Digesting the Packers

Happy Friday friends, and welcome to the first ever edition of Digesting that was written in the air or on an iPad.  It's been a hellaciously busy week as expected, but I'm heartened by the fact that as soon as we got over the clouds on the way out of Cleveland, the overcast gloomy view vanished and it was nothing but sunshine.

This week it's the Green Bay Packers in lovely Wisconsin, land of cow patties and beer farts.  I'm not exactly breaking news to say that this will be challenging, and I'd go so far as to say that I think Brian Burke's model which Doug referenced this morning may be over-optimistic in giving the Broncos a 25% win probability.  I've got my rubber gloves on (I lease them with an option to buy) and I'm ready to conduct the examination, so without further adieu, let's get it on.

Packers Defense

a.  The first thing I noticed is how infrequent it is that the Packers actually play a three-man line.  They actually play two up front most of the time, consisting of a combination of the rotation of B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, and Jarius Wynn.  Raji is an all-phases dominator, and if he's not the best all-around player from the Draft class of 2009, he's really close.  Pickett is a very stout run defender, and Wynn is more of an inside pass rusher.  All three can definitely play.  Here was the snap breakdown against Chicago on Sunday:

Player # Snaps
B.J. Raji 90 53
Jarius Wynn 94 41
Ryan Pickett 79 22
C.J. Wilson 79 9
Howard Green 95 1

That totals to 126, and the Packers played 58 snaps, meaning that there was an average of 2.17 D-linemen on the field.

b.  There are two reasons that the Packers play two DL so often, and one of them is that they're very good at LB.  Obviously Clay Matthews gets a lot of attention, and deservedly so.  He's outstanding at rushing the passer, but he's really improved a great deal against the run so far this year.  The other OLB Erik Walden is actually the only one of the four starters who played all 58 snaps against Chicago.  He's not as much of a pass rusher, but he's tough against the run and solid in zone coverage.  Inside, Desmond Bishop has turned into an outstanding player (player development is king) and A.J. Hawk has never proven to be worthy of a fifth-overall pick, but that doesn't stop the Packers from recognizing that he's a pretty good player.  Amazingly, you can fall somewhere between All-Pro and Bust when you're a first-rounder.  Who knew?

Anyway, the Packers almost always play four LB.  All four starters played 50 or more snaps, and the Packers average 3.86 LB per snap.

c.  The other reason the Packers go small is that they're really good on the back end, and their best 11 grouping on defense includes three CB.  I've talked at some length about this before, but by having Tramon Williams and Sam Shields as capable guys outside (and as further examples of quality player development), the Packers are free to use Charles Woodson inside on the slot where he can contribute in the run game and blitz a lot.  He's essentially a fifth LB with the skill set he has.

At Safety, the Packers lost a good player for the season in Nick Collins, but Morgan Burnett looked good in sub packages and has proven to be more than capable in stepping into Collins' FS spot.  He had two interceptions against Jay Cutler, and on one of them he baited a throw to the deep outside in Cover-2 and jumped it.  I think Cutler underestimated Burnett's range, because he got there easily.  The SS is Charlie Peprah, and he can be had.

The Packers mostly stay in their 2-4 Nickel grouping, and the only other DB who played against Chicago was CB Jarrett Bush (a good fourth CB) who saw 9 snaps.  The Packers average 4.96 DBs, which shows you how comfortable they are with their Nickel group in virtually all situations.

d.  Generally, the Packers zone blitz a good bit, but they don't drop a lot of defensive linemen into coverage.  (Wynn was in coverage once, and Matthews was twice.)  Because they're generally playing a three-man front if you count Matthews, the question becomes where the fourth rusher comes from, and if there are additional ones.  Dom Capers does a nice job of switching up who's coming and confusing blocking schemes.

e.  In long yardage situations, the Packers are usually content to rush Matthews, Raji, and Wynn and trust the other eight guys to play zone.  They get some push with the three guys, and it's really hard to throw against eight, obviously.

Packers Offense

a.  The Packers are really good on this side of the ball from top to bottom.  It starts with QB Aaron Rodgers.  It's a cliche, but this guy can literally make every throw with consistent power and accuracy.  I think he's developed into the best pure thrower of the football in the NFL.  As I was taking notes, I was writing Slant, Dig, Comeback.  Then I realized he hits everything to every side and depth of the field.  There's no cheat or tip to stopping the guy.  All you can do is cover and rush, and good luck with that.

b.  James Starks and Ryan Grant are splitting time at RB.  Starks looked terrible against Chicago, while Grant looked excellent.  The Packers run a lot out of the shotgun, and they're unusually effective at it.  They also screen pretty frequently, and especially Grant is skilled in that area.  Neither is asked to pass protect much.  Starks blocked four times, Grant three, and FB John Kuhn stayed in three times as well.  Kuhn is an okay lead blocker and a capable receiver and short-yardage runner from the I-formation.

c.  The WR position is a major strength, and the Packers have five legitimate guys who threaten defenses.  The best guy is Greg Jennings, and he's about as well-rounded running routes as Rodgers is throwing the ball.  Jennings runs a full tree and threatens all depths and directions.  He's also an excellent blocker.  Jordy Nelson doesn't nominally start (Donald Driver does) but he plays the second most snaps.  Nelson is a bigger, slightly less fluid version of Jennings, and he's really grown up to be quite a player.  Driver is still pretty dangerous in the intermediate game and James Jones is a deep threat, as we know from Brett Favre Night at Mile High four years ago.  The intriguing guy is rookie Randall Cobb.  He's really quick and shifty in space, and with a missed tackle he can be gone quickly.

d.  With so many RBs and WRs who play, you'd think the TE spot may be de-emphasized.  You'd be wrong, though.  Jermichael Finley got three TDs against Chicago, and he's a matchup nightmare.  Finley is fast enough to beat some CBs deep, and big enough to where DBs can't handle him.  You really have to trail the guy with a LB and cover him over the top with a S as well.  That's pretty hard to do when you're so threatened outside and worried about pressuring Rodgers.  You almost need 13 guys to defend Green Bay, and Finley is a big reason why.

The other two tight ends Andrew Quarless and Tom Crabtree are primarily blockers.  I mentioned that the Packers don't keep RBs in much, but they do supplement their protection with these two TEs a bit, with them combining in Chicago to pass block on 10 snaps.  They do a lot more blocking in the run game, and their presence on the field tips that a run is more likely than a pass.

e.  I think with the Packers, who use so many groupings and skill position players, it's worth listing the snap counts for each.

Player # Snaps
Greg Jennings 85 63
Donald Driver 80 37
Jordy Nelson 87 46
James Jones 89 30
Randall Cobb 19 18
     
Ryan Grant 25 34
James Starks 44 43
John Kuhn 30 20
     
Jermichael Finley 88 65
Tom Crabtree 83 20
Andrew Quarless 81 19

The Packers averaged 2.45 WR, 1.23 RB, and 1.32 TE on their 79 snaps, and only Finley and Jennings played on 60% or more of them.  That's being multiple on offense.  The grouping matches the purpose, and the Packers have plenty of quality players to staff to the successful accomplishment of any offensive objective.

f.  The offensive line has improved on the inside the last couple years, but there are still issues outside.  C Scott Wells and RG Josh Sitton are near the top of the NFL at their positions, and examples of...stop me if you've heard this one...quality player development.  LG T.J. Lang is average at best, but he's helped by the fact that the rest of the offense is so good.  I'm sure the Packers figured they could get by fine with Lang when Daryn Colledge left for Arizona, and I think they were right.

The Packers have spent their last two first-rounders on OTs, and neither is expected to play on Sunday.  RT Bryan Bulaga was looking like he had made a leap this year, but he got hurt early in the game against Chicago.  He was replaced by Marshall Newhouse, who was pretty bad.  The fact that Derek Sherrod (the 2011 first-rounder) wasn't even active speaks of the struggles he's had so far in his short career.  He's allegedly the LT of the future, and I liked his feet coming out of Mississippi State.

The longtime incumbent LT is Chad Clifton, whose name is better than his game.  He has been kind of lousy this year, and 2010 was his only above-average season in the last five or so.  But despite the suspectness of the OTs, the Packers mostly minimum-protect and trust Rodgers to get the ball out.

Beating the Packers Defense

a.  Maybe if all the Christians who tolerate my heathen-ness and read me start praying and don't stop till Sunday, that will help.  It wouldn't hurt for my Muslim and Jewish friends to join too.

b.  Failing divine intervention, and really, I can't imagine why any of the Gods want to help the Broncos, I think the best approach is trying really hard to get the running game blocked and then being serious about going downhill against the 2-4 stuff the Packers do.  That's hard to do given their players, but if they insist on that alignment I'd have no problem having Chris Clark come in as an extra blocker.  He can line up right over Woodson and be assigned to bury him after chipping Matthews to help Orlando Franklin.

c.  Of course, I'm not Joe Running Game, but I do love me some play action.  It's what Kyle Orton does the best, and it frees up players behind the LBs.  The Packers LBs play the run aggressively because they have to from a formational perspective, and they can be taken advantage of for that reason.

d.  I want to see Sam Shields hold up against some quality route-running.  Shields has excellent size and speed and does a good job against vertical routes, but I think some headway can be made on him by a guy like Eric Decker running a full route tree.

e.  I need more cowbell, and I also need some 9 routes.  Brandon Lloyd was bitching about not getting the ball deep, and I agree with him.  Let's see him prove his worthiness of those downfield targets and make a couple big plays.

f.  From a protection perspective, I'd like to see a lot of six-man stuff with a lot of sliding to the offense's right.  LT Ryan Clady is largely wasted because the Packers don't rush too much to the QB's backside.  I'm sure that that's because Dom Capers realizes that the best blockers are LTs and that he might as well render them useless by not challenging them all that much.  If B.J. Raji is lined up as a 2- or 3-technique in front of Zane Beadles, which is fairly typical, Clady can take a tight split on Beadles and actually engage Raji, leaving Beadles and the other three OL free to slide right to get Wynn, Matthews, and whoever the fourth guy is, which is most likely to be Bishop, Hawk, or Woodson.

I'd play a lot of 12 personnel in base situations and tell both TEs that they're responsible first for reading if anybody is coming from their edge, and if so, picking them up, and if not, going into the pattern.  The Packers don't green-dog much; their rushers are rushers and their coverage guys are coverage guys.  (Green-dogging is when a LB or DB reads if their man is blocking, and if so, rushes the passer since they don't have man-to-man responsibility.  Since the Packers play so much zone, it doesn't come into play much.)

g.  Cross your fingers about staying on schedule.  Kyle Orton isn't beating eight men in small zones too often, and the Packers' typical three rushers will be able to get some heat against the Broncos' five linemen.

h.  I think the time is now to start using Tim Tebow all the time inside the 10-yard line and treat it as a sub package.  I don't particularly care how Orton takes it, because the offense just continues not to be good enough at scoring TDs down there.  Tebow gives defenses something significant to account for, and even if you want him to hand off to Willis McGahee on a power-O, the same as Orton would, the backside DE can't crash so aggressively because the threat of Tebow on a bootleg is ever-present.

You guys know me; "the way things are always done" is the mortal enemy of both progress and the implementation of smart ideas.  The Broncos should ignore the chatter and second-guessing that will come and just take a step to enhance their capability in a specialty situation.

Stopping the Packers Offense

a.  How about some more prayers?  No?  What do you mean y'all need to sleep sometime?  I'd help, but there's no agnostic God to pray to, so I have to do the other thing.

b.  The Packers offense is so well-rounded that trying to take away any one thing is a worthless exercise.  The only answer is to match their groupings, don't show what you're doing much, and hope that you guess right as to what the Packers want to do on a given down.  When they want to get Finley deep, it's helpful to have an intuition of that and call bracket coverage on him.

c.  The best way to beat the Packers is to hit Aaron Rodgers a lot while rushing four men.  I suspect that the Broncos will play a lot of Rush 40 Nickel this week with Von Miller, Robert Ayers, Brodrick Bunkley and Elvis Dumervil up front.  It's critical that that group gets consistent pressure and records some sacks, especially against scrub OTs like Clifton and Newhouse.

Unlike the Raider, the Packers aren't going to be afraid to drop back straight up against Von Doom, because they trust Rodgers and the receiving corps.  The Broncos need to make them pay for that decision, or there's little hope.

d.  I need a huge game from D.J. Williams, Wesley Woodyard and Joe Mays, and I'd have Mays probably not play all that much in this Nickel-heavy game.  Sorry bro, you're playing well against the run, but I need the better coverage guys out there.

e.  I think Woodyard makes the most sense as the trail guy on Finley, with Brian Dawkins over the top.  The toughest question (how to cover Finley) isn't so hard for the Broncos, and it leads to the answer of how to cover everybody else.  Single coverage on the various WRs by Champ Bailey, Andre' Goodman and Cassius Vaughn, and Cover-1 over the top from Rahim Moore.  It's not a great answer, but it's the best answer to a hard question.

f.  How about some yardage on kickoff returns?  Mason Crosby isn't exactly Touchback Joe.

I'm not too optimistic but I've got rebuilding fever.  Let's cheer on a good effort by the Broncos and look for evidence of improvement and player development.  If we get a win, that'd be cool too.  Have a good weekend, friends.  I'll think of you as I jet ski and drink rum in Key West.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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