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Pass Coverage Proves Problematic

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Pass Coverage Proves Problematic

Aaron Nagler gave you his biggest issue pertaining to the Green Bay Packers defense. Now it's time to give you mine.

And as far as I'm concerned, it's not just the biggest problem with the defense, it's the most glaring potential predicament on the entire team. Given that last season the special teams ranked 31st in the NFL by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News and the offensive line gave up 51 sacks last year, I find this pretty darn problematic.

I'm worried about the pass coverage. My colleague Mr. Nagler, among others, is concerned about sack production. For a team that finished No. 2 in overall defense a season ago, the Packers finished only No. 11 in sacks, so there's definitely room for improvement.

Certainly it appears as if the Packers and, in particular, defensive coordinator Dom Capers is doing everything in his power to generate more of a pass rush:

  • He's moved B.J. Raji to nose tackle to get more of a push up the middle and into the face of the quarterback.
  • The Packers drafted Mike Neal and C.J. Wilson who figure to rotate among in the defensive tackle position on nickel situations.
  • Cullen Jenkins has practiced taking snaps at outside linebacker from time to time.
  • Mike McCarthy has talked about using inside linebackers Brandon Chillar and Nick Barnett rushing from the outside.
  • Clay Matthews practiced at inside linebacker this offseason including blitzing packages.
  • Projected starting outside linebackers, Matthews and Brad Jones, figure to be better with a year of experience under their belts.

But for all these developments intended to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, I look back to last season and the three games in which the Packers weren't able to tally a single sack: both losses to the Minnesota Vikings and the playoff loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

Much has been made of how the Packers struggled against veteran quarterbacks last season and deservedly so. Those three losses with no sacks came against Brett Favre and Kurt Warner, two of the savviest trigger pullers in the game.

The trouble as I see it, those two guys have some of the quickest releases in the game. They're not the most mobile, and they make up for it by refusing to take sacks. Their experience allows them to know exactly where their check-down receivers are, and they know how to exploit areas from where the blitz is coming.

No amount of pressure is going phase Warner and Favre. They're going to get rid of the ball before the pass rush reaches them, which is why I'm more concerned about pass coverage. I'm worried about facing more veteran quarterbacks in 2010 who know the tricks of the trade like Donovan McNabb when the Packers head to Washington, Tom Brady when Green Bay invades New England and, presumably, Brett Favre twice more.

So who did the veteran quarterbacks expose last season? It wasn't Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams and Nick Collins. Sure, they might have gotten beat from time to time, and that's bound to happen when you play nearly 100% of all defensive snaps. It was the nickel and dime guys, and the backups who were forced to play due to injury.

I think everyone will cringe when they remember names like these get burned in pass coverage in 2009: Jarrett Bush, Josh Bell, Derrick Martin, Matt Giordano, and A.J. Hawk.  They might be the biggest offenders but others were responsible for their own gaffes in pass coverage including Brandon Chillar, Nick Barnett, and Brandon Underwood.

The Packers have hopefully added some reinforcement at the safety position in the form of third round draft choice Morgan Burnett. But what did they do at cornerback and inside linebacker? Cross their fingers? Hope and pray?

I was personally disappointed the Packers didn't address cornerback in this past April's draft. Now they're relying on guys who are coming off of injury like Al Harris and Pat Lee.  Granted, Lee's injury doesn't figure to affect his performance, but the Packers are also relying on marked improvement from him and Underwood, who has a rather large distraction of his with which to deal.

Beyond Lee and Underwood on the the depth chart, it's largely the same cast of characters that didn't help pass coverage last year: Bush, Bell and a couple other unproven players.

The crew at NFL Network recently broke down the Packers' deficiencies in their 32 in 32 series. Said former All-Pro cornerback and safety Rod Woodson, "They're thin in the secondary. The second-tier guys need to step up to the plate when they're called upon."

Solomon Wilcotts pointed to the inside linebackers.

"Their inside linebackers need to do a better job of reading and reacting in the match-up zone" said Wilcotts. "I think that's the vulnerable area."

Combine all these factors, and that's why I think they should have drafted a cornerback. Now the Packers are putting a lot of eggs in the same basket. They're hoping Harris can recover. They're hoping Lee and Underwood develop. I'm hopeful that all those things can happen, but I'm skeptical at the same time. It those things don't happen, you're going to see a gaping hole in the 2011 offseason at corner with a pair of aging starters and a plethora of unproven backups.

As far as inside linebacker goes, the Packers can try to cover up Hawk as much as they can by substituting Brandon Chillar on passing downs like in the nickel, but that's still not going to stop teams from passing on first down when Hawk is in the game.

Again, I'm hopeful this dilemma can be rectified, but I'm as of yet unconvinced.

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (38) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

Ron LC's picture

Yep on average the Packer Defense finished #2, but if you look at them game by game their performance looks like a Ricter scale graph of a 9.5 earthquake.

Consistency, Consistency, Consistency! No more 500+ yard games please.

packeraaron's picture

Good stuff Brian. I would only point out that it is not always about "sacks" but more about throwing off a quarterback's rhythm. The Packers couldn't do it either time they faced Favre or when they faced Warner - the Saints did it to both.

ZeroTolerance's picture

Great points all around.

JonBob's picture

Nice summation, Brian. I was likewise disappointed we didn't take a corner in the draft. I guess it's nice to remember that Lee was a 2nd round pick for a reason, so hopefully he can step up and perform this year. And, of course, having a whole year of the 3-4 system under our belt can only help. As Aaron mentioned earlier in the year, a lot of pressure is on him to make the necessary scheme adjustments.

Chris's picture

I still believe that playing the system in their 2nd year now will be the biggest improvement. Remember that all of the D had to adept the new scheme in a hurry. Some made the transition better than others, but in the end the team didn't perform well against those elite QBs.

Is that a sign that the secondary was bad? I think no, because thos glaring zones (especially against Warner) were because of the scheme not working and not our guys getting beaten across the board.

They will be better as a team, and hopefully some individuals make a leap forward too. Have a little faith!

NyPacker's picture

You hit the nail right on the head Brian. I understand that everyone is clamoring for more blitzing/pressure, but what's the point if the QB can look right through it and find an open guy. Last season I kind of noticed several spots on the defense where there was nobody there covering that area. If us average Joes can recognize these gaping holes on TV, why not veteran QBs? If Capers is going to clean things up in year 2 of this defense, he was make sure that: a) guys have to be more assignment ready and play where they're supposed to and b) cover up any inneficiences in the back end if the pressure isn't there.

lebowski's picture

So I take it you would have rather we chose a cornerback instead of a top left tackle that was sitting there for us unexpectedly, a huge need as well. Or instead of a bull of a defensive lineman that we obviously will need due to Jolly's asinine activities and Harrell's uselessness. Or one of the top safeties, insurance against Bigby's injury history and two-year ineffectiveness. That brings us to round 4, and what corner still on the board was going to be that useful this year? Actually, round 5, because we had to trade up for Burnett. There were just too many needs across the board.

Brian Carriveau's picture

I'm not saying that the Packers had to spend a high round draft choice on a corner. But even if they did, that's not to saying they couldn't have taken another defensive lineman later in the draft, for example.

lebowski's picture

That's true, we'll see if they 'reached' for Neal. Many thought if they wanted Burnett so badly, they should have taken him late in round 2 then got their D-lineman in round 3 without having to give up a pick. They must have REALLY liked Neal. Hope they're right.

stroh's picture

Why is it that everyone is missing a MAJOR point!!! Ok, look Favre had decent games against us 271 yds and 3 TD followed by 244 and 4 TD's. Notice his passing yds were not great, they were acually modest. Sure he got too many TD passes, but I think he changed plays to get TD's vs the Packers to drive a point home.

The MAJOR point I want to emphasize is this... the games where the Packers looked the worst, Pitts and AZ were against the 2 teams w/ BY FAR the most intimate knowledge of Capers and his schemes!!! Don't you think that Pitts, where Capers coached for years and whose Defense they still use and Whisenhunt, the former OC in Pitts and current AZ HC SHOULD know best how to beat our Capers coordinated D??? Of course they should!!! I am not that terrified about our pass D. I would still like to see another pass rusher opposite Matthews, but overall we won't be playing Pitts and AZ unless its the playoffs or SB. And w/ Warner gone AZ doesn't have the trigger man to beat us. Pitts has to deal w/ Bens suspension!

Asshalo's picture

Great point. Childress came from Philly who also used a 3-4. It makes perfect sense. The D got schooled in all four of those games. Sure the QBs were veterans (Favre, Big Ben, Warner), but knowledge and lack thereof of the defense could have played a big part of that breakdown.

packeraaron's picture

Philly has run a 4-3 defense ever since Andy Reid brought the late Jim Johnson on board.

Asshalo's picture

I probably assumed that because they've had a tougher reputation like Balt and Pitt (even NE and NYJ).

andrew's picture

haha philly runs a real good 4-3 one of the teams that run it right like the packers did once upon a time

PackersRS's picture

Great article, Brian. Just a few points:
1) You're right about veteran QBs not getting rattled by the pressure. But the thing is, those QBs need to get pressured to make mistakes, not by blitzes, but by 3 and 4 man rushes. That's where the DL enters. The coverage was at fault, but the Saints' coverage was also lacking, so how the hell did they do such a good job against Favre? They weren't rushing everybody. But who they were rushimg, got to him.

2) You're also right that the Packers are putting a lot of eggs in the same basket. But, at the same time, they're not counting on all of them to be successful. They need 2 out of 5 guys to be able to perform (Blackmon, Underwood, Lee, Harris and Burnett). That's not that much of a stretch IMHO. I listed Burnett, because Capers has a history of subbing an extra S to the nickel and dime packages.

3) Also right on the ILB. And that, IMHO, is the worst problem. Outside of Barnett, I don't trust the other 2 guys to be able to perform. But then again, we may see a S (Burnett, probably) being subbed to replace one LB as well.

As you see, I believe Burnett is the key. Granted, he's a rookie. But the kind of playmaking ability and versatility he showed in college gives me the hope that Capers will use him in different situations.

Tom's picture

I have to admit I'm in the Nagler camp on this one. We were all disappointed with the performances allowed by Favre/Warner/Burger but I expect to see a great deal of improvement in the secondary for several reasons.
The biggest is, as has been mentioned before, time. We saw Woodson and Harris adapt quickly to being asked to play an entirely different style of corner from what they spent the majority of their careers doing, and after Harris went out Williams stepped up and showed a great deal of adaptability as well. Now it's time for the younger guys to follow suit. After a full season and two offseasons in this system I think we're all hoping to see the same sort of change out of Bell, Bush, and Underwood. I'm leaving Pat Lee out of that group because I see him falling into another category: players coming back.
No secondary is going to look stellar when you've got the opposite poles of your depth chart playing on opposite sides of the field. Woodson was great, no explanation needed, and Williams looks like he's almost ready to take over one of the two starting roles, but when he was off the field or in nickle and dime situations things got ugly. With Pat Lee and Al Harris coming back (and yes, I do expect to see Harris back. Let's not forget about the spleen incident...) the depth chart will see some much needed relief.
Finally, I think adding Burnett at safety will help, though I'm not quite sure how much faith to put here. There were several plays that went deep on Bush or Bell last season when there was supposed to be help coming over the top. And although I'm pretty confident in Bigby to retain his starting role, I think skilled depth at safety, especially coming from a coverage guy like Burnett, will be a huge asset.
All in all, TT's work in this draft looks better and better each day. Addressing the O-Line had to be done, check. Adding depth to the D-Line with a high round pick who could (hopefully) add something right away and another promising prospect not only covers the loss of Jolly but hopefully will lead to fewer situations where the line is totally gassed and unable to provide any punch. And finally, taking the best coverage talent available at any secondary position with the first pick that wasn't obligated to be spent on an essential need such as O-Line clearly was and we can now see D-Line was as well.

Asshalo's picture

Re-watching the AZ and MN games, the secondary missed opportunities for turnovers (missing tipped balls, failing to bat a pass that threads the needle). Granted they didn't receive many. The truth is the elite QBs and their WRs come pretty close to making passes indefensible, (i.e. when it looks like a WR adjusts to the pass half-way through the ball's flight). It comes down to making plays when these QBs try to thread the needle, either by batting a pass or picking it, especially on 3rd down or in the red zone. Even if you have 5 DBs on the field (pass rush held constant), the pass defense is only as good as its weakest part of the field.

Also, during the AZ game, a lot of DBs got into trouble trying too hard for a turnover (i.e. jumping the route on a pass, trying to strip the ball and not tackling). I don't care how good your defense is... they are at their best when their team has the lead. I think the D would have played a slightly better had AZ and MN not built such big leads early on. I expect the offense to score more in the first quarter this year which should help.

PackersRS's picture

We were #2 in first half differential last year.

It's true that in the AZ game we trailed the whole game, but the first MN game we were tied for pretty much the entire first half. The second game, we were far behind in the end of first, but we actually started in front with a FG...

Asshalo's picture

Point is Defenses are made to play with leads. They were behind most of the game in AZ, all the game in MN game 2 (bringing up the initial lead is almost irrelevant). They were behind in the first and second quarters and down by 7 at half in MN game 1. If you look at time of possession battle in MN games 1 and 2 and AZ playoff in the first half, Green Bay lost pretty decisively while being behind.

PackersRS's picture

Against DAL, we had only a 3-0 lead going in the half. Irrelevant, the same way the MN lead... We did win the possession time. We allowed just 7 points.

Against PIT, we trailed by a TD, but we won the time of possession by 11 minutes... Yet we allowed 37 points.

Against TB, we were ahead by a TD, but the ToP we lost. 38 points our D allowed.

I understand the principles, but it's just a stat. There are some correlations, but it's just like the turnover battle.

Do you know that when the Packers had an INT, they won, and when they didn't, they lost? And when their D allowed less than 27 points, they won? But noone is going to make a case that achieving those is an indication of victory...

Asshalo's picture

3 points is irrelevant when you then let them score 14 more points than you. Am I missing something here?

TOP in the first half? None of those four. In the game? None of them. Pitt TOP was plus 10 minutes in the game. Min it was plus 4 minutes in both first halfs. Time of Possession was plus 3 in the first half of AZ.

"Do you know that when the Packers had an INT, they won, and when they didn’t, they lost? "

Do you not understand the concept of correlation? So a team isn't more likely to win if the more positive it's turnover ratio is? A team isn't more likely to win if it carries a plus 7 lead going into half. So yes, I am making the case, the offense started sluggish in 2009 losses. That's been a pretty established critique dating back to the 08 season's losses.

Point is when you play elite QBs the possession battle plays a big role. If that's not the case why did McCarthy and Payton both on-side kick to gain one? Why do you think the playoff OT rules were changed?

Asshalo's picture

"We were #2 in first half differential last year."

The pass defense was also 5th in the league last year, but both of those stats reflect the opposit of how the team played against MN, Pitt and AZ. In all four of those games, Pack trailed by at least 7 at half, while getting beat by 14 against MN2 and AZ. Keep the ball out of the veteran's hands is the name of the game.

Bearmeat's picture

Brian, good points. However, I take issue with the end of the paragraph that states: " It was the nickel and dime guys, and the backups who were forced to play due to injury." (That caused the biggest problem)
Every single NFL team in the salary cap era is thin or worried about 1 to 2 areas on their team at this stage in the game. The days of the Lombardi Pack and Walsh 49ers stacking every single position are over. Even the great Ron Wolf had to go to the depths of Andre Rison at WR in our SB year due to injuries.
Any group or position that has as many injuries as we did at S/CB last year is going to flat out be exposed. You need to be lucky to win it all now... and not just good. If Wood/Tramon stay near the level they've been at, and either Harris/Lee/or Underwood step up we'll be fine at CB. If Bigby/Burnett plays at just an average starting level we'll be fine at S. If Hawk and Chillar can cover moderate level TE/RB we'll be fine at ILB.
We have the talent at every position on the field to either excel or at least compete right now. Only 3-5 teams in the league can say that. We are in a good place, and just as likely as anyone else to win it all at this point.

Oppy's picture

I agree... i've stated before that it wasn't a lack of depth that hurt our secondary last season, but rather how deep into the depth chart we had to go.

instead of #1. #2 and #3 Cb's on the field in the nickle, we had #1, #3, and # 4 (or worse) much of the year. That's a difficult situation to overcome.

jerseypackfan's picture

Sixteen comments in and no one has ripped Bush yet. Impressive!

deelux's picture

Initially, I was also on the "draft a corner" bandwagon, but even high round picks fail to catch on, e.g. Ahmad Carroll.

Woodson's age, Al Harris's age and recovery, and the relative inexperience of many of the members of the secondary is definitely a concern (as is Dom's over-reliance on zone coverage), but how does drafting a corner automatically fix the problem any more than counting on a greater contribution from Underwood, Lee, Bush, or a just a better collective grasp on Dom's system?

Brian suggests "doing something" about the secondary, but even a high draft pick would have to be added to the list of "unproven players."

Rod Woodson's assessment is right, the second-tier players need to step up, but that's not exactly a top freakin' secret indicator of success. Guys get hurt, veterans' performance fades--the teams that are ready for that succession win championships. MM and TT say the've got the secondary depth, and that the defensive front/pass rush was what needed the work. I am inclined to agree.

Tarynfor12's picture

The simple fact is the Packers defense when up against the "elite Qb's" looked like teenagers at the Prom Dance not knowing who to dance with,hence standing there looking vulnerable and open for ridicule.
Sure many of these(last years) egg heads are coming back to the dance again(as they failed and are now in summer school-except Bush who will never FIND a partner)will be more decisive and more aware of that touchy-feely thing while out there dancing(not groping) for the prize but more finessing and getting what you want(for those old enough,think drive-in movie)all day or (night) long.
I think the CONFIDENCE level of our dance attendee's this year,will empower them to not only show up for the dance but be so smooth as to take away what the others bring.Here's to not going home alone this year!!! Just a little humor.

angryminnow's picture

There wasn't one team in the nfl last season that didn't get torched at some time or another.

The superbowl champs got torched for nearly 400 yards by Jason Campbell. And a another 300 by Chris Redman.

You can have weaknesses and still win games. The packers could have still beaten the cardinals despite their defense. For every quarterback we struggled against look what Rodgers did to opposing defenses.

Of all the offenses and formations in the league, the spread was the only real formation the packers struggled against. I don't think it's hard to imagine the packers will spend a significant amount time preparing for the spread this season.

Last year the packers spent all of their time installing the defense. This year they'll spend all of their time fixing their problems and putting in new packages in to confuse offenses.

While I'm sure they will still struggle at times, they should be in better shape than last year.

Tarynfor12's picture

Every team gets torched at some time in the season is true.The Saints getting torched by Campbell and Redman really means nothing as in the Pack getting torched by ELITE QB's as they are not.

All average Qb's have their day with a team of higher caliber defense,but the point is the Packer defense has to have a better band-aid against the QB's who will torch you and are expected to do so.Subjecting your QB to the added stress of endlessly needing to come back in no defense games is never good.

That game as we suffered in Tampa is the game where it happens,we can live with that but we can't live with 3-4 Elite guys doing so.This years schedule will attest to that.

I hope the dance card for the Packers has been filled in already with the names of those QB(s) which we will dance with and not get danced on.

packeraaron's picture

"All average Qb’s have their day with a team of higher caliber defense" - um, no...they don't.

Tarynfor12's picture

I saw your response a mile away.Can't wait for the list of low 2nd and 3rds.
Just list the starters who haven't had at one time or another, the "game" for them against a caliber defense.

packeraaron's picture

Is that English? What is "a caliber defense"? What are "low 2nd and 3rds"?

Tarynfor12's picture

Aaron,sorry but the inference to 2nd and 3rd was "string on the roster" and IF you didn't know what I meant by "higher caliber defense",why did you answer "Um,no...they don't" as to assert that you did? Also,YES it is English.

packeraaron's picture

So your contention is that every quarterback who has ever been a regular starter in the NFL has had a great passing day against a top defense?

Tarynfor12's picture

Based on what was or is considered to be average for each,against what was or is a top defense, during their time as a regular starter yes,I would contend they all had their moments of putting it to a top defense.

Ryeguy812's picture

Not sure I totally agree that all these guys need to step up big time this season. Even a little improvement from any one of those DBs can be a difference. Yeah we got schooled 4 times, but despite our D getting schooled it wasn't like we got blown out of any of those games. That's the beauty of having a high powered offense. Modest improvements can go a long way on that defense, some better technique here or better read there on certain plays could easily swing those games back in our favor.
Not sure its as dire of a situation as its being portrayed.

FITZCORE1252's picture

We have an Offense that can score with OR outscore anyone in the league. If we get even an incremental upgrade from the passrush as well as natural growth from players such as Lee and Underwood, there is not a game on the schedule that we should not win.


andrew's picture

i think havin al harris get hurt was a blessing in disguise in the long run for the packers secondary.. forcing all of the young corners into a big game situation was great experience for them and they got to have a year to watch themselves play work on what they need to work on.. corners gettin exposed can be a good thing.. it will lead to growth and development.. al harris may be a problem going into the second half of the season.. he is a pressure corner that relies on speed to stick in coverage after the WR breaks his press.. one of the problems i have seen in coverage while al harris was playing is harris would get beat and bigby wouldnt be there to support him... i feel we will see this more often with harris back i dont see him being as quick as he has been.. bigby and burnett are going to need to step up and give harris a lot of support this season but our nickle and dime backs are going to be very much improved.. i believe hawk and chillar will have worked hard due to the competition for the position.. you will see an improvement in their coverage abilities.. i have high hopes for this season adn i think bigby adn burnett along with the experience in the defense for the front 7 will be the difference makers for the defense this season

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