Many Packer fans were quick to argue that last year’s successful Rams’ defense was heavily dependent on the play of two superstars: Jalen Ramsey and Aaron Donald. How will the Packers defensive scheme replicate what those two players can do?
Yes, the defense had plenty of fun formation diversity to create one-on-one matchups along the defensive line. It had classic Vic Fangio type zone coverage on the backend to thwart deep passes. But there’s a case to be made that without Ramsey and Donald, the defense would’ve simply been average.
I want to take a look at how the Packers can duplicate what Donald and Ramsey brought to the Rams. Starting with Jalen Ramsey.
Ramsey’s responsibilities in the defense were gameplan dependent last season. He was sometimes in the “star” position (if you’ve listened to any Barry press conferences this offseason, it’s been asked about 87 or so times) and sometimes on the boundary defending true number one wide receivers. Here’s what Robert Mays, of The Athletic, wrote about Ramsey in December:
Ramsey plays the “Star” position within the Rams defense, which means that along with playing outside cornerback, he also moves inside to the slot when the situation dictates. “It’s just getting him where the action is,” Staley said. “Where he can impact the game, whether it’s pushing the coverage away from him, or whether it’s getting him closer to the action and make more plays from the slot, impact the game that way by being literally closer to the action. We feel like that’s where we start normally.”
Against teams with a true no. 1 receiver, Ramsey has consistently shadowed that player and been left locked man-to-man on the back side of what are otherwise zone coverages.
When the Rams played teams like the Seahawks with D.K. Metcalf or even the Packers with Davante Adams, the most important part of the gameplan was usually stopping that number 1 wide receiver. Against teams without a true number one wide receiver, Ramsey could be more valuable in the slot where his safety size allowed him to be a force player against the run while also covering shift slot wide receivers or tight ends.
The Packers don’t have a player who can handle both of these responsibilities as well as Ramsey did, but they might have something better: two Jalen Ramseys.
Packers phenom Jaire Alexander was probably the best boundary corner in football last season. He had PFF’s highest coverage grade (almost 14 points higher than Ramsey’s) and forced the most tight window throws according to Next Gen Stats.
Jaire doesn’t quite have Ramsey’s size but he held his own against bigger receivers such as Mike Evans, Allen Robinson, and Robby Anderson last season.
Chandon Sullivan manned the slot for most of the season last year and he was fine. His PFF grade was right around 50th percentile for corners and he had some impressive next gen stats. Rookie Shemar Jean-Charles may be the long-term solution at the spot, but how often do you see 5th round picks lighting it up year one? The answer for a potential all-pro level player in the slot for Green Bay is Darnell Savage.
Savage pairs 4.35 40 level speed with the punishing downhill play of a Bob Sanders type safety. In 2020, Savage struggled early playing mostly in deep zones. Over the second half of the season, he played more in the slot and in a robber type role over the middle and his play improved immensely. He was PFF’s second highest graded safety in weeks 9-17 (Adrian Amos was first). He totaled four picks and 7 more pass break-ups over that time.
The hallmark of great defensive coaching is the ability to adapt to the players on the team. I doubt Joe Barry is planning to force the exact schematics of last season’s Rams defense on this Packer’s team, but he certainly has the flexibility to duplicate what Jalen Ramsey brought to the Rams with Jaire Alexander and Darnell Savage.
Mike Price is a lifelong Packers fan currently living in Utah. You can follow him on twitter at @themikeprice.