Packers Xs and Os: Sean Richardson as a Substitution Package Linebacker

When Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson matched the Oakland Raiders’ 1 year/$2.55 million offer to restricted free agent safety Sean Richardson, speculation as to why ran rampant.

With Morgan Burnett, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and Micah Hyde being the first three safeties on the roster, the contract seemed expensive for a backup. This was even before Thompson drafted Damarious Randall as a hybrid safety/cornerback with his first pick in the 2015 draft.

One first reaction to the contract was Richardson was signed to be an expensive, but rock-solid, special teams contributor.

However, as the 14th most expensive player on the roster, that seems like a reach, or at least only part of the story.

What makes more sense, however, is the potential use of Richardson as a linebacker in the nickel and dime substitution packages.

Why?

For starters, the deliberate losses of A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones in the off season suggests the Packers have alternative plans for their middle linebacker positions in Dom Capers’ defense. Their willingness to cut two starters before the draft, and then not signing a free agent shortly after, suggests they have that replacement player and/or role already on the roster.

Secondly, Richardson was a box safety while in college at Vanderbilt who showed flashes of athletic brilliance, but struggled in coverage compared to other safeties. The Packers believed he could develop coverage skills over time, but after his first three years in the NFL, it’s pretty obvious that he will never be a ball-hawking safety.

But, what he could be is a linebacker in substitution packages because he does have better coverage skills than the average linebacker and he is also large and physical enough to provide run support.

In other words, he’s potentially perfect as a box defender in substitution packages. He’s a “tweener” because he’s big for a safety (220 pounds) but small for a linebacker. He doesn’t cover as well as a good safety, but he’s more fluid than a good linebacker.

Let’s take a look at how the Packers might use Richardson in some very basic coverage schemes. As always, this article is an oversimplification for illustrative purposes.

The coverages below could be either the nickel or the dime, and I deliberately left players out of the diagrams to illustrate the oversimplified explanations.

Dom Capers has one of the most complex playbooks out there, but he has tipped his hand that when using nickel and dime substitution packages, he likes to use man-to-man match quarters with 3-on-2 bracket coverage on the weak side.

Man-to-man match quarters fits Richardson’s coverage skills very well because he’ll never be responsible for vertical routes or the deep half of the field. He can play in the box where he’s the most comfortable.

Let’s examine the quarters 3-on-2 coverage on the weak side, because it’s most likely that if Richardson is used as a linebacker, it will be on the weak side; a regular linebacker usually leverages strong side in substitution packages.

The pass defense has 3 defenders to guard 2 receivers. Quarters means a maximum of 4 defenders can play deep (most offensives never run more than 4 verticals except for Hail Mary plays). Matching means that the defenders rotate to specific routes and the free defender has a specific role based on the pattern combinations.

In the diagram below, the weak side is the right and Richardson is the dollar ($) symbol.

Slide1

This figure shows the 3 ($, S, and CB) bracket coverage on 2 WRs.

In the 3-on-2, he is known as the “wall” defender because quarters is a MOFO (middle of field open) defense. This means there is no safety inside the hash marks. Therefore, the defense must do their best to redirect the routes away from the deep middle, either by pushing them outside or forcing them underneath.

The “wall” defender must read the number 2 receiver first and the number 1 receiver second. He must keep vertical routes outside of the hash marks and shorter routes in front of him.

If the number 2 receiver goes vertical, he must push the inside vertical outside the hash marks, as the free defender, towards the safety. The safety and cornerback have vertical responsibilities in quarters coverage.

The diagram below shows the weak side quarters coverage against 2 verticals.

Slide2

Since there is no middle defender in MOFO, the safety must have his body between the receiver and the middle of the field to force a throw over the outside shoulder, which is more difficult.

Also, as a “wall” defender, he is responsible for the first inside route.

The diagram below shows the number 2 receiver running an in route, so the “wall” must drive down hill and play on top of the route and prevent him from getting deep. The cornerback carries the number 1 outside vertical down the field. The safety, who is now the free defender, reads the number 1 and number 2 receivers and provides help to the ball.

Slide3

Similarly, if the number 1 receiver runs an in route, but the number 2 does not, the “wall” must cover the number 1 because he is the first inside route. The cornerback carries the number 2 vertically. The safety plays over the top of the ball as the free defender.

Slide4

Last week, we looked briefly at “palms” coverage. Let’s take a closer look at it using the “wall” defender.

Slide5

The diagram above shows that if there are no weak side inside routes, the “wall” must redirect any shallow route to his cornerback help. With the cornerback driving downhill to the inside route, the safety must carry the number 1 receiver vertically.

Since quarters has man-to-man principles, it’s possible to blitz while still having adequate deep coverage against two verticals.

The 3-on-2 coverage allows the extra defender to blitz, and in this case Richardson could become a valuable blitzer.

Slide10

The diagram above shows a weak side blitz while still protecting against double verticals.

We won’t know what the Packers have in store for Richardson until training camp starts, so your guess is as good as mine. Everything I wrote is pure speculation. However, from what I’ve seen out of Capers’ playbook in recent years, it would be more surprising if he didn’t use Richardson in this manner than if he did, especially at his current price tag.

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Jay Hodgson is an independent sports blogger writing for AllGreenBayPackers.com and WISports.com.

Follow Jay on twitter at @jys_h.

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  • marpag

    I’m looking at that tight end marked #3 and getting a little worried. Which Packer is going to carry that guy down the deep middle?

    • Jay

      I purposely left the assignment out of the diagrams. In reality, it will vary based on personnel and coverage scheme. It could be Clay, Julius, Ha Ha, Burnett, or even a nickel cornerback. If Richardson plays the strong side, it could even be him.

      • marpag

        Yeah, I get that, Jay. I guess my question is as much about personnel as it is about scheme, since I don’t really know which Packer linebacker could be trusted to consistently cover athletic tight ends. If that TE is any good, it seems like either you are forced to play dime, or the opponent is going to exploit that TE on a pretty weak coverage backer with the middle of the field open.

        It seems perhaps more likely to me that Richardson might line up strong side.

        • Jay

          Good points. I predict Richardson would line up weak side in the nickel and strong side in the dime. Just a hunch.

          I also expect Ha Ha to play over athletic tight ends quite a bit this season. He’s expected to make a jump this year.

        • Oppy

          This might be where a guy like Rollins enters the fray. Basket Ball athleticism.. Which is exactly what the favored, modern NFL TE archetype is becoming.

  • Interesting article. I assume that this type of scheme could utilize someone other than Richardson as well. Not sure who that might be since it depends on who wins the #2 CB job. However, just because Oakland forced TT to overpay Richardson doesn’t mean that Richardson has suddenly developed the skills to cover slot and boundary WRs even in this package. I do see that Richardson would not be responsible for vertical routes, or at least would get safety help on a double move. Perhaps Richardson has shown enough coverage ability in practice to reassure the coaches. As usual, time will tell.

    • Jay

      My diagrams were a huge oversimplification. The weak side safety could also be the nickel cornerback, which doesn’t change quarters responsibility. My main point is Capers likes quarters, and using Richardson as the weak side wall in quarters doesn’t expose him, but highlights what he could be good at.

    • Dan Stodola

      Time will tell. But you have to ask if this was in the cards, why didn’t it happen last year? Instead they made the drastic move of putting Matthews at ILB in nickel and Richardson only played as a box Safety in obvious run situations.
      If Richardson was in line for this kind of role they could have gotten a jump start on it last year. The fact that they didn’t use Richardson in such a role and instead moved Matthews to ILB suggests that Richardson doesn’t have the necessary coverage skills to be in that role.
      Apparently, Matthews is better in coverage to handle the job.

  • TedTomsin

    I said it all along. TT was not worried about middle linebacker as all the panic stricken people here were. I said he already has his guy(s) on the team. You hit it on the head with Richardson. He’s a big reason why Ted’s nails are in tact. When will people learn to accept the fact TT is a genius and is smarter than anyone here?
    Ted

  • Archie

    I’ve always thought S Richardson belonged at LB.

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