Packers Playbook, Part 3: The Nickel Defense

Packers Playbook LogoIn our third part of this series, we are going to take a look at the Green Bay Packers’ basic nickel defense. According to the Football Outsiders Almanac from last year, the Packers used their nickel formation on 61% of their plays in 2011. This fact has led some fans to refer to it as their “base package” rather than the Okie, since they use it the most.

Explaining the Formation

Dom Caper’s basic nickel package is a 2-4-5 formation. In comparison to the base 3-4-4 defense, it removes one of the offensive linemen and adds a third cornerback. This setup is ideal for single back sets with two or three wide receivers. By putting another defensive back on the field, an extra element of speed is added.

Any formation with five defensive backs is considered a “nickel” package, but the primary one used by the Packers has two defensive linemen and two outside linebackers as the front four. At first glance, some might wonder why they don’t simply use a 4-2-5 package with four linemen, replacing the two linebackers. The answer is that this is part of the overall 3-4 philosophy.

By using more versatile outside linebackers, the 3-4 defense aims to create flexibility and confusion. The OLBs can drop into coverage, spy the quarterback, or (as is often the case) pass rush off the edge. Combined with creative zone blitzes, it leaves the opposing offense guessing. In your standard 4-3 defense, the defensive ends will drop into coverage significantly less than the 3-4 linebackers.

In contrast to the base defense, we are not going to get caught up in how the front four lines up with regard to their technique and gap assignments. For one, we’re mostly concerned with the passing game in the nickel, and secondly, there are a number of different fronts that can be called in this defense and I don’t want to complicate this analysis too much. That said, you will often see the defensive linemen across from the guards in a 1-, 3-, or occasionally 2-technique. The outside and inside linebackers will generally maintain their common positioning.



Jerron McMillian making most of increased opportunity

Packers rookie S Jerron McMillian

Packers rookie S Jerron McMillian

There’s no way around it–the Packers’ defense dominated the Chicago Bears on Thursday night.

Tramon Williams caught as many Jay Cutler passes (two) as Brandon Marshall,  the Packers nearly doubled the Bears in total yards, and Clay Matthews had his arms wrapped around Cutler as if he were a certain cast member on Laguna Beach. If not for an ugly miscommunication between Aaron Rodgers and James Jones, the Bears may not have scored more than three points all night.

Just four days prior, Alex Smith and the San Francisco 49ers sliced through Green Bay’s defense for 30 points, spoiling the Packers’ season opener at Lambeau Field. Predictably so, much of Packer Nation reached for the “Panic” button.

But the Packers’ performance on Thursday night couldn’t possibly have been more different. The Packers held the Bears’ talented offense to just 10 points and 168 total yards, while intercepting four of Cutler’s passes and sacking him seven times. Suddenly, the Packers defense doesn’t look all that bad.

Matthews (3.5 sacks) and Williams (two INT) will surely continue to receive the bulk of the credit for Thursday night’s surprisingly dominant display of defense, and rightfully so, but it took a total team effort for the Packers to embarrass the Bears the way they did.

And while there were a handful of “unsung heroes” in Week Two, safety Jerron McMillian may top the list.

The rookie fourth-round pick was constantly around the football–as the play ended, No. 22 was near. As a small-school prospect from Maine, McMillian was viewed as an in-the-box safety coming into the league. And on at least two separate occasions against the Bears, the 5’11″ safety proved that he isn’t afraid of anyone.

With 9:42 remaining in the 2nd quarter, Michael Bush took a handoff  and followed his blockers along the left side of the offensive line. Bears left guard Chris Spencer pulled as a lead blocker and laid his head into McMillian. The rookie invited the contact, put the 312-pound lineman on his backside, and made the tackle for a one-yard loss.

Then, on the second play of the third quarter, the Bears again pulled the play-side guard as a lead blocker, except this time, it was 305-pound right guard Lance Louis. The result, however, was more of the same. McMillian maintained low pad level and moved Louis backward, allowing D.J. Smith and A.J. Hawk to bring down Forte after a short gain.



Packers Could Go “Psycho” With Linebacker Talent

Dom Capers

Dom Capers might just go "Psycho" this year.

There has been some chatter recently about undrafted rookie Dezman Moses and the eyebrow-raising attention he has received from fellow defensive players. Though yet to put on “the pads,” the Packers linebacker has created quite a stir among fans, who have been desperately waiting for some good news when it comes to the team’s defensive front. One tangent to this story, however, is what it could mean for the “return” of the so-called “Psycho” package.

For those not in the know, the Psycho is a nickel package employed by Dom Capers in Green Bay’s defensive scheme. It is a 1-5-5 formation, meaning there are one defensive lineman, five linebackers, and five defensive backs on the field. The idea is to create confusion among the quarterback, the offensive line, and any backs responsible for picking up the blitz.

By overloading the line and creating some pre-snap movement, the defense makes it hard for the offense to set their protections. It also gives the opposing coaches something extra to plan for during the week.

(This blog post at Blitzology does a nice job of highlighting the pass rushing flexibility of the Packers’ nickel packages, including the Psycho.)

Dom Capers’ use of the Psycho package dates back to his days with the Jacksonville Jaguars (1999-2000), but he first unveiled it with the Green Bay Packers in 2009. They had immediate success against the Chicago Bears that December, creating chaos for Jay Cutler and keeping their offense off-balance.  Of course, just like any play, the more it’s used, the less effective it becomes.

“The more you do it, the more people start to identify — they see who you’re rushing and who you’re dropping,” Capers said in 2010. “You have to have the ability to change those things up.”

Which brings us back to our point . . . Could a rise in linebacker talent mean a return to fame for Green Bay’s Psycho defense?

To be clear, the Psycho package didn’t actually go away at all, as the Packers did use it last year. In going from their base 2-4-5 nickel set, it really only means replacing one of the lineman with a linebacker. Last season, inside linebacker D.J. Smith was the extra player, while Jarius Wynn became their lone defensive lineman.

But it lacked the punch of previous years.