Last season’s Green Bay Packers defense was about as average as you can get. While some individual players stood out, when you take a look a team stats, no matter how simple or advanced, it’s extremely difficult to find a stat where the Packers defense is either top five or bottom five in the league. They were just about middling, everywhere, from a performance standpoint.
However when you view it from a strategic standpoint, and take a closer look at what the defense was actually doing, the Packers defense was a notable outlier in the NFL last season.
With every shift in defensive coordinators, a defense will undergo notable changes to their gameplan, be it their fronts, coverages, blitz packages or in this case, their personnel.
The nickel defense dominates the league
Relatively basic football terminology here: Nickel defense refers to when the team has five DBs on the field. Dime defense refer to when the team has six DBs on the field. Obviously the main principle is that more DBs equates to being better in coverage, but worse at stopping the run.
While the four DBs of ‘base’ defense was the standard in the NFL for a long time (hence the name), it simply cannot hold up that well in the modern-day, pass-heavy NFL.
The nickel defense has become the preferred personnel package in today’s NFL, with 59.7 percent of all snaps being in nickel last season, per Football Outsiders.
The Packers incessant use of dime defense in 2020
While the nickel becomes by far the league’s most popular defense, Mike Pettine and the Green Bay Packers weren’t interested. They played the least amount of nickel out of any team in the league at just 27 percent.
So were the Packers still clinging onto the old-school base defense? No, in fact, the Packers swung the pendulum in the opposite direction.
While the rest of the league was busy running nickel, Mike Pettine’s unit played more dime defense (six DBs) than any other team in football, at a whopping 50 percent. The rest of the NFL only played dime on around 13 percent of snaps, with some teams using it just once or twice all year.
The Packers under Pettine also led the league in dime usage two years ago. This personnel package has been the foundation of their defense for the last few years.
It looks like we’re gearing up for a shift to nickel
Based off of what we’ve heard about Joe Barry’s defense in his first few open practices as the Packers DC, it looks like we may be seeing more of only five DBs on the field in 2021, and hence less dime.
We can’t guarantee this is the case just yet. Preseason action will give us some indication as the team will likely start off with their vanilla coverages to get comfortable.
The transition could mean a renewed commitment to stopping the run. Logic dictates that the teams with the most success in lighter personnel groupings are those who have a standout linebacker who can effectively stop the run despite not having a ton of help.
The Packers haven’t exactly had that. Krys Barnes is serviceable, but if you’re asking him to be a one-man bad while everyone else prioritizes the pass, it’s going to burn you eventually.
What effect would this have for specific players?
This move would see an increase of playing time for the likes of Kamal Martin and Ty Summers alongside Krys Barnes. It would also mean less of Adrian Amos in the box, instead playing him in a more natural safety role deeper down the field.
You may see the Packers trot out the five-man ‘Eagle’ front on occasion. Joe Barry has plenty of experience with it due to his time with Brandon Staley on the Rams defense last year.
This five could include Kenny Clark and Kingsley Keke as four-tech linemen with rookie TJ Slaton at nose tackle. Along with any combination of edge rushers on the outside.
This front is excellent as it allows the defense to be extremely varied in their coverages, it is effective for getting after the QB, and allows big TJ Slaton to swallow up as many linemen as his heart desires.