Photo credit: Mark Hoffman/JSOnline
Last Sunday, the Green Bay Packers won a very competitive showdown against the New England Patriots in a game that many labeled as a Super Bowl preview by a score of 26-21.
The score was on the lower side of things, compared to recent scoring trends, which shows that defenses still do exist in the modern aerial circus era of the NFL.
Coming into the game, many pundits predicted that the potent New England offense would shred the suspect Packers defense, especially on the ground through the running game.
Who could blame the pundits? Before this game, the Packers have been ranked at the bottom of the NFL in rushing defense having consistently yielded over 130+ yards per game.
However, the game on Sunday did not go to plan for the Patriots or the media. The Patriots were relatively unsuccessful running the ball and gained only 84 yards.
What was the difference in this game when compared to previous games?
For starters, we can declare the Clay Matthews at middle linebacker experiment is working. His play has helped solidify the middle defense, which has undoubtedly improved the run defense.
Yet, this is more to this than just Matthews.
On Sunday, Sam Barrington started in place of A.J. Hawk in the substitution package. Hawk still played during the base 3-4 alignment, but whenever the Packers deployed another alignment, which was the majority of snaps, Matthews and Barrington were the middle linebackers.
Barrington made his presence known. He was an instant upgrade over Hawk in both the running and passing games.
Why did it take this long to make the switch from Hawk to Barrington? Perhaps it was stubbornness. Perhaps Barrington wasn’t ready. Maybe the coaching staff didn’t trust anyone other than Hawk to make the defensive calls on the field.
In any case, Barrington was an upgrade, and we’ll look at a few of his key plays. He still has a lot to prove, but early indications suggest it’s been a positive transition.
In the play below, the Patriots are attempting to run the inside zone. The offensive line is blocking to the left in a slide motion, attempting to create an inside lane for the running back (34) to pursue. The Packers are in a substitution package, with Matthews (52) and Barrington (58) as the middle linebackers. Watch as Barrington comes free and stuffs 34 in the hole for a minimal 2-yard gain. He doesn’t close his hips at all, but instead slides to the hole with open hips, and the drives downhill to the ball carrier. When in a run-stopping position, it’s extremely important that the defender’s hips be parallel to the line of scrimmage to square up and slide to the ball carrier. Barrington did just that.
Note: the GIF below, as well as all GIFs on the page, has been slowed down to show player movement. Your computer and internet connection are working fine.
The next play below shows the Packers in a pass rush blitz, which is a variation of Dom Capers’ most favorite blitz, the crossfire. Barrington and Matthews are again the middle linebackers. Watch as Barrington first communicates the defense with Julius Peppers (56) and then goes on a stunt with Mike Daniels (76). Daniels twists to the left, while Barrington rotates to take his place to the right. Behind him is Clay Matthews, who is attempting to get to the left of Barrington, creating the crossfire. The blitz didn’t sack Tom Brady, but Barrington did get home and got a good shot on him. Those types of hits add up over the course of the game. Barrington was successful at getting off his block and applying pressure, which hasn’t happened too often up to this point.
The next play is another pass attempt by the Patriots, and the Packers counter with a cover 3 zone defense. In the cover 3, the free safety (21) and two cornerbacks (38 and 31) divide the deep half of the field into thirds. The four underneath defenders are responsible for the the flats, hooks, and curls. The key to all zone defense is backpedaling for proper depth.
Pre-snap, watch how Barrington aligns the entire defense and moves Matthews into the correct position. As the play unfolds, the Patriots show play action, and the ball fake to the running back initially draws Barrington in. A play action is a perfect call against zone defenses because it can influence defenders towards the line of scrimmage, preventing them from achieving proper depth. However, he was quick to recover, showing good make up speed, and was able to deflect the ball for an incompletion. The first GIF is the all-22 and the second is the endzone cam.
We are still too early into the Sam Barrington experiment to have a conclusive decision, but early indications are it has been a productive switch. He is able to come clean off blocks, slide to the proper gap, and crash downhill. He also shows great awareness and make up speed.
We’ll have to watch him closely during the next few games as the Packers try to win the division and march to the playoffs.
I believe the GIFs embedded above to be fair use under the premise of being short clips of the original broadcast that are transformative for news reporting, commentary, critique, illustration, and teaching purposes.——————