Halfway through his second year in Green Bay, Defensive Coordinator Mike Pettine has a personnel problem he’s yet to solve: it’s the inside linebacker position opposite Blake Martinez.
Before going any further, we need to acknowledge that Pettine has a core defensive principle: it’s better to give up yardage on the ground than through the air. He’s plainly stated this many times. The primary reason the Packers have been gouged so much by opposing running backs this year is simply because the Packers choose to man the second ILB position with defensive backs, rather than run-stoppers.
To date Pettine’s strategy – though at times ugly – has worked out well. Yes, the Packers have often yielded lots of rushing yardage, but it hasn’t stopped them from compiling a 7-1 record.
Green Bay’s rush defense has been downright porous at times. The Vikings put up 198 yards on the ground in Week 2. Though Dalvin Cook ran wild for 154 yards in just 20 carries (7.7 average), the Packers had the statistical edge that counted: 21 to 16 on the scoreboard. The strategy did result, however, in receivers Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs being held to 75 and 49 yards respectively. In the teams’ previous encounter the duo combined for more than 200 yards of receptions.
In the loss to the Eagles on Week 4, the Packers yielded 176 yards on the ground, while allowing only 160 through the air. But for the -3 turnover disparity, the Packers were poised to win this encounter, as they had an overall yardage edge by over 150 yards. Jordan Howard averaged 5.8 yards and Mike Sanders 6.5 yards per carry in this one.
In Week 4, slippery Phillip Lindsay accounted for 81 rushing yards and two touchdowns, but it took him 21 carries (3.9 average) to do it. The teams’ total yards almost evened out, but this time it was the opponent who had the three turnovers.
The Packers have tended to do better against the run as the season has progressed. In Week 1, the Bears garnered but 46 rushing yards; the Lions (and Kerryon Johnson) got only 56 in Week 6; and the Chiefs (and LeSean McCoy) were held to 88 a week ago.
Defensive Back or Linebacker?
In line with his limit-the-passing philosophy, Pettine is highly inclined toward filling the inside linebacker position opposite Blake Martinez with a defensive back. In fact, on some passing downs the Packers will put six defensive backs on the field.
Early on, safety Raven Greene had been doing a commendable job at ILB, but he went on injured reserve after Game 2. Next up was safety Will Redmond. From Weeks 5-7, he was a starter, with over 50 defensive snaps each game. Though he’s battled ankle and elbow injuries, he’s likely to get the call against Los Angeles.
When Pettine has felt the need to provide more firepower against the run, new acquisition B. J. Goodson has typically gotten the call. The veteran linebacker obtained a week before the season opener in a trade with the Giants, is 242 pounds of aggression. In playing on defense in the last seven games, his snap counts have been: 38, 25, 7, 19, 32, 40, and 3. He’s quietly accumulated 23 tackles in his part-time role. I think acquiring Goodson – a 26-year-old who’s started 25 NFL games – might prove to be one of Gutekunst’s savviest moves of the year.
The odd man out in this game of musical chairs has been Oren Burks. Of Gutekunst’s draft picks in his first year on the job in 2018, it was Burks whose selection, as the 88th overall pick, came out of nowhere. Foreseen more as a fourth- or fifth-rounder, Burks was the apple of Gutey’s eye.
Burks was viewed as the perfect hybrid: big enough (6’3”, 233#) to stop the run, but fast (4.59 dash) and maneuverable enough to defend against the pass. Alas, his rookie season was not a banner year. Burks played in only 14 games and started only four. First he was hampered by a shoulder dislocation, and then a pectoral injury cost him a lot of playing time.
Halfway through 2019, Burks has played only 30 defensive snaps; versus Kansas City he participated only on the special teams. He seemingly has lost the confidence of the coaching staff.
Strategy Against the Chargers
Taking a quick look ahead, the Chargers will offer up the RB tandem of Austin Ekeler (31 ypg) and Melvin Gordon (28 ypg). At 69.5 rushing yards per contest, the Chargers rank fifth from the bottom. Ekeler is a safety valve receiver masquerading as a running back – he’s already caught 51 of 56 dump offs on the year, for 507 yards.
Los Angeles presents itself as the perfect foil for Pettine’s philosophy; squelch Phillip Rivers’ passing game, even if it means letting LA’s ordinary running backs have their way. By minimizing big play potential, the Packers big edge in talent on both defense and offense should handily prevail in this “virtual” home game.
While the team needs to maintain a one-game-at-a-time focus, we fans have every right to be looking ahead.
For now, Mike Pettine can probably keep inserting defensive backs into that second ILB slot. But the Packers, who are by now anticipating a deep playoff run this postseason, are going to need to have run-stopping options and capabilities when they encounter stiffer competition in the postseason: namely, the 49ers. Given that the trade deadline has passed, it seems like Burks and Goodson are the only such alternatives on the roster. One or both of these two players, who have up to now been after-thoughts, need to be ready to make a difference come January.
Speaking of January, we’re noticing that the NFL has shown a renewed interest in dominating rushing attacks this season. We know that Matt LaFleur believes it’s a strong running game that sets up a team’s passing attack. Leading this charge, though, is LaFleur’s buddy, 49ers fellow 39-year old head coach Kyle Shanahan. On the year, the 49ers have attempted 227 passes, but they’ve rushed 303 times. Last year Shanahan’s guys threw 532 times, but rushed only 423 times.
In contrast, the Packers have thrown 283 times and have rushed 205 times. I believe San Francisco is the only NFL team that is rushing more often than it is throwing the ball. Shanahan and his undefeated troops appear determined to prove that a run-dominant attack will lead them straight to the Super Bowl. The Ravens, with only 200 fewer rushing yards than passing yards, is another run-oriented team that sits at the top of its division.
Don’t feel bad if you can’t name San Fran’s running backs. They are: Matt Breida, 99 rushes, 524 yards (5.3 average); Tevin Coleman, 83 for 355 (4.3 average); and Raheem Mostert, 55 for 307 (5.6 average). How did they acquire these rushing dynamos? Breida went undrafted in 2017, Coleman, a third-rounder in 2015, came over from Atlanta this season, and Mostert, undrafted in 2015, is now with his seventh NFL team. The cost (average salary) to the 49ers for this threesome: Breida, $557,000; Coleman $2.9M; and Mostert, $4.25M. This is what allows SF to pay Jimmy Garoppolo $27.5 million annually over the next five years.
After Sunday’s game, the Packers take on the Panthers at Lambeau, then enjoy their bye week, and on November 24 they visit the 49ers – for what could very well be a preview of the NFC postseason.
Don’t be fooled. Though Jimmy G is having a fine year as Shanahan’s signal-caller, he only ranks 8th in the league in passing yardage, and his passer rating of 100.6 is but ninth best. The 49ers owe their success due to their dedication to the run.
I think we will be seeing two epic battles between LaFleur- and Shanahan-led teams before the next Super Bowl champ emerges.