Packers Playbook, Part 4: The Psycho Defense

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Packers Playbook LogoIn our fourth part of this series, we are going to take a look at the Green Bay Packers’ variation on their nickel defense, the “Psycho.” Dom Capers first unveiled it against the Chicago Bears in 2009 to much success. As its name implies, the goal is to create mass confusion for the offensive linemen and the quarterback.

Explaining the Formation

The Psycho package is a nickel defense, and as we covered in the last part of this series, this means that there are five defensive backs on the field. Compared to the basic 2-4-5 nickel defense that the Packers like to use, this one adds an extra linebacker in place of a defensive lineman. Thus, you have a 1-5-5 formation that is significantly difference in nature.

While we all like to give Dom Capers credit for his “mad scientist” concoctions for the defense, it’s important to note that this is not a formation exclusive to him or the Packers. The Pittsburgh Steelers have been utilizing this type of package since before the Packers, and the NFL has also seen it with the New England Patriots defense and with Rob Ryan’s defenses (among others). I’m also sure many of you Madden NFL fans have come across it in the video game.

As previously stated, the goal of this formation is to create confusion. By that definition, it could be considered a natural extension of the 3-4 philosophy – creating flexibility and unpredictability. Replacing one of the linemen with a linebacker allows the defense to more effectively hide where the pressure is coming from and where it is going to.

When you see the Psycho package on the field, you will notice the linebackers all mingling in front of the line of the scrimmage. They don’t line up in a specific point and will continue to roam until the ball is snapped. Even the lone defensive linemen will take a two-point stance rather than putting his hand in the dirt. This creates problems for the quarterback and offensive line when setting their protections, and if they are unprepared, it will cause them a lot of heartache.

One important thing to note is that this defense has a very specific purpose: stopping the pass on long down-and-distance situations. It’s used against offensive formations with 3-4 wide receivers, because it’s not equipped to handle a power running attack. The defense wants to overload a point on the line with pass rushers and force a quick throw at the least. When effectively executed, the offense doesn’t have the time or ability to get the ball past the chains, having to settle for something underneath.

This package is also ideally suited for offensive lines and quarterbacks that are less adequately equipped to handle it (e.g., the Bears). It’s less successful – but not useless – against veteran lines and quarterbacks with the ability to quickly diagnose and react to the pass rush, avoiding confusion along the way.

The Psycho Defense in Action

A disclaimer first: this is the only play in this series not taken from the 2012 season. Capers has used it far less frequently the past couple years, so it’s harder to track down a decent example of its use. He actually used it the most in 2010, so that’s where I’m going to go back to.

This play comes from Week 2 when Green Bay crushed the hapless Buffalo Bills. It’s the first quarter, and the Bills are on their own 20-yards line. It’s their first possession, but it’s 3rd-and-9 and they’re looking to answer a Mason Crosby field goal.

Breaking Down the Play

Looking for a big gain through the air, the Bills go four-wide with a 10 personnel grouping (1 RB–0 TE–4 WR). They’re in a 2×2 alignment with the quarterback in the shotgun. It’s a fairly obvious passing situation and a perfect time for Capers to send in the Psycho – shake up Trent Edwards early and keep him off balance.

Cullen Jenkins is the lone lineman on this play, and he was the perfect type of player for this defense. He was a dominant pass rusher who could command offenses to double-team him. Behind Jenkins were three outside linebackers and two inside linebackers making up the jumbled mess which the offense had to try to sort out. Were they all going to rush or only some of them? Would any of them drop back for a zone blitz? And what area of the offensive line were they going to attack?

(Charles Woodson is also roaming around the slot receiver, and any offense who played the Packers should know he was an additional threat to blitz.)

Well, here’s what ended up happening:

psycho

Brady Poppinga ends up being the linebacker who bails into the middle zone while the rest of them rush the quarterback. As a quick side note, I didn’t completely draw up the receivers’ routes and secondary’s paths for two reasons: (1) there’s no coaches film available for that season, and (2) the primary focus of this play is what happens at the line anyway. It’s obvious, too, that all four receivers are going to make their cuts/breaks deep.

This blitz is a classic case of the defensive coordinator trying to overload one side of the offensive line. In this case, they’re loading up the strong side, but they’re also concentrating their attack on the right guard. Clay Matthews, A.J. Hawk, and Nick Barnett all converge on that point with some cross and stunt moves to further throw off the linemen.

The running back picks up Brandon Chillar on the outside, while the center, right guard, and right tackle are all trying to sort out the oncoming rush. Matthews is the one who breaks through first, as the center is no match for his speed, but Hawk is right behind after blowing past the tackle. Edwards has no choice but to take the sack or run for his life. He unwisely chooses the latter.

Before wrapping this up, I want to draw your attention to one significant move. You’ll notice that Cullen Jenkins attacks the left tackle instead of shooting one of the A gaps in front of him. This serves a couple purposes: (1) it occupies the left guard and tackle, and (2) it keeps contain on the quarterback so he can’t safely scramble left. If you watch the play again, you’ll notice the left guard immediately moves to pick up Jenkins, but he’s too late to turn back around and help the center with Matthews once he realizes Jenkins never had any intention of shooting the B gap.

This is the kind of chaos that the Psycho defense brings to the field. It makes quick work of easy prey and can be very effective in 3rd-and-long situations. The quarterback simply doesn’t have time to let the deep routes develop, and without any open reads, he’s in serious trouble.

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Chad Toporski, a Wisconsin native and current Pittsburgh resident, is a writer for AllGreenBayPackers.com. You can follow Chad on twitter at @ChadToporski

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  • PatMc

    Keep up the good work. I’m learning some new things and your break down is fun to read.

    • Chad Toporski

      Thanks, Pat!

  • GBPDAN

    Im sorry for beating a dead horse, but, Watching Jenkins play, ..I can’t help but think TT regrets letting Jenkins walk for a fair market value price. TT Should have made him feel wanted (once the market didn’t offer a over valued price) by offering Cullen a reasonable 2 year deal. This move was one of the key ccomponents to the worst D , yards wise, in nfl history , and a possible chance at another SB. I like TT overall, but that move still bothers me. Maybe I’ll get over it when Ted brings another trophy home.

    • Chad Toporski

      I definitely agree, and I think if TT were completely honest with us, he would agree, too. TT is not an infallible GM, but I still have a lot of faith in his ability to manage the roster.

  • Oppy

    When referencing that Pittsburgh has used the same front or scheme as Dom Capers, one has to remember that Dom Capers and Dick LeBeau together in Pittsburgh pioneered much of the alignments and zone-blitz schemes that both still use heavily to this day.

    Much like people talk about the Bill Walsh WCO tree of OC’s, LeBeau and Capers can be found at the root of the modern 3-4 zone-blitz schemes that are enjoying a resurgence.

    • Chad Toporski

      Obviously, though I couldn’t actually find a historical reference for a 1-5-5 package, so I’m not sure where or who might have first used it.

      • Oppy

        Thank goodness, because I’m totally grasping at straws on this one.

        Just kidding.

        But sorta..

        No, totally, but not.

        • Chad Toporski

          lol, you never cease to amuse me, Oppy.

  • Zeman

    Yeah, Jenkins, almost four years later we’re still crying about loosing him. I think BJ misses him more then anyone. Agreed, stupid move letting him walk.