Packers Playbook, Part 2: The Eagle Defense
In our second part of this series, we are going to take a look at the Green Bay Packers’ variation on its base defense, the “Eagle.” This mostly highlights a shift in how the defensive linemen position themselves – what technique they play and which gaps they are responsible for. The Packers have been known to use this more than their “Okie” formation in an attempt to play to their linemen’s strengths.
Explaining the Formation
Just like the Okie, this is a 3-4-4 formation generally used to counter offenses with two wide receivers or less. You’ll see it against potential running plays, but it’s also a little more equipped to attack and counter passing plays.
Before going into more detail, let’s quickly revisit our gap and technique diagram for the defense:
In the Eagle front, the nose tackle will still line up across from the center in a 0-technique, but he will “shade” himself towards the strong side shoulder. He will read the center and the ball on the snap and will be responsible for both of the A gaps.
The defensive end on the strong side of the formation will play the normal 5-technique, which is heads up over the tackle, yet his read will be the guard. Like the nose tackle, he remains a two-gap player. On the weak side of the formation, however, the other defensive end will play a 3-technique on the outside shoulder of the guard. The big change here is that this end can now become a one-gap player.
Cullen Jenkins used to be weak side end in this front, since it allowed him to shoot the B gap as a pass rusher. Dom Capers has since used B.J. Raji in this role, since he is a better one-gap than two-gap player. And as you will note in the example below, Jerel Worthy has also been called upon to play the weak side 3-technique in the Eagle.
By adding one-gap techniques into the front, the defensive lineman can also be used to “eat up” two offensive linemen. In both run and pass blitzing situations, this helps linebackers get past those otherwise occupied blockers.
It’s challenging to find a really good nose tackle in the NFL these days, and it’s even harder to find three defensive linemen who can consistently be two-gap players. The Eagle front helps to address this problem, since you can use a mixture of one-gap and two-gap assignments.
So when fans have criticized Ted Thompson for drafting players that “can’t play 5-technique,” their reproach is slightly unfounded. Players like Ryan Pickett are still essential to the defense, but Capers tends to use more Eagle than the traditional Okie in his 3-4 packages, so there are legitimate spots for strong 3-technique players. And as you will see in the nickel and dime analyses, the two-gapping becomes even less important.
The Eagle Defense in Action
Here is an interesting example of the Eagle defense. This is from Week 6 in 2012, when the Packers embarrassed the Houston Texans. It was the first play of the game, and the Texans were starting on their own 19-yard line.
Breaking Down the Play
The Houston Texans are a team known for their play action success. They have a strong running game built around Arian Foster and a big wide receiver in Andre Johnson who can work the deep field. So when they start the game using a 13 personnel grouping (1 RB–3 TE–1 WR), they’ve got some flexibility to run or throw the ball.
Dom Capers, in response to this, calls on his Eagle defense. Here is how the players initially line up:
As you can clearly see, the defensive linemen are not in a traditional Okie front. Jerel Worthy is playing the weak side end, lining up in a 3-technique off the left guard. Ryan Pickett is playing nose tackle, shaded to the strong side of the center. And C.J. Wilson is playing the strong side in a 5-technique across from the left tackle. Dom Capers has put them in their most natural positions using the Eagle, giving them the best chance to succeed.
One interesting thing to note is how the strong side of the offense is defined in this instance. Generally speaking, the strong side of the offense is identified by the presence of the tight end. In the case of this three tight end set, you could call the side with two tight ends the strong side, since it has more players. However, sometimes defenses will use the “wide side” of the field as the strong side. This could be the case here, though I’m not 100% certain.
Perhaps it was film study and the tendencies of the Texans that caused the defense to declare the right side the strong side. Either way, it seemed to be the right call, as here’s what happens after the wide receiver motions and the secondary rotates their coverage:
As could have been expected, the Texans begin the game with a play action. The offensive line slides right in what initially looks to be a zone running play (something the Texans are very fond of), but they quickly engage the defense in pass blocking after the fake handoff.
The Packers have it all covered, though. The secondary does an excellent job shutting down the receivers, giving Matt Schaub nowhere to go with the ball. C.J. Wilson collapses his side of the pocket and closes in for the kill when Schaub tries to escape. Aside from the pass coverage, this pressure was all on Wilson’s ability to beat his man.
I also want you to go back to the video and watch what Ryan Pickett does, though. He accomplishes something very small but very significant. When the running back tries to leak into the flat for a checkdown, Pickett disengages from the center and disrupts the route of the back. It gives the defense just enough time to break down the pocket and eliminates Schaub’s last passing option. Clearly a heads-up play by a veteran lineman.
One final thing worth noting is how the Texans double-team Clay Matthews and Jerel Worthy on Scahub’s blind side. At first, I was curious as to why one of those tight ends didn’t break off into a passing route, but Schaub is really only reading the right side of the field. It also allows the offense to get two guys on each of the Packers’ best pass rushers (Matthews and Worthy). But as you would hope to see, defensive players need to take advantage of their one-on-one matchups when the offense has turned their focus elsewhere.——————Follow @ChadToporski