As the final week of the NFL regular season approaches, the Packers are in prime position. After winning multiple critical games following the Week 14 bye, the team controls its own destiny at 8-8. A critical part of this turnaround has been a resurgent defense.
Joe Barry’s unit has secured 9 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 7 interceptions over that stretch, holding its three post-bye opponents to an average of approximately 16.3 PPG. That number is a bit deceptive, however, considering that they allowed 14 points to the Vikings after pulling most of their starters in a 41-3 blowout. If we adjust the numbers to account for that fact, the Packers are allowing a stellar 11.7 PPG.
Advanced stats back up that improvement. DVOA has them as the #3 defense in the NFL following the bye – 4th against the pass and 12th against the run.
Since the Packers came out of their bye, Football Outsiders has them as the #1 team in football with the 9th ranked offense, #3 defense, and the #1 ST unit. pic.twitter.com/ZyP7G9tuAS
— Pack Daddy | Packernet Podcast (@Pack_Daddy) January 2, 2023
Another stat often used in advanced analytics – Expected Points Added (EPA) – also reflects Green Bay’s post-bye defensive excellence. From Week 15 to Week 17, the Packers are ranked 5th in total EPA/play, 8th in dropback EPA, and 8th in rush EPA. If we adjust the model to exclude some garbage time statistics (when Green Bay’s win probability was between 2% and 98%, ideally negating some of the meaningless data from the end of the Vikings game), the Packers defense shifts to 2nd in EPA/play, 4th in dropback EPA, and 9th in rush EPA.
For comparison’s sake, the same model ranked Green Bay as 25th in EPA/play, 13th in dropback EPA, and 31st in rush EPA in Weeks 1-14,. The defense’s improvement has been drastic, though it is worth noting that their opponents have not provided the highest levels of competition. Green Bay has been able to take advantage of ailing offensive lines in their games against Los Angeles, Miami, and Minnesota. Still, the resurgence of the defense has been impressive to watch.
What’s Behind This Improvement?
There are multiple factors behind the drastic shift in defensive success. Certain shifts in personnel – the temporary benching of Darnell Savage, for example – have contributed. There has been better execution, particularly in the secondary. As mentioned before, opposing offenses have not always been of the highest quality, especially up front. However, one of the biggest reasons for the defensive improvement seems to be schematic tweaks implemented over the bye.
An excellent piece recently written by Daire Carragher of Packer Report explores some of these shifts. Daire goes over several schematic adjustments in the post-bye defensive scheme, but perhaps the most important of these changes was the style of coverage being played by the defense. Daire explains that, according to PFF, Barry went from spending only 4% of snaps in Cover 2 before the bye week to 17.6% after the bye. They also began using Cover 6 – a hybrid of Quarters and Cover 2, with quarter zones played on one side of the field and a deep half played to the other – over 28% of the time after only playing it on only 7.7% of snaps before the bye.
There are multiple benefits to spending increased time in Cover 2, Cover 6, and their relatives (PFF is probably painting in broad strokes when they report these numbers). Obviously, two high safeties help prevent big plays and allow underneath defenders to play more aggressively. However, one of the great advantages of the two-high family of coverages is their versatility.
Because the defensive structure is effectively split in half, defensive coordinators can mix and match coverage variations on demand. If you are worried about crossing routes coming from the strength of the formation, you can play Cover 8 – half-quarter-quarter with the Cover 2 side to the passing strength – putting a more aggressive Quarters safety in position to rob those routes coming across the field. If you want to get multiple eyes on a star receiver that the opponent is trying to put in advantageous situations, such as the isolated receiver spot in 3×1, you can play Cover 6 with the half-field zone to the single receiver side.
These are just a few examples. Within Cover 6, Cover 8, Cover 2, Cover 4, etc., the DC can manipulate individual techniques to combat offensive tendencies on a more granular level.
In other words, two-high coverages allow DCs to create “layers” to the coverage, removing certain coverage stressors and making it harder for offenses to take advantage of individual personnel or leverage matchups.
This week-to-week malleability is one of the biggest reasons the shift in coverage focus has been so successful for Green Bay. Joe Barry has done an excellent job identifying critical schematic needs and leveraging his increased two-high coverage structures to negate what offenses want to do. There are multiple examples of this playing out on film.
The Rams Game
When rewatching film on the Rams game, it is clear that QB Baker Mayfield badly wanted to access throws up the seam and across the middle of the field. It is also clear that Joe Barry and his staff made a concerted effort to take away these throws. They did so by playing a number of Cover 8 snaps – which, as explained above, is half-quarter-quarter coverage with the Cover 2 side to the passing strength.
On these snaps, Barry & Co. had their nickel corner (Keisean Nixon), play an aggressive form of zone match coverage. Despite starting out in a zone alignment, he carries any vertically-stemming route across the field. Using this call and style of coverage helps remove stress on the intermediate defenders, who don’t have to worry as much about gaining depth to combat intermediate routes from the slot.
On this boot-action concept, Nixon’s tight coverage takes away the Over route from the slot, leaving the linebackers free to match the underneath checkdowns. Mayfield is forced to take a sack.
On this interception out of Cover 8, Nixon’s inside trailing position helps take away the bender that Mayfield wants down the seam. With Mayfield’s eyes on the vertical route, the Packers rush has time to affect the throw, creating a turnover.
The Rams ran essentially the same route concept later in the game. The deep stop route from the iso receiver is supposed to occupy the Quarters corner and safety, while the Bender/Post attacks the leverage of the half-field safety and slips in behind the Quarters side of the coverage. If this were more of a true zone Cover 8, this would be a solid call, but the tight zone-matching from the slot takes the air out of the seam route, forcing Mayfield to scramble.
The Dolphins Game
Facing an entirely different animal in the Dolphins offense, the Green Bay defense altered its approach again. For much of the game, the defense played with 6-man fronts. They used two-high coverages with the overhang players aligned down on the line of scrimmage. They did this for several reasons. First, it allowed them to create one-on-ones to more readily counteract the Dolphins’ rushing attack while still keeping both safeties back to protect against Miami’s explosive receivers.
Equally important, the Packers formed these fronts in order to help disrupt the vertical RPO game that has become a staple of the Dolphins offense. Quay Walker played an important role in this endeavor. Barry frequently had him up at the line of scrimmage in 6-1 or 4-3 personnel packages, using his length and size to disrupt wide receivers as they released.
In this clip, Quay knocks the #1 receiver off his path, destroying the route spacing. Green Bay’s two-high coverage – it looks like Quarters here – condenses space well and creates another turnover.
This wasn’t the only way that Green Bay countered the Dolphins by manipulating their two-high coverage structures. At several points in the game, they played versions of two-high that tightly matched routes on the outside, creating what was almost a man-coverage look for Tua Tagovailoa.
Later in the game, on the crucial final Dolphins drive, Barry switched up this tendency. Before the snap, the alignment of Green Bay’s outside CBs would seem to indicate a similar style of tight match coverage. As a result, Tua expects the Smash route on the bottom of the clip to be open. Instead, CB Rasul Douglas drops off of the underneath route and sinks under the Smash route to secure the pick.
The Vikings Game
In their most recent matchup, Green Bay again showed the ability to adapt their two-high coverages to counter a specific opponent. Going into the Minnesota game, the number one priority for the Packers secondary was obviously stopping Justin Jefferson. They turned to a multitude of coverage structures to do so. Perhaps the most obvious adjustment to fans is allowing Jaire Alexander to aggressively jam Jefferson. To do so they had Jaire spend much of the game shadowing the star receiver, while the defense played either Cover 6 or Cover 8 depending on where Jefferson aligned.
Here, Jefferson lines up as the #1 receiver to the passing strength (the side with two wide receivers). With the Green Bay secondary playing Cover 8 (Cover 2 to the passing strength), Jaire doesn’t have to worry about getting beat deep and can violently disrupt Jefferson’s release.
In the next clip, Jefferson is isolated on the backside of 3×1. The Packers are in Cover 6, meaning that Jaire again has deep safety help and can be aggressive while jamming Jefferson.
The Packers also employed two-high coverages that emphasized tight route matching across the board while still getting multiple eyes on Jefferson. Here they appear to be playing “Ring 18.” Ring is a version of 2 Man (two-high with man coverage underneath) that works to adapt the coverage depending on where a star receiver lines up.
Normally an outside alignment like Jefferson takes here would prompt “Fist” to Jefferson’s side (man underneath with a safety playing a deep half) and “Pounder” to the other side of the field (man under with the safety playing Quarter technique). However, with Jefferson in a reduced split, the coverage to his side converts to Pounder as well, allowing the safety to his side to help on in-breaking routes.
Finally, the Packers used the flexibility of their Cover 8 packages to counteract Minnesota’s attempts to gain formational advantages.
Here, the Vikings align in 4×1 formation, overloading one side of the field. In order to regain a numbers advantage, the Packers use a “trix” call, essentially locking the backside CB (Douglas) in man against the iso receiver and allowing the rest of the Quarters defenders away from the passing strength to look frontside. Green Bay is able to smother the crossing routes that Minnesota tries to run, forcing a checkdown. They do an excellent job rallying to the ball, tackling the carrier for a short gain and forcing a FG attempt (that the Vikings would miss).
The post-bye defensive resurgence is rooted in multiple factors, but one of the foremost causes is how Joe Barry and his staff are deploying their two-high coverages. Barry has been able to adapt his coverages to each week’s opponent, using the flexibility of two-high structures to give Green Bay an edge. His efforts and the excellent execution of his players have helped the Packers gain control over their destiny as the playoffs approach. How might he adapt his defense even further in the coming weeks? Only time will tell.
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