If you’ve ever listened to the Green and Gold Today Podcast, I’m sure you’ve heard co-host Bill Johnson complain about the “soft underbelly of the defense”, by which he is referring to the fact that the Packers defense always seems to give up yardage in the middle of the field. This “soft underbelly” was supposed to be fixed from last year but in the last two games, every time the Saints or Colts offense needed a big gain (often on 3rd and long) it seemed like all they had to do was throw the ball in the general direction of the middle field and one receiver would catch the ball without much trouble. Marques Colston lit it up with 153 yards and a touchdown in week 4 and Reggie Wayne come out of last weeks game with 212 yards and a touchdown, which is especially disconcerting since the majority of those yards came in large chunks and in the middle of the field. So what exactly is going on with the Packers defense and why are they giving up so many yards up the middle?
The situation: It’s the beginning of the 4th quarter and the Packers hold a 2 point advantage at 21-19. The Packers were just forced to punt the ball and punter Tim Masthay pins the Colts at their own 15 yard line. While the Packers appeared to have the game in the bag with a strong showing in the first half, the tide of success has definitely turned to the Colts as the Packers appear to have a lapse of concentration and accomplish nothing in the 3rd quarter.
The formation: The Colts come out in a 2-2-1 formation (2WR-2TE-1RB) in a traditional running formation. TE Coby Fleener and TE Dwayne Allen are inline with the left tackle in a unbalanced formation. WR Reggie Wayne is aligned out wide to the left of the formation but motions to the slot pre-snap while WR TJ Hilton is aligned in the slot on the right. Finally, RB Donald Brown is lined up 5 yards behind QB Andrew Luck who takes the snap from the center. The Packers, suspecting run respond with their base 3-4 defense. On the defensive line, DE Jerel Worthy (99), CJ Wilson (98) and Ryan Pickett (79, who has replaced NT BJ Raji at nose tackle after he left with a leg injury) make up the standard 3 down linemen. In the linebacker core, OLB Erik Walden (93) and OLB Clay Matthews III (52) have the edges while ILB AJ Hawk (50) and ILB DJ Smith (51) have the inside. In the secondary, CB Tramon Williams (38) is aligned across from WR Wayne while CB Sam Shields (37) is aligned across from WR TJ Hilton. SS Charles Woodson (21) and FS Morgan Burnett (42) initially appear to each be covering a deep half but as Woodson rotates into the box it becomes a single high safety look. For Dom Capers, this is a very vanilla defense; my assumption is that Capers doesn’t want to get burned deep with the game so close and he’s betting that the Colts can’t move the ball 50 yards for field goal, given the time left and the score this is a pretty rational decision.
The Snap: At the snap QB Luck performs a play action fake with RB Brown, who after faking the handoff goes through the offensive line and runs an out route (5 route) . On the perimeter, WR Wayne runs a post (8 route) while WR Hilton runs either a really funny looking corner route (7 route) or a fade route with a funny double move (9 route). TE Fleener stays back to block while TE Allen also runs a post route (8 route).
I’ve labeled the Packers defensive assignments by color: red arrows either indicate pass rush or contain, blue arrows indicated man coverage while green arrows indicate zone coverage. Perhaps the interesting thing to note in this picture is that CB Williams is cognizant of WR Wayne’s deep play ability and has given a very large cushion, which is slightly surprising since CB Williams is known for his bump and run skills. Perhaps Williams knows that he has no safety help or just doesn’t want to give up the big play. Other than that, the Packers actually cover this one pretty well, CB Shields and FS Burnett go high-low coverage on WR Hilton while SS Woodson protects the left flat, which also is a logical move since with two tight ends on the left the presumption is that at least one is probably running a route and is perhaps even the hot read. ILB Hawk comes up to the line as he sees the play action, but recovers nicely and takes RB Brown out as a viable receiving option in the play. Furthermore, ILB Smith also does a pretty decent job covering TE Allen. OLB Matthews comes up to cover TE Fleener, but upon seeing Fleener stay back to block immediately peels off and transitions out to coverage.
Pass rush: Simply put there isn’t any; with OLB Matthews covering TE Fleener and then switching out into coverage, the Colts 5 offensive linemen handle the Packers 4 pass rushers without much problem. This picture was taking 3.2 seconds after the snap and as you can see, there isn’t a Packer within 5 yards of QB Luck and he hasn’t even had to move in the pocket. Given that the Packers standard with QB Aaron Rodgers is 2.5 seconds, who is known for his quick release (as made famous by the buzzer at practice), the defense simply isn’t getting pressure fast enough to disrupt the play. While sacks can be a little misleading, the fact that QB has a clean pocket and all the time in the world to throw makes the result pretty obvious. WR Wayne has eaten all the cushion given to him by CB Williams at the snap and after the cut is open and makes the easy catch for 26 yards.
Conclusion: The “soft underbelly of the defense” appears to not be the pass defense but the pass rush. Simply put, no NFL team can expect their coverage to last more than 2.5 seconds, not only are NFL rules heavily biased towards passing (i.e. defensive pass interference and no contact after 5 yards), but with more spread looks appearing in the NFL as well as an offensive concentration on accuracy means that no cornerback can be a “shutdown” corner anymore. If you look at the Packers defense at its most dominant this year (against the Bears in case you’ve forgotten), the Packers rattled the quarterback fast enough where it didn’t force it’s coverage into a bad situation. As for the middle of the field, I would assume that Packers defenders have an easier time on the perimeter (and therefore can “hold on” for longer) because the boundaries act as another defender, obviously the receiver isn’t going to run an out route if he’s 5-yards from the edge of the field. In the middle however, the receiver has a distinct advantage because every route is essentially a possibility; in this play Tramon Williams is trying to cut off any big plays by playing on top of Reggie Wayne; only problem with this is that this leaves the underneath routes open, which normally isn’t a big problem in a prevent defense. The issue however becomes apparent when the play lasts for too long due to no pass rush and Wayne closes the space between him and Williams, who now is at a decided disadvantage because he doesn’t have the time to react to every route.
Overall the pass rush is better than last year but still not good enough: OLB Walden has done better than he did during the 2nd half of the 2011 season, but still isn’t taking advantage of one on one blocking afforded to him by Clay Matthews. Rookie Nick Perry and Jerel Worthy have a ton of potential, but are probably one trick ponies at this point and probably need a year or two to develop the full repertoire of moves needed to make a consistent impact in pass rushing. I think perhaps the most pressing issue would be the loss of BJ Raji; I’ve always been curious what the Packers would do if Raji got hurt; obviously Ryan Pickett moves to the middle and while Pickett can hold up a double team, I don’t think he really has the capacity to split a double team consistently at this point, and pressure up the middle is one of the best ways of flustering a quarterback. These last two games demonstrate that while the Packers know what their problem is and have picked up the pieces to fix it, GM Ted Thompson’s “draft and develop” strategy doesn’t allow for quick fixes; overall I would say that this year has already been better than last year, but just not good enough yet.
Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.