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Biting on the Fake Took Toll in 2016

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Biting on the Fake Took Toll in 2016

Green Bay’s late run last season marked the second time in three years the team was a win away from a Super Bowl berth. If they’re going to get over that hump then a couple of key areas are in need of serious improvement. 
 
As discussed here at CheeseheadTV and plenty of places elsewhere, the Packers struggled defensively on third downs and in the red zone. When their pass rushers—by most accounts an effective unit—failed to produce, the consequences were dire
 
And as demonstrated by analysis last week from Football Outsiders, the Packers were terrible at defending play action. Writer Bryan Knowles crunched the numbers to show that the Packers surrendered a whopping 9.3 yards per play against play action (this number includes receptions as well as quarterback scrambles). Their calculated DVOA (explainer here) ranked 31st in the league. The Lions were worse, but they were generally terrible defending the pass regardless of how it came to be—and also ranked last in the league against non-play action passes. 
 
It’s not a pretty company to be in. And like Green Bay’s pass rushing stats—where the difference between hurrying the quarterback and not leads to day-and-night outcomes—the contrast is striking. 
 
(It’s also striking that for each one of the weaknesses listed, from third downs to the red zone to the pass rush, the Packers are outstanding from an offensive perspective. They were one of the best teams on third downs, in red zone efficiency and protecting the quarterback. That said, the Packers didn’t dominate with play action on offense—but they didn’t have to.)
 
When opposing quarterbacks sling it around without using the play fake, Green Bay was a respectable 16th in DVOA and gave up just 7.0 yards per play. Simply put, Packers were awful against play action, and the rest of the time—which accounted for 83 percent of the passes they faced—they were average. As Knowles wisely points out, Green Bay appears lucky that their opponents used play action so infrequently. But when your outcomes slide dramatically from average to abysmal, you’re in need of improvement. 
 
So, what accounted for Green Bay’s play action woes? Absent a rigorous film study, the most plausible culprits start with the inside linebackers and safeties—the players with their eyes most often facing the quarterback. According to Pro Football Focus, Blake Martinez and Joe Thomas were among the worst cover linebackers counting players with the qualifying number of snaps. Martinez was drafted in part, it’s believed, because of good coverage ability (despite not having elite speed). Thomas, meanwhile, is thought of as a coverage asset because of his smaller frame and good speed. At least according to PFF, the tape doesn’t acquit either player. 
 
Jake Ryan, perhaps surprisingly, held up much better against the pass than his ILB counterparts. Like Martinez, he's athletically limited, but he was more consistent in coverage. 
 
Morgan Burnett was one of the team’s bright spots in the box. Burnett graded out as one of the better run-stopping safeties (and he split time at linebacker in the Dime) and had the coverage chops to go with it. If the Packers correctly diagnosed their play action struggles, then extended playing time at linebacker for Burnett would seem to be a good antidote. 
 
The same goes for the versatility offered by second-round rookie defensive back Josh Jones, who lined up all over the place in spring practices. Jones is known for being overly aggressive, so hopefully, he’ll lean on his athleticism rather than instincts starting out. 
 
Mixing in Clay Matthews at inside linebacker could also help things out. Matthews doesn’t get enough credit for his instinctive style of play. Even though he appears to be on the downturn of his career, he’s made a living on diagnosing plays and arriving early. Ideally, that also means he’s less apt to bite on the fake.
 
Green Bay’s streak to end last season—which culminated with a back and forth classic in Dallas, before it ended a week later against the Falcons—is a clear indicator of what the team is capable of. When only two teams make it further, you’re in good company. But against the league’s best play action team, Atlanta, one of Green Bay’s major weaknesses was fully exploited.
 
If they’re going to take that next step, the Packers will have to have to shore things up.
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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (10) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

Since '61's picture

David, good job again with this article which hits on a key factor why the middle of the field is always wide open against the Packers defense and why the Packers cannot get off the field on 3rd downs, especially 3rd and long. Our ILBs are just not good enough to cover TEs and slot receivers over the middle. Martinez lacks the speed and experience and Thomas is lost out there, especially in space. We need better players and hopefully Burnett and Jones will deliver some improvement in their hybrid roles. However, they won't be playing ILB roles on every play so our opponents will take their shots when Martinez and Ryan or Thomas are on the field. An improved pass rush up the middle could provide some help as well. We won't know until the season begins if the Packers will improve against play action but I agree that if they are to take the next step, especially during the playoffs, the defense needs to shore up many areas. Thanks, Since '61

JohnnyLogan's picture

Can someone send this article to Dom Capers and MM? I want to make sure they're aware of this. Generally Capers isn't aware of anything but maybe if he knew...

Finwiz's picture

@JohnnyLogan.....LOVE IT!

Thegreatreynoldo's picture

Jake Ryan is a good run defender. He doesn't need to be overly aggressive to handle run defense. Thomas and to a lesser extent Martinez aren't good run defenders. They need to beat the OL to the spot.

Handsback's picture

Well the facts speak for themselves and our eyes don't lie. It's a good write up by David. The one thing I will mention is this....organic growth will help this situation. Ryan got better last year and Martinez will as well and maybe will turn out the best of all the Packer's ILBs. He certainly looked good in spots and was a rookie so minor improvement from Ryan and a big step by Martinez will push this into a Packer strength when you add Dom's headhunter SSs. (I'm a fan, why not wish big!)
To be fair, the Dline this year will also make this a better unit.

BPEARSON21's picture

I spend so much time and energy worrying about our incapable secondary that I really over looked our inside linebacker woes.

Great article with some really interesting stats not only about our play-action defense but about our ILB pass coverage rankings.

Good stuff (but damn one more defensive thing to worry about).

Sucks that we're going into this season with the exact same ILB core... whats the definition of insanity again?

Matt Gonzales's picture

We might have the same players with ILB listed as their position on the roster, BUT:

1) Returning ILBs are a year more experienced and conditioned. I think this will be big for Blake and Jake.

2) Josh Jones or Burnett (or both) will likely play a more significant role at ILB. Personally I'm thinking this will not just in dime situations.

Let's at least get through camp before predicting areas of weakness.

PatrickGB's picture

Insanity. n. mental illness of such a severe nature that a person cannot distinguish fantasy from reality, cannot conduct her/his affairs due to psychosis, or is subject to uncontrollable impulsive behavior
From "Psychology Today".

BPEARSON21's picture

I was more going for the "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." that was defined by Albert Einstein. Maybe you've heard of him?

But thanks for looking it up!

Andrew Lloyd Peth's picture

When you only use 2 D-Linemen instead of 3, you'll bite on fake after fake after fake. You're just too light up front to trust your run defense without constantly jumping and piling your little guys forward.

Play more 3-3-1-4, with Jones being the 1. Our D-Line has better players than our linebackers, anyway.

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