Middle of Packers' defense vulnerable to 49ers' passing attack

Jim Owczarski
Packers News
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GREEN BAY - Blake Martinez knows what it looks like.

The Green Bay Packers linebacker and on-field defensive play caller has lived it on game days and then watched it again on film: The Packers’ pass coverage between the numbers has been far from flawless.

Through the first 10 games of the season, opponents have found much success passing through – or over – the middle of the defense.

“There’s so many moving parts,” Martinez said. “It’s so difficult. Where outside, you can just be hey, I’ve got this dude. That’s all I have to worry about. Where inside, this guy can come across the middle, this guy can come across the middle, this guy could hook up behind you, this guy could be running a post over here. You have so many aspects where technically you’re man-covering three different dudes on one play. It just switches off like all over the place.”

Through 10 games, the opposition has thrown 92 passes over the short middle of the Packers’ defense – the most against any team in the NFL. And on 11 passes over the deep middle the Packers gave up 23.9 yards on average, which is No. 31 in the league.

“That awareness kind of helps you to know what to expect and what you need to work on, but it doesn’t change too much of what we’re doing,” safety Ibraheim Campbell said. “It’s just a matter of guys executing and doing their job.”

And the players know upcoming opponents will “chase the tape” – meaning they’ll keep attacking that area until the Packers prove they can shore it up.

Nov 3, 2019; Carson, CA, USA; Los Angeles Chargers wide receiver Keenan Allen (13) runs the ball against Green Bay Packers defensive back Darnell Savage (26) and inside linebacker Blake Martinez (50) during the second quarter at Dignity Health Sports Park. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

According to the play finder index available at www.pro-football-reference.com, opponents have thrown at the middle of the Packers' defense 103 times and converted a first down 46.6% of the time when doing so with an average of 9.1 yards per play.

On 111 plays thrown to the left of the defense, opponents convert a first down 43.2% of the time and average 8.4 yards per play.

On 132 plays thrown to the right, opponents convert a first down just 28.8% of the time and average 6.7 yards per play.

“When you get inside the numbers it’s more communication; there’s a lot more that goes on,” Packers safety Adrian Amos said. “When you’re outside the numbers it’s more man-on-man. That’s where your natural ability takes over. In the middle of the field, it’s us working together and being on that same page.”

And getting on the same page over the middle has perhaps been stunted by the fact the Packers have had the most instability and newness personnel-wise in that area:

  • Inside linebacker B.J. Goodson was acquired via trade three days before the first game of the season.
  • Inside linebacker Oren Burks missed nearly the entire preseason and the first four weeks of the regular season with a torn pectoral muscle.
  • Amos, though a veteran, is in his first year in the defense.
  • Safety Raven Greene was injured during Week 2 and was placed on injured reserve.
  • Safety Darnell Savage Jr. is a rookie and was injured at Dallas on Oct. 6 and missed two games.
  • Campbell began the year on the physically unable to perform list and played his first game against Carolina two weeks ago.

“It’s been little things here and there that have gotten us,” Martinez said. “It wasn’t on a team doing something; it was on us being able to work together quicker. I think those are the points that have hurt us throughout the first 10 weeks.”

And the opposition has been picking at those little things consistently.

Six of the 10 quarterbacks the Packers have faced completed at least 71% of their throws over the middle of the field and five posted a quarterback rating of over 103.0 on those throws. Seven of those passers averaged at least 8.1 yards per attempt over the middle.

Overall, opposing quarterbacks are 71-for-103 (68.9%) for 940 yards (9.1 yards per attempt) with a 100.8 rating with six touchdowns and four interceptions when throwing in the middle of the field.

By comparison, passers are completing 65.8% of their throws to the left with a rating of 89.7 and only 56.1% of their passes to the right with a 77.9 rating.

Twenty pass catchers have caught 71 balls over the middle for 940 yards (13.2 average), with 48 going for first downs and six for touchdowns. And opponents are using all of their options over the middle – of those pass catchers, 10 were wide receivers, six were running backs and four were tight ends.

Conversely, the Packers are allowing 12.7 yards per reception to the left (73 receptions, 933 yards) and 11.9 yards per reception to the right (74 catches, 883 yards). Opponents have six total touchdown receptions on either side of the numbers.

Coming out of the bye week and with the 53-man roster arguably the healthiest it has been since the season opened, the veterans patrolling that middle of the field feel improvement can come along now that there is more cohesion.

“That’s how you grow,” Amos said. “I don’t know exactly the reason for each and every thing, but I do know how we can improve as a team is us being together and growing as a defense.”

It will be needed Sunday, as the San Francisco 49ers have been very effective in attacking the middle of opposing defenses.

They are ninth in the NFL with 80 short-middle pass attempts and No. 6 in averaging 8.7 yards per play there. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is 64-for-88 (72.7%) when throwing over the middle this season, averaging 9.3 yards per attempt with seven touchdowns and one interception for a 123.2 rating.

But, three of his top four targets in that area are working through injuries and uncertain to play Sunday night: tight end George Kittle (15 catches, 186 yards, 2 TD) and wide receivers Tyshun “Deebo” Samuel (12-137-0) and Emmanuel Sanders (6-103-0). Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne (10-140-3) has also been a favorite of Garoppolo in that area.

“I think it’ll just keep getting better and better as we keep working together,” Martinez said. “That’s the one thing you hit on – is just us being able to keep getting those reps every single day, seeing those certain situations, talking, communicating, saying ‘Hey I’m here’ or ‘I’m not there’ so we can play one or two steps quicker."

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