GREEN BAY – In the run-up to the season opener at Lambeau Field, first-year Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was asked how he planned to prepare for first-year Chicago Bears head coach and play caller Matt Nagy.
After all, it was a new team, new personnel and Nagy was his own man now, away from Andy Reid’s influence in Kansas City. But Pettine knew that Trubisky was mobile and the run-pass option (RPO) could be a factor.
“You have to be sound,” Pettine said back on Sept. 6. “I think it tames you a little bit defensively. But for us, it still comes back to our technique, our fundamentals.”
Now, 13 games later, Pettine has enough film of Nagy’s offense to study. Tendencies have been unearthed and prepared for. But Nagy has a whole bag of tricks he’s unafraid to open that has caught the eye of Pettine and the Packers defense. Namely, personnel groupings that often have defensive players at skill positions doing different duties.
And he’s had fun with it, dubbing them “Willy Wonka,” “Freezer Left,” “Oompa Loompa” and “Santa’s Sleigh,” continuing the tradition he started in Week 1 when the Bears lined up in the T-Formation and called a handoff left to Tarik Cohen “Papa Bear Left” in honor of Bears founder George Halas.
On Sunday night against the Los Angeles Rams, the Bears deployed defensive lineman Roy Robertson-Harris, Bilal Nichols, Akiem Hicks and Jonathan Bullard in the backfield. After a play fake to Hicks — the 332-pound defensive tackle scored a rushing touchdown against the New York Giants on Dec. 2 — Mitchell Trubisky tossed a touchdown to offensive lineman Bradley Sowell.
“It’s tough because a lot of those plays are just one-time plays, so you see it on film but you don’t want to overplay it,” Packers defensive lineman Dean Lowry said. “They do a good job of keeping you off balance by doing that stuff but also showing different looks by faking it to Hicks and throwing it to Sowell.”
Nagy has run out safeties Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos onto offensive formations. He has had Cohen throw a touchdown pass and wide receiver Anthony Miller also attempt a pass to backup quarterback Chase Daniel. He’s also had Daniel and Trubisky on the field at the same time.
“When you’re up in the booth and you’re trying to tell the D-coordinator that those four numbers are coming in, and I don’t know if they necessarily prepare for that,” Nagy said this week of his unique formations using defensive players. “So I always tell you guys, any advantage you can get — and now you gotta be able to make sure it’s something that you feel like you can be worthwhile and not foolish. There’s that balance there. And so the other part of it too is our guys love it. They enjoy it, they have fun, they’re working. Maybe we’ll stay away from them for a few weeks and come back to it later.”
The Bears have used 255 unique offensive personnel combinations to date, 10th most in the NFL.
“It’s an unfamiliar look,” Packers linebacker Antonio Morrison said. “So you see something that’s unfamiliar, you see like a 300-pounder in the backfield or something, your attention is going to go there. They have a lot of misdirection off those things.”
And that unfamiliarity can create a half step of hesitation, which is enough to bust a big play or leave a man open for a touchdown. So for Pettine, the message from September will apply Sunday at Soldier Field: Be sound.
“It’s a perfect example of the creativity there,” Pettine said. “We have our basic principles and we know playing them in Chicago is a perfect example. You’re going to play certain teams where they’re going to what I just talked about what we do defensively. A good chunk of what you see that week is going to be unscouted (formations). You have to have comprehensive roles in each defense that can handle any situation and I think it’s important that you fall back on those, that if you get an unconventional look, you have to know how to get lined up to it.”
The Packers don’t practice on Fridays, but had they, starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga would not have participated due to a knee injury he suffered against Arizona. After missing last week’s game against Atlanta, he is doubtful to play Sunday against Chicago. Jason Spriggs would start his second straight game if Bulaga is out.
Cornerback Bashaud Breeland also would not have participated in practice, as he has missed this week to tend to a personal matter. He is listed as questionable for the game against the Bears, though defensive coordinator Mike Pettine felt that Breeland could play a role even without practice this week.
“Yeah, he’s a professional,” Pettine said. “He knows the plan that … just given where he’s been, I think he played 20 some snaps, so I don’t know if we would ask him to play the full game. But very professional. Knowing what to do has not been an issue, so at this point I don’t see it as a concern.”
Also questionable for Sunday is defensive tackle Kenny Clark, who would not have participated with an elbow injury. He didn’t practice all week after hurting his left elbow against Atlanta. He left the game to get a brace put on but returned to action. On the positive front for the Packers, starting left guard Lane Taylor, who missed the Falcons game with a foot injury, would have been a full participant for the second straight day. Tight end Jimmy Graham (thumb/knee) also would have been a full participant, along with linebacker Clay Matthews (ankle).