GREEN BAY – Tucked into the refrains of “it’s still early” and “it’s different without pads,” members of the Green Bay Packers' defense believe they are already reaping benefits from practicing against even the earliest stages of new head coach Matt LaFleur’s offense.
The Packers players who were on the team in 2018 recall the film they studied of San Francisco and the Los Angeles Rams from a year ago and are seeing the foundational pieces of those schemes being laid before them on a daily basis.
The 49ers scored 30 points and had 401 yards of offense with a third-string quarterback, and the Rams scored 29 points on 416 yards in those games.
“It’s definitely a tough thing to be able to play as a defense, to play that type of offense,” linebacker Blake Martinez said. “Obviously they’re kind of in the infant stages of it, but once they start rolling — there’s even times now when they’re hitting on all cylinders that it makes it extremely difficult for us. The main portion is inside linebackers, because you have to be able to play run-pass in a snap of an instant, because all of a sudden those windows are going to be wide open for Aaron (Rodgers).”
Dating to the first organized team activities and camps in May and June, and now through two training camp practices rife with formational and personnel diversity, the Packers' defense is learning key principles in how to defend what has been one of the league’s most successful schemes.
And it is practice that will be put into use this season as well, with the 49ers back on the schedule Nov. 24. The Minnesota Vikings may incorporate elements of it as well now that they hired one of LaFleur’s mentors, Gary Kubiak, as the assistant head coach/offensive advisor. Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins ran the offense in Washington under now-49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan and with LaFleur as his position coach.
Chicago, Kansas City and Philadelphia all also run offenses that use heavy motion, play fakes and multiple personnel packages.
“You have to stay focused and know what’s going on,” Packers linebacker Preston Smith said. “You can’t be out there and not know what kind of personnel group you’re going against and what kind of personnel group we’re in also. You have to get lined up and diagnose your keys and your reads, diagnose the offense and see what formation they’re in and what the play call is, and make sure you execute your assignment.”
The emphasis LaFleur and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett have put on installing the run game has been a benefit as well, even without contact. It has the offensive line groups getting off the ball and moving laterally and then upfield — but Packers defensive tackle Kenny Clark said his teammates across from him present further challenges.
“It is definitely a tough system when you have guys that can do that, the stretch stuff, and then they can run power too because they’re big enough to run power,” Clark said. “You get guys running sideways and then smash people with power, it’s a pretty good scheme. It’s only going to make us better as a defensive line because a lot of offenses are doing it.”
Off that run practice, the Packers' offense has been working in play-action movements and getting the quarterbacks out running, which helps throwing lanes for them by testing how well the defense is staying sound.
“It gives you a great understanding of run-pass reads because there’s a lot of plays that we have that look exactly the same and it’s all of a sudden a pass play, run play, you never know what is coming at you,” Martinez said.
The Packers put shoulder pads on Saturday and full pads on Sunday, and while no live tackling will be permitted it will offer up truer tests for how much the defense has learned to date.
“I feel like we’re getting a lot of different looks and it’s going to help us throughout the year with different teams that come up,” inside linebacker Oren Burks said. “It’s awesome to get so many different types of looks with the personnel that we have. It’s special. We just gotta keep stacking days and keep getting better. Iron sharpens iron and the competition level is just increasing and increasing. When we put pads on it’ll increase even more.”