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X's and O's: Different Packers Looks in 2017

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X's and O's: Different Packers Looks in 2017

A lot has been made recently about Ted Thompson's newfound ability to stray a bit from his normal tendency to do largely what he can to retain his own players, and treat players who have spent time with other teams as "less than desirable.  Green Bay, in fact, lost quite a few veterans.  Most of you have seen or read the list, but TJ Lang, Julius Peppers, Micah Hyde and Datone Jones headline a group  of players that were deemed too expensive to be retained by the Packers. 

Not only did Green Bay lose more players than most deemed likely (potentially more players than they would have ever wanted to lose as well), but they added more players than I can think of since Thompson's tenure began.  Ricky Jean-Francois is a potential starter in the base defense.  Jahri Evans is your likely starter at right guard.  Davon House will certainly be in the mix to play outside cornerback in the nickel package at the very least.  We'll get to Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks briefly.  They can legitimately change the way that the Packers do business on offense.

While "Tyrannasarous Ted" may be getting playful grief from others around the league for stepping outside his comfort zone, his primary play callers, Mike McCarthy and Dom Capers have historically been relatively stuck in their ways as well.  McCarthy has run a lot of the same (successful) stuff during his time with the Packers.  Plenty of shotgun, plenty of "11" personnel and plenty of tosses out of that shotgun formation (I'm kidding......kinda).

Capers has also been pretty rigid in the way that he runs his 3-4 base defense and the corresponding 2-4-5 nickel.  Players played and mastered specific roles.  Inside linebackers and defensive backs stayed on the field.  Interior and edge rushers rotated.  Linebackers were linebackers, safeties were safeties, and by and large, nickel backs were nickel backs.

That, too seems to be-a-changin'.

Here are a few specific examples of what we might see from Green Bay in 2017 that we're not used to seeing.

The Hybrid ILB/S

I had advocated for a defensive back to drop down and cover tight ends before it was cool to do so.  I was a little wayward, usually suggesting Micah Hyde, but it was Morgan Burnett who ultimately found his way into a lot of linebacker snaps.  It's a popular enough thing to do.  Deone Buchanon plays a lot of linebacker for Arizona.  Mark Barron was switched to linebacker full time by the Rams.  More and more 215-220 pound body types playing linebacker on 2nd and long and 3rd down than there have been historically.

The interesting thing about this season's acquisitions, though is that a player earmarked to replace Micah Hyde (Josh Jones) actually spent his first practice working with coach Scott McCurley and the inside linebackers during his first practice with the team.  It was certainly a step to embrace hybrid roles for players experienced in the defense,  but to specifically select a player in the top 70 to fill a hybrid role is a remarkable step forward.  As I've mentioned almost anywhere that I can on social media. both Jones and first round pick Kevin King are athletic freaks of nature, in the 90th percentile athletically for defensive backs.  

Jones as a linebacker hybrid, especially if teamed with a stronger backer like Jake Ryan (or even Clay Matthews), is a scary proposition.  This is a 6'1" 221 pound man who runs a 4.41 40, leaps 37.5" and still manages 20 reps on the bench.  Compare him, even to Packers dime linebacker Joe Thomas.  Thomas checks in at 6'1", 227 pounds, has about the same vertical leap and manages a few more reps on the bench.  With that said, Joe Thomas ran a 4.72 40 yard dash at a pro day, so it's probably closer to 4.8.  This is a different kind of player.  

Imagine a defense that uses Matthews and Ryan at inside backer on 1st down with Jones playing "big nickel" slot, and then transitioning to a pass defense with Matthews, Biegel, Perry and Daniels rushing the passer while Joe Thomas, Josh Jones, Morgan Burnett, Kevin King, Davon House and Damarious Randall take care of the back end.  In 3rd and really long you could substitute Quinten Rollins or Kentrell Brice for Thomas.  This type of versatility is maybe not ahead of the curve, but at least it's on it.

Here is Jones playing linebacker for NC State on early downs.  He also played deep safety and slot corner.  This move to positionless defense is a new look for Dom Capers


Here is Morgan Burnett playing inside linebacker on early downs against a spread look by the Eagles.  Burnett ends up covering Darren Sproles, which is certainly a better matchup than Jake Ryan, Clay Matthews or Blake Martinez.


The Hybrid ILB/OLB

The play of Clay Matthews always seems to be a topic of offseason discussion.  Matthews has never really returned to the form of his sophomore season, in which he really should have been named the NFL's defensive player of the year.  He's still a pretty good player in spurts, but Matthews is paid to be an elite edge rusher, which at this point it's difficult to argue that he is.  Last offseason after the failure of the defense to stop Carson Palmer's Cardinals, it was time to move Matthews back outside to rush the passer again.  This season, it's time to move him all over the field and take advantage of him as a "chess piece".  

The reality of the situation is that Clay Matthews likely needs to be a 45 snap per game player, and not a 65 snap per game player.  Matthews is a markedly different player when he is 100% healthy than when he is even the least bit nicked up.  I think a lot of that has to do with just how twitchy of an athlete the "legacy" linebacker truly is.  So how do you combat that?

Two ways.  First is to find other edge rushers.  Have they done what they can to replace Julius Peppers and Datone Jones?  That certainly remains to be seen.  Vince Biegel is an addition there.  Jayrone Elliot should have always been playing more snaps than he has been.  Kyler Fackrell was a top 100 pick a season ago.  People forget that not that long ago the Packers were making relatively deep playoff runs with Clay Matthews on one side and generally some undrafted shmuck on the other.  It makes hemming and hawing about whether or not a vet like Elliot, a $60 million man like Perry and two mid round picks like Fackrell and Biegel are "enough" seem a little silly.

The other way to do it is to replicate what Matthews does within the game.  That might be the easier task.  Kyler Fackrell is excellent in coverage, and frankly, despite his length might end up inside for the Packers long term.  Vince Biegel is basically a dead athletic ringer for Matthews and the two of them constantly coax the word "motor" out of talent evaluators.  

It would be at the very least interesting to see the Packers play Matthews, Fackrell and Biegel all together with Jake Ryan.  If Ryan played his standard sILB position, Matthews, Fackrell and Biegel would be very difficult to identify and difficult to match up with.  The difficulty would be based on both their versatility and their general "being-6'3"-245-and-white-ness".  

Matthews has extensive experience at the inside linebacker position.


Biegel (standing on the 45), drops into coverage well, at the very least better than a college defensive end convert.  Biegel played inside linebacker early in his career at Wisconsin.


Cover 3 and Cover 1

These defensive looks are better known as "single-high".  The general idea is that the defense uses one safety and two cornerbacks to create a "shell" of coverage on the field side, the boundary side, and the center of the field.  The only way this works is if all three of those players are either fast enough, or long enough (or both) to not get beat constantly over the top.  

I had a chance to speak with Mike Renner, a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus after the draft, and Renner flat out told me that no team in the NFL played more "2 Man" (man to man coverage underneath with two safeties splitting deep halves of the field) than any other team in the league.  That's because after Green Bay lost Sam Shields they flat-out didn't have anyone with the size or speed (or either) to maintain boundary coverage without allowing long completions over their head.  

You can see here, that when Green Bay still had Sam Shields, they were much more likely to use a single high coverage and engage eight players with the offense at the line of scrimmage.  Kevin King and Davon House have the chance to provide the ability to use that coverage yet again.


I believe the Packers have likely replaced both outside cornerbacks.  Kevin King is an obvious selection for one of the two roles.  King is 6'3" and runs a 4.43 40 yard dash.  If he plays with any kind of technique whatsoever, it is going to be borderline impossible for teams to throw over the top of him.  That length is exactly why he gets the Richard Sherman comps.  Sherman, while being in the 4.5s in the 40, basically never gets beat deep because you can't physically throw it over him and complete it.

Davon House accomplishes a lot of the same things, but does so in a different way.  House is 6'1" and possesses 31 7/8" arms.  He's a physical defensive back with limited ball skills. but one who very rarely gets beat deep.  If you want to continue the legion of boom comparisons, he is a fine equivalent to Brandon Browner or Deshawn Shead.  

That leaves what has ultimately proven to be the most important role (see Packers 38 Seahawks 10), the centerfielder.  The Cover 1 safety.  Now entering his fourth season, HaHa Clinton-Dix must prove that if the Packers ask him to be, he can ideed be that guy.  Green Bay once had the ultimate single-high safety.  No one ever gives him credit for it, but Nick Collins was Earl Thomas before Earl Thomas was Earl Thomas.  Clinton-Dix and Burnett were once interchangeable, but with Burnett moving into a hybrid role and his backup Kentrell Brice being more of a hitter.

The hitter is another part of single high defense.  Do the Packers have their Kam Chancellor?

Yeah probably.

"12" personnel

The next two sections is where it starts to seem like McCarthy has a little football crush on either Bill Belichek or Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, because the Packers all of a sudden seem capable of very Patriots-y stuff on the offensive side of the ball.  

QB Aaron Rodgers talked specifically about this in mid-April.

"I think the exciting thing is that we haven't had a whole lot of '12' personnel around here in a while.  I think we're going to have a lot more flexibility in that package.  (It)'s more of a run-pass balance personnel and it has been throughout the league and for us over the last few years," Rodgers explains.  "The opportunity to put two guys on the line of scrimmage and have the opportunity to run right, run left and then run our vertical passing game is going to be something that could make us even more difficult to stop."

Rodgers is right, and the Packers now have a stable of four unique backs (we'll get to that) with which to run the ball.  While Bennett just might turn out to be the signing of the offseason (and is a marked upgrade over Jared Cook), the key to everything just might be Lance Kendricks.

Kendricks is an excellent blocker, and at 6'3" isn't too tall to motion into the fullback position.  If teams decide to play Green Bay's '12' personnel sets with their sub packages (at least 5 defensive backs), the Packers could still run with a lead blocker or use the play action pass to their advantage.  Kendricks also suffered from a disease I like to call Shitty-QB-itis during his entire stay in St. Louis so it is certainly possible that a trip home to Wisconsin and a connection with Rodgers unleashes the second round talent that Kendricks was drafted to be.

The Packers, because of Nelson and Cobb's abilities to play in the slot will likely always feature 11 personnel heavily.  it's the ability to run more than '21', '11', and '10' that could make the difference against a team more susceptible to the run game.

'12' Personnel doesnt' always mean one tight end on each side of the line of scrimmage.  Here are the Patriots using Martellus Bennet as a wing tight end outside of Rob Gronkowski.  Now imagine Bennett outside of Kendricks with Montgomery in the backfield, Cobb in the slot and Jordy Nelson out wide.  Play six in the box? No problem.  Pack the line of scrimmage?  Aaron Rodgers has a lot of answers for that. too.


Different running backs for different situations

This is where it gets a bit Patriots-y for me after the 12 personnel comments, the Packers, as many have pointed out, selected a diverse group of backs in the NFL Draft.  Each of those backs has a reasonable comp to a New England Patriot.  Jamaal Williams would be Green Bay's feature back, their LeGarette Blount.  Ty Montgomery plays a brilliant James White.  Aaron Jones has the potential to be Dion Lewis and Devante Mays can provide the power running of a Stevan Ridley.  

Employing different backs for different situations may seem like tipping the offense's hand, but if you can't match up with it, you can't match up with it.  The Patriots have been doing it for a while.  Just don't explain to James White why Tom Brady has his MVP trophy from the last Super Bowl.


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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (25) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

Pack88's picture

220 Lb Line backer's George Cumby is making a comeback- Just praying he doesn't have to get trucked by the fridge to make it!!

dobber's picture

Nice article, Ross. Thanks!

RCPackerFan's picture

Fantastic job in this article...

One thing really stands out with the 2017 Packers team.
They will definitely have a lot of flexibility in their schemes.

On offense, they have so many things they can do schematically that they couldn't do last year.

First with 2 new TE's will have the ability to use 1-3 TE's with ease. Everyone knows what Bennett can do. He will at the very least be equal to Jared Cook. The player that really puts our offense over the top I think is Kendricks. I really think he could be the biggest factor in improving the offense. Thompson/McCarthy have been searching for a TE like Kendricks for a while now. Now they have him. His size allows for a lot of flexibility, and creates another mismatch type of piece for the team.

At RB the player that completely changes the way the offense can be ran is Montgomery. His abilities gives the offense something it hasn't really had in a long time. A big fast RB who can make plays in the passing game. With the additions of Williams, Jones, and Mays they could all have roles. And don't forget about Ripkowski as a bruiser...

On defense one of the best things this defense could do is to move players around.
Moving Mathews from OLB to ILB to wherever is the best thing for him and the defense. A player that I think could mirror with him is Biegel.
Also having the hybrid ILB/S will allow a lot more flexibility on the back end. Don't have to worry about Ryan covering TE's or RB's as often.

I am definitely looking forward to see the different looks the coaches come up with from previous years.

Spock's picture

I've been excited about how the Packers offense could look with the additions of the two tight ends (and drafted RB's). This article helps me to see some of the possibilities. Thanks!

croatpackfan's picture

Well, I'm here probably the most inexperience fan amongst all of you. But, when I read your articles and comments it looks that most of you goes from "Packers already won SB 2017" to "We are doomed at 0-16 season!", so to say... Calm down a little. Yes there can be a lot of new exciting plays and combinations, but I doubt that Packers will keep more than 3 RB on the roster (plus FB). You are talking of 4 different RB... You assume that starting CB will be King and House, but why to use House when you have 1st round pick Randall who is faster than House. I predict starting CB will be outside House and Randall (at the beginning of the season) with Rollins in the slot. I expect King will replace House in starting role while the season will go towards end...
But, who knows...

cuervo's picture

House ran a 4.5, Randall a 4.46...not a big difference plus House had a faster 3 cone drill...their speed difference is negligable
I fully expect House to start at corner for the simple reason that he's the most experienced one they have. Who will line up on the other side is where the battle will be between King and Randall. I would not be surprised if Rollins got cut....assuming someof the other younger bodies show promise.

croatpackfan's picture

"I predict starting CB will be outside House and Randall...."
This is the part of the sentence I wrote yesterday... So, you see, I think that House should be starter at the beginning of the season, paired with Randall. For King I expect him to rise during season and, consequently take over starter job from House.
Also, I expect many sub packages in which we might se King, House and Randall, maybe Gunter and Rollins in the mix. Also, we do not know what hidden gem we will find among UDFA.
Main point from my post is that it is too soon to talk about starting positions and starters....

Ben Pearson's picture

Croatpackfan, I do disagree with you. The best way to convince you Randall won't be starting is simply to throw stats at you. Last season these are the Qb stats when throwing at Randall:

63% completion percentage against, 10 TD against and QB's had an average QBR of 113.4 against him..... just let that sink in.

He was also benched multiple times not due to injury but due to bad play. He has struggled to comprehend the play book and he has got man handled by every receiver who is his size/bigger than him. If you're going to be small you've got to be mean and he isn't.

House and King should be our starting CB's and play the majority of the snaps, at least on the outside for sure.

croatpackfan's picture

Randall was injured from week 2 to the end of the season! So, you can believe in stats, but dry numbers never tells the truth story...

RCPackerFan's picture

Well some people are doom and gloom about everything.

I agree with your take on the RB's. I would think they will keep 3 RB's, plus Ripkowski. Obviously this is very early in the process, but that would be my guess right now.

Also with the CB's I agree with you that to start the year I think it will be House and Randall, with Rollins in the slot. Unless King dominates and forces his way in the starting lineup I think they will likely let him play subpackages and allow him time to learn.

The player that almost everyone seems to have written off is Rollins. While I am not saying he will be or should be a starting outside CB (I think he is perfect for the slot), most seem to exclude him when talking about the top 3 CB's.

I am looking forward to seeing these guys play.

cuervo's picture

I hope I'm wrong, but I think Rollins may go down as one Ted's worst picks. He was projected as a safety coming out....because he's slow ( 4.6 forty).
He had a couple picks his rookie year (that were thrown to him), other than that I simply don't see an ascending player. Granted he only played one year of college ball (which is why it was a bad pick in the 2nd round)....but at this point I'd rather take my chances with Gunter over anything Rollins has shown.

Again, I hope I'm wrong.

RCPackerFan's picture

I believe his injuries last year were the biggest reason for his decline. He missed offseason practices as well as a lot of time during the season with various injuries. Being a player with limited experience I believe the missed practice time hurt him as much as the injuries.

I don't remember anyone that projected him to be a S coming out. He was a CB for sure. Most people projected Randall to Safety. To be fair about his 40 time, he ran a 4.57 the exact same time as Casey Hayward. That is why he like Hayward are perfect for the slot.

I disagree with him being a bad pick in the 2nd round. He was projected to be a 2nd round pick by almost all of the experts. His 1 year of college football was fantastic. He was the MAC defensive player of the year and his Senior Bowl was very, very good. He had a bad year last year no question. But he was playing outside where he shouldn't play, and he was playing hurt most of the year. He had a sophomore slump. Just like Devante Adams the year before. It happens to a lot of players.

I'm just saying lets not write him off yet.

Worztik's picture

Hey Croat... remember, you don't have to be the most knowledgeable as long as you have a desire to learn and apply what you learn!!! You do a good job with what I perceive as a 2nd language for you from a country (I'm presuming Croatia?!?!?) where I don't believe football is a weekly tradition as it is for many of us here in GOD's country!!! Keep up the perceptive comments and you'll be a great commentator for years to come! Just sayin'...

croatpackfan's picture

Thanks for worm words... I'll try...


I also doubt Davon House will finish the season as a starter. If he couldn't keep the job in Jacksonville, why would he keep it in Green Bay? He says it's because they played a lot of zone schemes there... I don't buy it. Even if he is right, Dom Capers is not giving up on zone coverage just yet.

In my view, he has as much talent as the young corners, and if that's the case the Packers will give preference to the development of the young ones than invest in a guy who is 28. It will be an interesting offseason since the situation is so cloud regarding the secondary.

Although I think he won't be a starter, doesn't mean he isn't important, it's​ great having a veteran there to take some pressure off the rookies and provide depth in a so depleted position, specially against early and strong opponents as the Packers have this year. He is not a bad corner.. but I just see him more as a guy who came to provide depth and experience rather than a long term answer.

packeraaron's picture

" If he couldn't keep the job in Jacksonville, why would he keep it in Green Bay? He says it's because they played a lot of zone schemes there... I don't buy it. "

It was partly that and partly the coaching staff was desperate to try anything new because they knew they were getting fired if they continued to lose, which they did, so they did.

Ben Pearson's picture

I agree with you James, especially on your point about House being a nice veteran addition but not a game changer at all. This goes back to my re-occurring point that we did basically nothing to make the second worst passing defense in the league any better. Again we addressed the issue in the draft which hasn't gotten us anywhere (see Rollins and Randall). Yes King and "hyrbid-jones" look like nice players but let's be honest... we raved about Rollins and Randall when we drafted them too. JJ and KK haven't played a single snap yet in the NFL so expecting them to save us is so unrealistic. Again, House is a fine addition I suppose, but only if we had a clear cut #1 which we don't. House would've been the #3 CB in Jacksonville and they clearly didn't even value him at that position in the depth chart so that's concerning (especially because the Jags are miserable).

Generating pressure via the pass rush is another nice way to mask secondary inabilities but we didn't do ourselves any favors there either. We are all aware of Clay's decline and he'll more than likely be inside this year anyways. I actually really really like Dean Lowry and Beigel. I think Fackrell is a nice player too but come on... look at those names. Every single one of those guys is unproven so we can't rightly bank on any of them generating consistent pressure. Also still not totally sold on Nick Perry.

Once again I will not be surprised whatsoever if we finish bottom 5 in passing defense because yet again we are banking on rookies and 1 old veteran. In a FA class STACKED with CB talent, good Ol' Ted Thompson brought us back Davon House... We will get torched by play off caliber offenses all over again. That's my prediction.

Ben Pearson's picture

I'm just happy that I've made it clear that I've written Rollins and Randall off.

I bleed green and gold but that doesn't mean I have to agree with/like everything about the Packers. When I see such a glaring reason for why we aren't succeeding in the post-season I will point it out every chance I get.

Ben Pearson's picture

I just buy into the numbers my friend. I think that's the best tool we have.

I can provide those again if you'd like..?

Ross Uglem's picture

Let's cool it on the "yet again" talk. I'm not arguing Green Bay's passing defense was good a season ago, but yards against is a ridiculous statistic to quote. Teams that are scoring points are going to be in the bottom part of the league in pass yards allowed. Teams pass when they are behind. It's not rocket science.

Green Bay's defense in 2015 has a very similar look and feel personnel wise than it will in 2017 and ranked 6th in Football Outsider's DVOA against the pass (19th against the run). DVOA is a much more accurate metric than yards against.

If the Packers play defense like they did in 2015 and play offense like they did in the second half of 2016 they'll be the favorites to come out of the NFC. If they don't, they won't.

Ben Pearson's picture

Yes and no, a lot of good teams can do it though (Dallas, New England, Seattle, Pittsburgh) all ranked in top 14 offensively and defensively. But I do agree with you the splits between our 2015 and 2016 defense is so vast its somewhat difficult to decipher what that really means and how to predict this next season.

I just wish we would've done a little more to bolster our secondary just to be sure.

MarkinMadison's picture

I LOVE articles like this - more Xs and Os please.

Since '61's picture

Due to the fact that the Packers will have several players on offense and defense who will be new to the NFL and the Packers I am expecting that MM and DC will slowly integrate new formations and new roles onto the field as the season goes on. As players evolve into their roles MM will open up the offense and DC will increase the defensive looks and formations. In 2016 the Packers offense look very different during the 8-0 streak than it did previously when the Packers were 4-6. I'm just hoping that the rookie RBs and defenders can evolve into their roles as quickly as possible. Thanks, Since '61

PatrickGB's picture

GREAT article, The loss of Shields and injuries to R&R were profound. But we have a fresh start with new and healthy players. I believe Dom was stuck with the wrong guys for the job because of the above. New year, new players, fresh start. Also, I believe we now have the ability to outscore almost everybody. Even a slight improvement in our defense can take us further into the playoffs.

Finwiz's picture

@PatrickGB - not going to win the Super Bowl on offense alone.
Defense needs MAJOR improvement, or it will be the same thing as last 2 years. Not much more needs to be said, so hold that thought.

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