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Packers Nickel Defense Offers Plenty of Options

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Packers Nickel Defense Offers Plenty of Options

It’s no secret, that over the years, the Green Bay Packers and just about everyone else in the NFL have been spending more and more time using sub packages defensively.

With spread offenses and the continuing evolution of the passing game, nickel and dime defenses have become the norm and in Green Bay, it’s been that way for years. But, as each year passes, the Packers seem to get away more and more from their 3-4 defense. 

With some personnel changes, it’s possible that we don’t see a huge drop in 3-4 snaps this season, but seeing Capers spend 75 or 80 percent of his time in sub packages, shouldn’t come as a surprise. And with the personnel the Packers have to fill those packages, who can blame him?

One staple of Capers’ sub packages is the 2-4 alignment up front. Most of the time, that will include Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark inside, as well as Clay Matthews and Nick Perry as outside linebackers.

All four of those players can pressure the quarterback and hold up well against the run. Perry in particular, is great at setting the edge, so in terms of run defense, that front four is pretty solid. Yet, inside linebacker is where things get interesting.

In some instances, actual linebackers will be playing there such as Jake Ryan, Blake Martinez and Joe Thomas. But just as frequently, the ILB in sub defenses will be rookie Josh Jones and veteran safety Morgan Burnett.

Jones was drafted in the second round this year with that role in mind, while Burnett has already played it and played it well. In fact, Burnett, according to Pro Football Focus, leads all safeties in run stops dating back to 2012.

The fact that Capers essentially has five options at inside linebacker offers just about endless flexibility. Martinez and Ryan are available for big nickel, while Thomas, Jones and Burnett are more likely to play linebacker in more obvious passing situations.

Much of it will also be dictated by offensive personnel. More skill players will mean more defensive backs.

That’s just one example of the flexibility at Capers' fingertips. However, those are far from the only possibilities. On the D-line alone, Capers also has options.

Ricky Jean-Francois can play end in the 3-4 or tackle in nickel. Dean Lowry is in the same boat, and he’s a guy that also offers interior pass rush. Montravius Adams is another big body that will be counted on to stuff the run and occasionally bull rush.

Kyler Fackrell is another option at outside linebacker or elephant (basically 4-3 end in rushing situations). He could also be an edge rusher while Clay Matthews is moved inside. That's plausible for certain pressure packages Capers is certainly going to implement. 

Consider Matthews blitzing up the middle, with Perry and Fackrell on the outside, as well as Daniels and Clark collapsing the middle.

That sounds like a formidable group, but don’t be surprised if Capers has a few tricks up his sleeve with Jones and Burnett too, especially blitzing inside or sending them off the edge (as a nickel back). 

Thus, in terms of pressure packages and multiple fronts, the Packers can throw a lot of different things at opposing offenses and ultimately, their versatility is both impressive and valuable. 

Even in the secondary, there can be a lot moving pieces. For instance, in the nickel defense, there at times, could be four safeties on the field. Other times there will be three and then of course, the customary two.

If Burnett and Jones both bump inside, that will leave Ha Ha Clinton-Dix deep with Kentrell Brice probably playing alongside him. 

In other situations, there will be some combination of Clinton-Dix, Jones and Burnett, with one of the three playing the slot position, while Thomas, Martinez or Ryan man the middle.

That’s the best example of a big nickel (3 safeties, 2 corners), something Green Bay will likely use on run downs and beyond. 

When Micah Hyde was around, he was usually the nickel guy, so the default was a three-safety look. However, two years ago, when Hyde and Casey Hayward were both on the roster, Hayward played nickel in pass situations, whereas Hyde would do so on runs downs. 

That kind of rotation wasn’t really possible last year, but in 2017, it should be back on the table.

Damarious Randall, who started outside for much of his first two seasons, is a leading candidate at nickel corner and with his experience as a college safety, he’s an ideal fit. He can cover, but is also able to offer run support. 

When the Packers play with two or three safeties, Randall should primarily be the nickel. When the two safeties are Burnett and Clinton-Dix, the nickel back should alternate between Randall and Jones, just like it did between Hyde and Hayward.

On the other hand, Green Bay could go with a three-safety look, one that puts Burnett and Ha Ha deep; Randall at nickel, as well as Jones and Thomas inside. 

I could go on and on about all the different possibilities, but the point is, the Packers have tremendous defensive versatility and that’s to be applauded. 

When it comes to being a standout defense, versatility is a must. And because how much they have, the Packers and Capers, at least have a fighting chance at being good in 2017. 




Chris is a sports journalist from Montana and has been blogging about the Packers since 2011. Chris has been a staff writer for CheeseheadTV since 2017 and looks forward to the day when Aaron Rodgers wins his second Super Bowl. Follow him @thepackersguru

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (29) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

Andrew Lloyd Peth's picture

Excellent breakdown of defensive options for the Packers. Recent additions have made this group faster and more diverse.

My one wish is that we see more 3-Linemen sets instead of 2, ideally featuring a 3-3-1-4 look (Jones being the 1). My reason is two-fold:

First, we simply have better talent up front with Daniels, Clark, Lowry, Jean-Francois, Adams, and Price or Ringo. Our LB group, overall, grades at about a 2 or 3 out of 10, in my view.

Second, when we go so small with these 2-man fronts, Capers has to overcompensate by piling more smaller players close to the line so we don't get run off the map. This opens up big passing lanes.

Bottom line: When facing 5 O-Linemen and a TE, 2-Linemen sets on defense create a big mismatch--while overusing one of our team's weakest units (LB's).

More 3-Linemen sets, please.

Turophile's picture

My rather optimistic guess for the coming year is that there are many more 3 man fronts. I'm guessing the most common alignment is a 3-3-5. Why ? Because there is more quality on the D line, with Lowry and Clark having had a year to learn - and Montravious Adams as a (hopefully) quality backup in his rookie year. We also have Ricky Jean-Francois as extra insurance there. Capers is (or should be) about getting the most effective guys on the field at the same time.

Also, you can expect Josh Jones to grow into the safety/ linebacker hybrid as Burnett has been - why else draft a fast 6'2", 220lb safety. He may share the position this year with Burnett, but I think it will be his, in the future.

I'd like to give that formation a name, rather than keep trying to descibe it - I'll call it 'The 3-3-5 exchange', because a middle linebacker is exchanged for a S/ILB hybrid. Maybe that is a better description than just calling it the 3-2-6.

Chris Peterson's picture

A lot of guys have talked about that but honestly I don't see a ton of the 3-man lines this year. I think in run heavy situations yes, and there probably will be a package in nickel with 3 d-lineman but otherwise you will be putting Matthews or Perry.on the sideline or Matthews playing inside. All the guys on the def line are interior pass rushers so that's why I don't see tons of 3-man lines.

The TKstinator's picture

If option #1 is "force the opposition to go 3 and out", I choose that one.

hodge555's picture

As a starting set it does all look quite promising.
Fingers crossed that we don't have injuries at all to contend with but that is being overly optimistic so the best we can hope for is for any injuries not to be all in the same position like what happened with our CB's last year as if we had a run of injuries at OLB this year then we might struggle as that looks to be our weakness in the depth chart.

Ferrari Driver's picture

I hope for a defense that can be average in the league this year. I expect the defensive line to be the better performing aspect of the defense and I have concerns at linebacker, especially on the outside with Mathews declining production and proclivity to injury. At 30+, injuries occur more frequently and the healing time for recovery is generally longer.

Bottom line:
1. defensive front has a good chance to be average
2. linebacker corps falls below average
3. secondary is solid at safety with below average performance on the outside.

With a top 3 offense, this team has a chance to make it to the Super Bowl providing major injuries to key players is held in abeyance.

Since '61's picture

The additional flexibility and versatility is great to have, but can we actually tackle better and rush the passer better and cover receivers better, regardless of the sub-package we're using? The use of all these sub-groups is a double edge sword. On the one hand it can make the defense more effective. On the other hand the opposing OCs can plan their plays to exploit the weakness in each sub-group if they have a QB who can read the defense and call plays at the LOS. Ultimately, it will be a matter of match ups and the Packers ability to execute their defense. With so many young players on the defense Capers might want to consider keeping the defense simple and the players focused on their assignments. Thanks, Since '61

Chris Peterson's picture

You are right. The fundamentals still matter. But I think the Packers have added speed and athleticism. Ryan and Martinez will kind of get fazed our IMO. Jones and Burnett will a lot of LB and both can cover and tackle. I think more safeties is going to be better. They can match in coverage and cover ground quick. We will see if it all comes together but I think they are taking the right steps towards fixing the.problem.

dobber's picture

I tend to agree on ILB, but I think we'd all like to have a 3-down ILB who can run and cover (and is big enough to take the pounding). The Packers are becoming such a sub-package heavy team that I think a really savvy OC will find ways to exploit that.

Winning on early downs and limiting offenses on 3rd down will become even more important for this defense. I would argue that this defense wasn't BAD on early downs last season, they just gave up a lot on 3rd down and couldn't get off the field. But sub package defenses suffer on 3rd down when offenses still can run most of their playbook against them.

Chris Peterson's picture

A true 3-down linebacker would be perfect. Ryan Shazier would have been ideal a few years ago or Jones who went to the Falcons last year. I think the big issue was just a lack of impact plays and that includes third downs. Matthews being hurt was a big deal. He is supposed to be a key player for this defense and if he can't be that the Packers will struggle a bit getting to the QB. Fackrell also needs to take the next step, Clark too. That's important. Hopefully those guys and Jones and King can make more big plays and get off the field.

fthisJack's picture

great article. all the options are great to have but as "61 have to couple that with good tackling and being assignment sure. in the past i know that injuries have played a big role but there are many times where there is a broken coverage or missed assignment. clean up these areas and your defense is immediately better.

sometimes i think the scheme may be too complicated and takes a long time to grasp especially for the rookies coming in.

4thand1's picture

just fuckin stop somebody.

GatorJason's picture

Opponent offenses and field conditions often dictate defensive personnel groupings. Packers had built teams to win at home in Green Bay with slower field conditions in late fall only to get overmatched by teams built with quicker personnel playing on faster turf conditions.

This year, I think they got it right. The height/speed of the top three draft picks (yes, Adams too) should help pass defense. The Packers' roster will now have diversity to play either game style but moving toward matching up with the speed/quickness element now dominating the league. IMO, it's the Packers recognizing and adapting to the natural evolution of the game.

Chris Peterson's picture

I think the defense in the past was built to play as a front runner. Stop the run, get the lead, rush the passer, force turnovers. I mean that's a basic idea across the board. I do think speed has been added with Jones. He and Burnett playing inside will be a big help. Brice is another guy, who has 4.4 speed and can hit. I really like Randall is the slot and think the two big corners outside will do well. Hopefully, King is ready to contribute right away, if not Randall, Gunter, Rollins or a guy like Josh Hawkins will have to step up. I am just really smitten with Jones. I think he is the kind of player the Packers have been missing. He is explosive and finds a way to be around the football. I think having him, Clinton-Dix, Burnett and Brice is pretty impressive. I think, like I said, all four of those will be on the field at certain times. But I also like the fact that Joe Thomas improved last year and he should see some time, along with Martinez. That way teams can't just run right up the middle. I just like how their different personnel packages have come together. I think this defense will be much improved. Maybe not top 10 or anything, but I think 12-16 in points, yards is very realistic.

Thegreatreynoldo's picture

I was rooting for GB to draft Justin Simmons, 6'2" and 200 pounds, in 2016. Fairly similar player to Jones though Jones is 20 pounds heavier while Simmons' agility times were great. Simmons was there in the 3rd round, but I couldn't argue with Fackrell since I liked him and he played a position that one could foresee a probable need coming up. Simmons had 2 INTs and 24 tackles in 296 snaps (and played a ton of ST snaps), but he is pretty buried because Denver has an excellent defense and excellent secondary. Jones was my draft crush; like Jones a better than Simmons anyway.

Savage57's picture

This article's headline, "Packers Nickel Defense Offers Plenty of Options" was posted missing the last part, "For Opponents To Score At Will."

LayingTheLawe's picture

That's what I thought also. Until there is some production to back any of it up, the plenty of options at this point just refers to there being no standout options so they will rotate lots of guys through there to see if anyone makes a play.

dschwalm's picture

Your theory on the defensive packages instills optimism in me until I look at the personnel, and I am afraid we are still a far cry from an average defence. We have only two reliable play-makers on defence. We always seem to fail in the execution. Talent? Schemes? or Fundamentals?

Thegreatreynoldo's picture

Dallas also lost some decent DBs in free agency. Starting safety, main back up safety, and two starting CBs.

PatrickGB's picture

This is a great article. But I don't think King and Jones are ready to play right away. GBP seldom uses rookie players full time as starters. We play tough teams right away and I won't be surprised if the team struggles on defense. In fact I don't think that Capers play calling will be successful during that time. I expect that the team will need to outscore Seahawks, Cowboys and Falcons in order to win. And the Cowboys will simply run over our light in the pants defense if we use that front.

dobber's picture

If King and Jones are the better players, they should play right away and probably will. What do you gain by playing inferior talent? I think last season showed that you can't take anything for granted.

Thegreatreynoldo's picture

GB does when it has to. Randall played 755 regular season snaps, or 72% of those snaps. Dix played 86.1% as a rookie. Bakh played 99.7% of all regular season snaps (1119) as a rookie.

I think you have a point about the first few games, maybe the first half of the season. My guess is we take our lumps with King pretty early unless he is terrible.

Slim11's picture

Can't resist this...

"I expect that the team will need to outscore Seahawks, Cowboys and Falcons in order to win."

Isn't this the way it's done?

I do get your point. GB will have to jump out to big leads to improve their chances against these opponents. If Capers can call plays with a big lead, he can be more aggressive and I hope he can. As the season goes on, and the new players become more comfortable in his system, that's when I expect improvement.

realitybytez's picture

when has capers defense ever done well when playing with a big lead? they always go into "prevent nothing" mode.

dobber's picture

What did the Packers do to Seattle last year?

The Seahawks will be better this season, but remember that the Packers seem to have Russell Wilson's number.

PatrickGB's picture

Thanks Slim, yes its done that way. I agree. Having to outscore the other guy is the way its done. I hope you are right and they get up to speed quickly. But when we fall behind due to inept CB play or bonehead defensive play calling that means that the offense needs to take up the slack and that can change the game plan for the offense. I have no reservations about our offense. Its the defense that I worry about and especially the CB's and Dom's play calling.

The TKstinator's picture

Play calling has been fixed, courtesy of me. I just mailed a new defensive play to Dom that will fix everything. It's called "stuff the run, blanket the receivers, sack the QB". He can call it on every play and I would never get tired of seeing it. Can't wait to be able to stand up and shout "They got that play from ME!"
It's gonna rock.

Ferrari Driver's picture

The defense will have some advantages that the majority of the teams in the league will not.

The Packers offense will do two things to help that defense.

First, they will score points which will put pressure on the opposing team to score and a careless throw here and there will provide turnover opportunities that may never appear if they didn't have to play against an Aaron Rodgers led defense, loaded with offensive weapons.

Second, that Packers offense will have far few 3 and outs than the average team which will minimize the time the defense is on the field. That will help limit scoring opportunities for the opponent and will also help to keep our defense fresh. One less obvious benefit will also be a little help in avoiding injuries; the less time on the field, the less opportunity for a thinly talented defense.

jlc1's picture

Quantity helps in the NFL but quality is a better place to start from. Inside LB quality has not yet been demonstrated this year or in recent years. Let's hope that quantity of options yields some quality.

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