When you go 15-1 in the NFL, you’re doing pretty well. Wholesale changes to your offensive and defensive schemes aren’t needed. There’s no rebuilding going on in Green Bay. The Packers are in the midst of a win-it-all window.
But in the Catch-22 world of professional football, you can’t just stand pat either. As the saying goes, you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse.
With that in mind, there’s a couple tweaks and changes the Packers need to make in 2012 in order to keep pace with an ever-evolving game and stay among football’s elite.
Less Zone Blocking
The Packers have been a primarily zone-blocking team under Mike McCarthy ever since he was named head coach back in 2006. The decision was made to a degree because he inherited a group of offensive linemen who were both young and comparatively small.
In 2006, the Packers had three rookies start at least 10 games on the offensive line—Daryn Colledge, Jason Spitz and Tony Moll. They joined a group that included bulldogs Scott Wells and Mark Tauscher—relatively undersized blockers that succeeded due to their hustle and overachieving nature.
Over time the Packers have gotten bigger and more physical in the trenches—none of the five aforementioned linemen play for Green Bay anymore. Part of the reason is because general manager Ted Thompson has drafted larger bodies.
And so, the time has come for the Packers to get away from their reliance on zone blocking and implement more power, gap- and angle-blocking techniques or whatever nomenclature you prefer.
McCarthy admitted changes were in store during the NFL Combine back in February:
I’m not really worried about how many times we run the ball. I think how we run the ball will change a little bit as we move into this next season.
I just think we can be smarter when we run the ball and how we run the ball. We do this every year. You have to be real critical of everything, whether it's the play selection, what we're asking each player to do as far as the type of scheme, whether it's a zone scheme, pattern schemes.
Perhaps comprehensive changes won’t be happening. Linemen like Marshall Newhouse and Jeff Saturday aren’t exactly the road-grading type, and maybe it makes sense that some zone-techniques will stay in place.
But over on the right side of the offensive line, Josh Sitton and Bryan Bulaga form an imposing duo. And combined with left guard T.J. Lang, they’re aggressive too. Expect them to plow into the defense some in 2012 without all the thinking, detection and recognition zone blocking requires.
More Dime Defense
After interviewing defensive coordinator Dom Capers this offseason, Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette discerned an adjustment the Green Bay defense will be making this season:
In a less dramatic but noteworthy change, coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers also have decided to play more dime defense (six defensive backs) after relying primarily on nickel (five defensive backs) personnel on passing downs the last three years.
The Packers won’t be going dime-crazy this season, but it looks as if they’ll be utilizing the six defensive-backs package more than they did last year.
It’s a response the sophisticated passing games league-wide that are spreading defenses out and taking advantage of matchups with a new breed of hybrid tight ends.
“Trying to get a little speed on the field,” Capers told Dougherty.
Jarrett Bush has played surprisingly well as the sixth defensive back ever since Super Bowl XLV when he famously intercepted Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. In limited playing time last season, Bush also had two interceptions as the dime defensive back.
The Packers signed Bush to a three-year contract this offseason and also drafted Vanderbillt cornerback Casey Hayward in the NFL draft, who’s been practicing as a slot defensive back.
There’s risk to taking an extra linebacker off the field in favor of another defensive back, but the way Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk looked in pass coverage last season, that’s a chance the Packers should be willing to take.
More “Big Five”
Thanks to the up-and-coming young duo of Tori Gurley and Diondre Borel, the argument has been made that the Packers should keep six, perhaps even seven wide receivers this season.
They’re too good and too talented to let go, or so the thinking goes.
If the Packers are truly so deep and so talented at wide receiver, it’s time for a return to the “Big Five,” a personnel group utilizing five wide receivers on the field all at the same time.
The Packers have used the “Big Five” in the past under Mike McCarthy dating back to the Brett Favre era in 2007 and to differing extents since.
Nate Jahnke of ProFootballFocus.com lists the percentage of snaps the Packers have used five wide-receiver sets the past four seasons:
@BrianCarriveau In 2011 just 3 times, so 0.26%. In 2010 3.16%. Didn't use it in 2009, and 1.76% of the time in 2008.— Nathan Jahnke (@PFF_NateJahnke) July 21, 2012
The statistics cited represent times the Packers used five players whose primary position is wide receiver, so Jermichael Finley, for example, is not included.
The point isn’t who or who isn’t part of the package. The point, more or less, is to get the best 11 players on the field in 2012.
As an added bonus of implementing the "Big Five," the Packers have found success in the past by giving Rodgers more receiving options at the expense of keeping extra players in for pass protection. According to Chris Brown, author of the Essential Smart Football, in the 2010 edition of the Maple Street Press Packers Annual:
The concern, then (2009), was how to bring some stability to the offense and, more immediately, overcome the offensive line problems.
The counterintuitive answer has been to go to more four- and five-wide receiver sets—i.e., use fewer players in pass protection—and throw more quick routes.
Brown illustrates in a diagram provided to Maple Street Press how the Packers would effectively use the route concept known as “Levels” with five receivers to get targets open either downfield (Finley) or shallow (Driver).
Certainly, there’s risk involved in using maximum-receiver sets, because it puts pressure on Aaron Rodgers to get rid of the ball quickly before pressure arrives, because he also has minimum protection.
But that’s never been a problem for Rodgers who has always risen to the occasion, and with such ability among the receiving corps, his targets—or at least one of them—should not have a difficult time getting open.
Brian Carriveau is a Green Bay Packers Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report and formerly an editor at Maple Street Press. Unless otherwise indicated, all direct quotations were collected first-hand.