The Packers defense was a roller coaster ride during the 2021 season. It shutout the Seahawks and shut down the 49ers in the playoffs and Chiefs in the regular season. Outside of those three performances it was average to bad most of the time. With the level of talent the team is expected to have next season (potentially multiple pro bowlers at every level of the defense), it must improve.
Last week we talked about some crazy ideas to improve the offense, here’s a few for the defense.
Bring in Rod Marinelli
Marinelli is one of the best defensive line coaches of the last thirty years. His coaching turned mediocre defenses like last year’s Raiders, the mid-2010s Cowboys, and the late-Urlacher Bears into a threat because they could get pressure with four guys. Marinelli is obviously talented, and he just so happens to be Joe Barry’s Father-in-Law and Rich Bisaccia’s best friend.
I don’t think the team needs to fire Jerry Montgomery or Mike Smith, who both seem like great coaches, to bring Marinelli on. Marinelli is 72 and will be 73 by the time the next season starts and he just leaked that he would be retiring yesterday. Bring him on as a consultant or analyst or something. Let him help record the number of loafs per game the team has and evolve the pass rush with stunts.
Play More Man Coverage
The Fangio-Staley-Barry defense is all about match zone coverage. You put an umbrella over the defense with two deep safeties and play off zone coverage that sometimes converts into man depending on what the offense does. This defense can be spectacular when you have hall of famers everywhere, but once your fourth or fifth best guy gets hurt, offenses can move the ball.
Look at the strengths of the Packers’ corners. Jaire Alexander and Eric Stokes are speedy, stick man coverage corners. Kevin King, who it would cost less to keep than let go, is a long press corner. The most zone-heavy of the group is Rasul Douglas, who likely won’t be back and is still plenty capable of playing man coverage.
Mixing in more man coverage will keep the offense guessing, give the line more time to generate pass rush, and maybe even take away those loathsome 3rd and 5 conversions where the corner lines up 8 yards of the line of scrimmage. It may even help the run defense means Adrian Amos spends more time in the box.
Of course, that means the deep pass defense wouldn’t be as strong. Remember Scotty Miller toasting Kevin King on the last play of the second half a year ago? That’s the risk you take in cover-1 man. You have to be comfortable taking that risk, understanding that your corners are fast enough to recover, and trusting your line to get enough to pressure to not let the deep passes develop.
Use College Concepts like the Mint Front
The Packers’ run game was bad last season because it used a lot of light boxes. When the offense has seven blockers and you have six defenders, they have the advantage. College defenses have been confronting this problem for over a decade. One of the solutions (the one favored by Nick Saban and Kirby Smart) is to use the mint front.
In a mint front, defensive linemen are lined up just inside each offensive tackle (a 4i technique) and over the center and one edge rusher (called the jack linebacker) lines up outside the tackle. It looks like a standard 3-4 defense with one linebacker replaced by a nickel defensive back.
The front clogs up the inside to prevent running there and allows the defense to force outside runs to the boundary. All with a light box. The reason it hasn’t caught on much in the NFL (outside of the Belichick tree and Brandon Staley’s defenses) is that it replaces an edge rusher with a run-defending defensive tackle. Not ideal against NFL passing offenses.
That sounds bad until you consider what the Packers defense may look like next season. Za’Darius Smith will likely be released. Preston Smith may be released too. If your second-best edge rusher is some combination of Jonathan Garvin and a second-round pick, Dean Lowry bull rushing through a guard starts to look pretty exciting.
Mix in some classic Rod Marinelli slanting and stunting and some timely blitzes, and you may have a better recipe for stopping the run and pass with a light box.
Some Timely Blitzes
The Packers blitzed just 21.3% of the time last season. The top four blitzing teams (Tampa Bay, Miami, Carolina, and Arizona) all ran creative and strong defenses. I know each of those teams has a totally different philosophy than the Packers, but it shows that the blitz isn’t a death knell for a defense, it can be a tool.
Like adding in more man coverage, adding in more blitzing just makes the defense less predictable. If an inside backer or slot corner could be coming on any play, it makes the QB hesitate for just a bit longer. And remember what the dire picture is for the Packers front. It could be Gary, Clark, and a whole lot of replacement level blah next year. If you have Gary, Clark, Mercilus, Smith, Smith, Keke, and the mega-evolution of Dean Lowry all healthy, you might be able to get away with just rushing four. If you don’t, you need to take some pressure off your stars and scheme up some one-on-one matchups.
Mike Price is a lifelong Packers fan currently living in Utah. You can follow him on twitter at @themikeprice.