In anticipation of the Packers’ Week 9 matchup with the San Diego Chargers, I sat down with some tape of the Chargers in 2011 to decide how the Packers might go about attacking their defense. This is what I found:
Manipulating the safety in the red zone
Here we see Tom Brady and the Patriots offense in a 1st-and-10 look from the Chargers 14-yard-line. It’s a two-tight end, one-back set, with Rob Gronkowski to the top of screen and Wes Welker in the slot to the left of the formation. Aaron Hernandez lines up in the right slot with Deion Branch out wide. The Chargers combat this look with three down lineman, four linebackers and four defensive backs—their standard 3-4 personnel. They show man coverage and keep Eric Weddle as the single safety high. Bob Sanders, the other safety, lines up in the face of Hernandez. Brady motions Gronkowski back into the line to help in protection, but the motion also confirms to Brady the man coverage look as Donald Butler follows. At this point, Brady knows exactly where he wants to go with the football in his pre-snap read.
In the coaches tape, you can clearly see the man coverage. Brady initially locks on to the left to Welker, who is running an 8-yard square out. That forces Weddle to take two or three steps to his right to honor that look, which keeps him in no-mans-land for all three receivers. At this point, it’s up to Brady which receiver scores the touchdown. Welker has his man beat to the left, but Hernandez has a clear size mismatch on safety Bob Sanders. With Sanders’ back turned to the throw and no help in the area, Brady gives Hernandez a chance to make a play on the ball in the air. The Patriots tight end makes a rather routine catch in the end zone for a touchdown. If the Chargers give Aaron Rodgers and the Packers this look in the red zone, it’s going to be similarly easy score. The way Rodgers uses his eyes to manipulate safeties, like Brady does here, makes this play grand larceny.
Use of playaction
Let’s go back to the coaches tape for a 1st-and-1o play from the Patriots own 18-yard-line. New England again lines up in a two-tight end, one-back set with Welker out wide to the right of the formation and Chad Ochocinco to the left. The Chargers counter with their base 3-4 look. The offensive set and down suggests a run.
Instead of handing it off, however, the Patriots use a run-action to BenJarvus Green-Ellis. That fake draws in the safety (he’s standing short of the 20 on the near side) giving Brady a huge window to complete his pass to Ochocinco, who’s running a simple 12-yard in on the man-to-man coverage. Without the bracketed safety help (this is essentially a 2-man route for the Patriots), Ochocinco is wide open. The double tight end formation gives Brady a max protection pocket, making this an incredibly easy pitch and catch for 30 yards. With or without playaction, we’ve seen Rodgers complete this pass to Greg Jennings countless times in the Packers offense.
Once again, we see the Patriots in a first down situation with two tight ends and a single back. On this play, however, New England bunches their tight ends along the line to the right of center, and the two receivers are lined up to the left. The Chargers stack the line of scrimmage, overloading the left side with two linebackers and a safety to compensate for the double tight end look. Weddle is again set deep as the single high safety, but shifts to his right to bracket the two receiver set.
The Patriots again go run-action here to get the defense moving forward. Hernandez runs a drag route across the formation from the right to the left, which brings both middle backers along with him. Welker and Branch each clear out to occupy the safety on the left side. Gronkowski initially blocks but slips out on a screen just as the rush gets to Brady. Brian Waters, No. 54, leads the blocking up the field, where only the lone safety remains. Gronkowski essentially runs straight forward untouched for another easy 30 yards. If Logan Mankins (No. 70) follows Waters up field, Gronkowski might have went all the way. While we haven’t seen the Packers utilize tight ends in the screen game very often this season, this kind of misdirection against the Chargers aggressive defense worked well for the Patriots.
Tight end as a decoy
On 2nd-and-11 in the fourth quarter, the Patriots come out in a more traditional Packers look. Brady is in the shotgun, with Ochocinco and Branch out wide and a back to his left. Welker occupies the left slot, and Gronkowski is standing up near the line of scrimmage on the right side. Despite the offensive look, the Chargers stay in their base 3-4 defense and show a press coverage look. With no cornerback over Welker, it’s an obvious zone read for Brady. The two safeties stay deep, both ten yards back from the line of scrimmage.
The zone read is confirmed immediately. Both corners bump the outside receivers then back into their zones. The linebackers settle into their respective zones while bringing four-man pressure. The safeties back off almost 20 yards to account for the deep halves of the field. Instead of sending Gronkowski down the seam against a linebacker, the Patriots tight end runs a four- or five-yard curl and looks for the ball. Brady pumps to Gronkowski, which draws the attention of both the linebacker and cornerback. The linebacker’s zone is then completed vacated, and Branch flashes into the window for Brady to throw a dart. Quick 33 yards. Again, this was an easy throw for a quarterback as good as Brady. With the threat of Finley equaling Gronkowski, the Packers have the personnel to run this same route combination.
You didn’t think I’d leave out the running game, did you? We switch over to the Chargers taking on the Jets in Week 7, with New York possessing the ball on 1st-and-5 from the Chargers’ 49-yard-line. The Packers run this same formation several times a game. The Jets lineup with two tight ends and a single back. Dustin Keller lines up on the end of the line on the right side. Matthew Mulligan, the other tight end on the play, starts in the slot to the left but motions into a blocking position just to the right of Mark Sanchez as the ball is snapped. The Chargers are in their base 3-4 defense.
Look at the holes Shonn Greene has from the coaches film. Mulligan takes on the nose tackle head on after the center and the right guard release to get on the linebackers. Every other Charger along the defensive line is accounted for and blocked. The center and right guard have their shoulders parallel to the running lane, which almost always means there’s a hole for the back to find. Greene sets up both the safety and cornerback on the play by pushing the play right but cutting back to the left. Greene gets into the secondary untouched before Weddle (not shown in the picture) makes a touchdown-saving tackle. The Jets went back to this well over and over and finished with 162 yards rushing. The Packers implement this kind play, in this form or other, every week.
Watching film of the Chargers defense presents a simple conclusion: This is a very undisciplined bunch. They’ve posted good overall numbers this season (4th against the pass, 17th against the run, 6th overall), but those numbers come from teams like the Dolphins, Broncos and Vikings and their inability to exploit the repeated mistakes. Elite offenses, like the Patriots, have feasted on the Chargers defense. The Packers are as good or better as the Patriots on that side of the ball. If the Chargers defense continues to make the same mistakes I’ve seen—biting on playaction, isolating a single safety, vacating zones, etc.—the Packers are going to put a big number up on Sunday. Aaron Rodgers and the offense are too good to let those mistakes go unpunished.——————
Zach Kruse is a 23-year-old sports journalist with a passion for the Green Bay Packers. He currently lives in Wisconsin and is working on his journalism degree, while also covering prep sports for The Dunn Co. News.
You can read more of Zach's Packers articles on AllGreenBayPackers.com.Follow @zachkruse2