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Packers Film Room: ‘Penny’ front, leaky run defense, & Sammy Watkins’ usage

The Green Bay Packers defense played better in week two than in their opening game, losing just 10 points in a 27-10 win over their division rivals the Chicago Bears. Pass rushers Preston Smith and Rashan Gary registered a total of three sacks (Smith with two and Gary with one) while Jaaire Alexander registered an interception.

The defense held Bears quarterback Justin Fields to just seven completions on 11 attempts for 70 yards. In the run game, however, they surrendered 160 yards on 19 attempts between the Bears, two running backs David Montgomery and Khalil Herbert.

The run defense was a bit alarming and is a concern at this point that we’ll look at later in this article. In addition, we will look at the use of Sammy Watkins. First, let’s take a look at how the Packers were able to sack Justin Fields and what coverages and fronts they played to pull this off to perfection.

Penny front and covers

The Packers rely on fronts commonly associated with Vic Fangio and Brandon Staley. Many of Defensive Coordinator Joe Barry’s schedule principles are taken from his time with Brandon Staley in 2020 with the Los Angeles Rams. While not exclusively from that tree, there are many similarities, mainly because they fit the Packers defensive staff.

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A similarity is their use of the “penny” front, a subpacket front that allows a defense to play the run effectively with two deep protections. The front is a 5-1 front and the staff grouping consists of a 3-3-5 group (three defensive linemen, three linebackers, five defensive backs).

The front is based on a “3-0-3” line of defense alignment i.e. two defensive ends in the B holes and a nose gear over the center (bear front) or sometimes a “tite” front alignment with a 4i-0 – 4i alignment, where the “4i” is a shadow over the inside shoulder of the tackle.

Outside the three down linemen are two pass rushers, usually stand-up linebackers in a wide-5 or wide-9 technique alignment (wide-5 is outside the tackle without a tight end, and wide-9 is outside the tight end). This 5-man front allows the defense to play in comfort with two deep protections to the run, but also limits the passing attack in the field. The cover usually rotates downwards with a safety that does not have any run-fit assignment and is allowed to fit the run if necessary.

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Against the pass, it gives the defensive front five single 1-on-1 matchups with the offensive line. And on two occasions, the defense was able to sack Justin Fields through a combination of tacky coverage and these 1-on-1s.

First Sack, Q2 2:47 PM, 1st-and-10 @ CHI 20

The bears come out in 11 men (a running back, a tight end) and line up in a 3×1 nub trips. Nub denotes the tight end in-line on the line of scrimmage rather than wide out in a flexed position. They have a play action sail/flood concept of travel with a clear route, a corner route of #3 and a post route of #2. The tight end runs a shallow crosser from the other side to “flood” the zone.

The Packers are in a 3-3-5 penny front with cover-6 cover behind it, cover-2 on the tight side, quarters on the trips side. The defenders over the trips play, the nickel defender and the corner. Safety Darnell Savage (No. 26) turns down to the box as the buzz safety.

Savage’s rotation to the quarter flat zone allows him to get under the corner route and mess with Fields’ progress. Fields probably wanted the corner route here, as it is common to throw as the post and clearance route increase coverage. The pass defense was ready. Savage undercuts the route and takes away the throwing lane.

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Up front, Bears’ offensive line holds up pretty well, but when Fields pulls the ball down to scramble, Preston Smith can chase Fields by going all the way around the pocket to fire him.

Fire Two, 3rd Quarter 2:24 PM, 2nd-and-3 @ CHI 29

With this bag, Rashan Gary (No. 52) shows why he is one of the best pass-rushers in the league. He’s way out of the Bears’ tight end in a super wide 9 alignment. This is an advantageous position to rush the passer-by and he rushes into Bear’s right tackle Larry Borom (#75).

The bears are lined up in a thrips formation that again runs from the cover for the pivot route below from the #3 receiver in thrips. They need three yards and this is the best way to pick it up, with Darnell Mooney (No.11) 1-on-1 with linebacker DeVondre Campbell (No.59). But Campbell is a very good linebacker and stays with Mooney the entire route.

The pass cover is cover-1 and with each route covered there is no place for Fields to escape to, especially as Gary collapses the right side of the bag at a nice rate to power the bull rush on Borom. He pushes Borom back into Fields before knocking out and firing the quarterback.

Packers are on a defensive battle

The Packers defense struggled against the Vikings in week one, giving 126 yards on 28 carries. That trend continued and got worse in week two against the Bears, who rushed two running backs a total of 19 times for 160 yards. David Montgomery, who ran most of those carries, and yards (15/122) averaged 8.1 yards per carry and Khalil Herbert (4/38) averaged 9.5 yards per carry.

Neither running back scored a single touchdown, but the defense left a number of holes due to missed orders or lack of aggressiveness in passing the point.

First off, rookie Quay Walker was a few runs out of position and didn’t fit well in his gap assignments early in this match. Execute matches change with the action. Linebackers will fit into the holes on the inside of the inside of runs or hammer the fullback/lead puller or blocker on either side to spill the ball carrier. On runs from the outside, they flow quickly and act as a force, spilling players onto the edge to force the defender back in and spilling.

On cuts, the linebacker who is away from the call must read the running back and for this inside run, Walker would follow the running back’s inside shoulder, keeping his inside shoulder with the running back. When Montgomery cuts back, Walker does everything right until he lets Montgomery out while he falls back to take the cut

He falls back or “folds” into the back C-gap, but stops in an attempt to make a tackle. Because he stopped his feet, he allowed the receiver to block him from the side, allowing the running back to cut off this leverage and gain some distance.

On the same drive, on an outward sweep run to the left of the defense, Walker the linebacker is again away from the call and therefore has to flow quickly over the top to fill.

He can’t get caught up in traffic and take an underpass to the running back. He is cut off by the center working to the second level and he should already be outside and over the top of the center in the second level. These are beginner mistakes that will be corrected with time.

Also in the run game, while the penny front above was great against the pass, it didn’t fare so well against the run, something it should do with ease. But players were out of position and slow to react.

Gap assignments in the penny front allow the defense to pass the run of two deep safeties or at least remove one safe from the fit so he can read and fill as needed. To do this, the defending players up front have to play an extra half of a hole, depending on where the run goes. The 3-tech defensive ends in the B-gap play a “gap and a half” by playing the B-gaps and closing the outer half of the A-holes while the nose 2 gaps tackle the inner half of both A-holes .

The idea is to hide in the middle while bridging defenses on the edges by playing their primary holes and letting the linebackers and safeties fill in as needed.

That’s not what’s happening here. Kingsley Enagbare (No.55) sets the edge and stays in the C-gap, while Defensive one and a half Dean Lowry (No.94) puts pressure on the B-gap and the edge defense tosses the ball carrier back in to Jarran reed.

Jarran Reed (No.90) has an excellent chance as his defense rallies to the ball carrier to tackle him for minimal gain, but he misses the tackle completely.

Whether it was the Penny front or 3-4 base defense, the Packers took a cut from poor run-fits and poor tackling. This should be cleaned up in the future.

The role of Sammy Watkins is getting a little clearer

Prior to week one, I wrote an article for Acme Packing Company explaining how I thought the Packers could use wide receiver Sammy Watkins in the passing game. In it, I showed which routes he had especially success under Matt LaFleur when both were with the Rams in 2017.

Using “drift/strike” routes for play action, fast ramps from the run-pass option, deep shots for play action, and RPOs in a variety of goal-line situations, it became clear that the Packers were looking for someone to be a part of the lost production when Davante Adams chose to sign with the Raiders. On Sunday night, he was featured in at least three of the concepts I covered.

drift

Watkins caught two passes on drift/strike, a game action concept designed to take advantage of a fast attack route across the center at a depth of approximately 10 meters in the space behind the linebackers who fake read the run.

One pass came from the shotgun and the other pass came from below center. No matter which way it is performed, it is probably the simplest and most effective game action concept that the Shanahan coaching tree performs regularly.

RPO arrow

The RPO arrow is another way to get Watkins and his speed involved in the passing game.

Rodgers reads the pre-snap, takes the snap and immediately throws the ball to Watkins on the left of the attack, but he can’t bring in the pass because it falls incompletely.

corner post

Rodgers threw a deep shot to Watkins late in the game on a corner post route where Watkins sells the corner route for a few paces before breaking back across the field.

Rodgers found him deep for a 55-yard completion when the single high security tried to cut the crossing route from top to bottom and Watkins ran right past him.


Overall, it was a better week for the Packers offense and defense, although there are some issues that need fixing. The passing game found a much better rhythm and the defense tightened up when needed, although they still have to find ways to close the gaps in the run and make the tackles that were there. With the Packers out and about in Tampa Bay, it doesn’t get any easier to face the 2-0 Buccaneers.

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