Analysis: Pack secondary a key in SB XLV

Analysis: Pack secondary a key in SB XLV
February 1, 2011, 6:16 pm
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Feb. 1, 2011NFL PAGE Ray Didinger
Comcast SportsNet

We were watching tape of a Green Bay-Chicago game and NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger hit the stop button.

Look at that, Brian said. Where do you throw the ball? There is nothing there.

The Bears had five receivers in the pattern and all five were covered. Not just covered, but blanketed.

If youre Jay Cutler, where do you go with the ball? Brian asked. Whats he supposed to do?

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Brian kept stopping the tape and pointing out the same thing. Green Bay had everything shut down. Offensive coordinators talk about finding windows to fit the ball through. There were no windows. There wasnt even a keyhole. The Packers took it all away.

We watched a lot of tape this season but we didnt see any secondary play as well as the Packers. Linebacker Clay Matthews got quite a few sacks because the pass coverage was forcing quarterbacks to hold the ball.

In the game we were watching, the final game of the regular season, Cutler threw 13 balls to Devin Hester and Johnny Knox. He completed only one. The Packers defense took the two wide receivers totally out of the game and won it, 10-3.

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That will be a major factor in Sundays Super Bowl. The Steelers have changed from a running team to more of a passing team -- they threw the ball 55 percent of the time in Ben Roethlisbergers 12 starts this season -- but the Packers have the personnel to match up with the Pittsburgh receivers.

The Steelers have a lot of weapons with speedy Mike Wallace, veteran Hines Ward, tight end Heath Miller and talented young receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown. Most teams dont have enough quality defenders to cover all those guys, but the Packers do.

What makes the Green Bay pass defense so good?

Two things: speed and scheme.

The Packers have the NFLs fastest deep seven -- that is, linebacker corps and secondary. The Pittsburgh linebackers and the Green Bay linebackers have similar speed and range, but the Packers are faster in the secondary, which gives them the edge overall.
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That speed ties directly into the scheme because it allows defensive coordinator Dom Capers to play aggressively. He has cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Sam Shields in press coverage, almost a bump-and-run, underneath. They get on top of the receivers, jam them at the line then run with them stride for stride. It is rare to have two corners who can do that.

The swift development of Shields, a rookie, was one of the biggest factors in Green Bays defensive improvement. When Shields, the nickel back, proved he could cover like a true corner, it allowed Capers to use Charles Woodson, last years Defensive Player of the Year, as a combination cornerback, safety and blitzer. It added yet another dimension to the defense.

Toss in safeties Nick Collins and Charlie Peprah and linebackers A.J. Hawk, Desmond Bishop and Erik Walden and it easy to see why Capers is willing to play the entire game in a nickel defense. Sometimes he will line up with only two defensive linemen. He puts a lot of pressure on his linebackers, but they are so smart and so disciplined they make it work.

On a typical play, Williams and Shields lock up their receivers and cover them step for step. The inside linebackers, Hawk and Bishop, drop into the middle zones while Collins and Peprah take away the deep stuff. Woodson may cover a receiver or come on a blitz. A defensive lineman may drop off to cover the flat area as B.J. Raji did in the NFC title game when he intercepted a Cutler pass and returned it for a touchdown.

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Roethlisberger is a very resourceful quarterback who excels at making things happen when the original design of a play breaks down, but even he will have a devil of a time working the ball down the field against this defense.

The Packers were second (to the Steelers) in scoring defense, sacks and interceptions in the regular season. They held six opponents to seven points or less, quite a feat in a year when touchdowns were scored at a record pace.

In the post-season, the Green Bay defense has been excellent, recording 10 sacks and six interceptions in wins over Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago. In each of those games, it was a clutch interception that either ended the contest or turned the tide.

The more guys you have with speed and explosion, the better chance you have of getting the ball turned over, Capers said. It has been one of our strengths, taking the ball away.

It is one of the main reasons the Packers are in the Super Bowl and it is one of the things they need to do Sunday if they hope to bring the Lombardi Trophy home to Green Bay.