Packers 4 Downs: Mike Pettine deploying hybrid of base and nickel defenses
Four observations the day after the Packers' 23-20 win over the Lions on Sunday:
Late in the season, Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has found a new personnel group he likes to use as a change-up that’s a hybrid of his base and nickel defenses. It’s a base defense in the sense that it features five big players, though instead of three defensive linemen and two outside linebackers, it has two defensive linemen and three outside linebackers. On Sunday, the three outside linebackers usually were Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Kyler Fackrell. And like a nickel defense, it features five defensive backs along with inside linebacker Blake Martinez. Sometimes the fifth defensive back was a cover specialist (Tramon Williams or Chandon Sullivan) and sometimes it was safety Ibraheim Campbell. The personnel grouping offers better run-stopping personnel than the standard nickel or dime, which have only four big men, and also better pass rush (three outside linebackers) and coverage personnel (five defensive backs) than the base defense. When you see Za’Darius Smith wandering around the line of scrimmage before the snap, there’s a decent chance the Packers are in this look. Pettine used that group on at least eight snaps Sunday.
With fullback Danny Vitale out (knee), coach Matt LaFleur used rookie tight end Jace Sternberger at fullback, not tight end Robert Tonyan. Sternberger’s blocking has been a surprise since his return from injured reserve, but he’s hardly been used as a receiver. He played some at tight end Sunday also but was not targeted for a pass and has been targeted only once in six games.
Cornerback Jaire Alexander made a smart and potentially game-saving play in the third quarter with a pass-interference penalty that gave Detroit a 30-yard play. Alexander was covering receiver Chris Lacy one-on-one on a deep route when the cornerback stumbled. But as he hit the ground he had the wherewithal to trip up Lacy, who otherwise would have caught the ball and had an easy 75-yard touchdown. The 30-yard penalty put the Lions near scoring position, but the Packers held them to a field goal, which saved the Packers four points.
The most impressive thing about receiver Allen Lazard’s third-down, 28-yard touchdown catch that tied the game with 5:19 to play was that it came against the Lions’ best cornerback, Darius Slay. Slay was first-team All-Pro in 2017 and was voted to his third Pro Bowl this season, but Lazard used his size (6-5, 227) to go over Slay for the catch after beating him by a step on a post pattern.