering the front’s 2022 inconsistency, it still showed that it can stop the run if executed well.
So, how to remedy some of the issues mentioned while balancing the need to rush the passer, maintain coverage integrity, and defend the run?
Setting Out to Fix the Penny
It seems clear that Green Bay’s personnel department took notice of the team’s pass-rush deficiencies as they surveyed the results of 2022. The front office made a point to pick multiple versatile players to bolster the front four. Lukas Van Ness, Colby Wooden, and Karl Brooks all lined up across the defensive front in college, and all three have intriguing potential as pass-rushers.
Given Green Bay’s lack of experienced depth on the defensive line, the three rookies might have to hit the ground running. However, if they can provide greater pass-rush juice to a front that lacked it at times in 2022, the Packers’ Penny front – and defense in general – could see a jump in effectiveness.
It appears that Green Bay may be exploring ways to increase their structural flexibility and adaptability on defense as well. The versatility of inside linebacker Quay Walker – particularly his ability to take snaps as an edge rusher – has been a major topic of discussion this offseason. Combined with the positional flexibility of their newly drafted young defensive linemen, Walker’s ability to line up all over the formation could be a game-changer for the Packers’ Penny package.
Lining up Walker on the edge gives the Green Bay defense a capable coverage dropper in space. They would no longer be confined to five-man rushes and single-high blitz coverages when facing passing situations in their five-man fronts. The Packers experienced some success returning to heavy usage of two-high coverages late in 2022, and Quay’s ability on the edge could allow them to combine this more frequently with five-man Penny looks. In addition, Green Bay could leverage the versatility of their front to create greater uncertainty for offenses.
What are some examples of this versatility? A personnel grouping that might normally be designated as a 4-2-5 nickel package – Van Ness and Preston Smith on the edge, Kenny Clark and T.J. Slaton on the interior, and Quay and De’Vondre Campbell off the ball – could easily be transformed into Penny, with Van Ness sliding inside and Quay dropping down onto the edge. Walker’s potential to create this type of flexibility and uncertainty was highlighted by Acme Packing Company’s Justis Mosqueda soon after the linebacker was drafted, and the potential of these sorts of personnel groups has only been heightened by the additions made to the defensive line.
In addition to making it harder for offenses to predict Green Bay’s defensive plan based on pre-snap personnel decisions, this type of flexibility opens up greater tactical options for the defensive staff. If offenses start operating with heavy motion or running a good deal of power and counter – in other words, plays where the defense could face a disadvantage with fewer off-the-ball “adjusters” – the Packers can simply have Quay slide right back to an off-the-ball alignment without having to turn to a new personnel package.
Likewise, the ability to form Penny at almost any time could give Green Bay an advantage against teams that like to go under center – a look where the defense could benefit from more men on the line to counter downhill runs.
Other personnel options exist as well. Green Bay could instead send out a group of three true interior defensive lineman – say, for example, Colby Wooden, Kenny Clark, and Devonte Wyatt – along with Campbell, Quay, and Smith. Instead of lining up in a five-man look with Walker on the edge, however, they could align Quay off the ball and slide the defensive line over to form a four-man front with a “heavy” 5t/7t – Wooden or Wyatt, perhaps – opposite Smith. This is a look they had some success with in the final game of the season against the Lions.
This multiplicity could manifest in base personnel as well. Sending out an inside linebacker group of Walker, Campbell, and Isaiah McDuffie, and a group of front four players like Van Ness, Wyatt, Slaton, and Smith could allow the defense to play their traditional 3-4, but would also allow them to get into the 4-3 package they have used in the past against heavy outside zone teams, or even their dedicated run-stopping 6-1 package.
The Packers defense, by adding versatile players in the last two drafts, have built a roster with exciting capabilities. The combined talents of the young defensive front and Quay Walker could increase the defense’s multiplicity in the Penny front, while also fixing the pressure problems the defense encountered in 2022. Now, it’s up to the players to execute and the defensive staff to maximize the unit’s potential. Considering the youth of many of Green Bay’s players and the dubious history of some of the coaching staff, the possibilities outlined here are projections at this point. It will be fascinating to watch if, how, and where Green Bay finds ways to leverage the players it has amassed over the last couple seasons.
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