From the Far Hash: Jermichael Finley and the Passing Game
In the words of my sister, I’ve been licking the wet naps to get my football buzz this off season. The draft has come and gone, and smells of training camp are in the air; hope floats eternal for another Super Bowl run. In anticipation of the training camp excitement, I’ve been putting together some articles for PocketDoppler. I hope you’ve enjoyed them as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them.
This third entry is the concluding piece in my first breakdown of the Packers deep passing game (maybe more will come if you like this first series). The first article highlighted how the offense has matured with deep passing routes and gave a very weak tease at how Jermichael Finley could be a central part of it. The second article compared basic statistics of west coast and run ‘n shoot quarterbacks while explaining the maturation of the offense during the Favre to Rodgers hand off. Now, in this third entry, I will speak to my earlier tease about Jermichael Finley being key cog in the passing game.
Love him or hate him, respect him or mock him, Jermichael Finley is an integral part of the Packers passing offense. There’s a reason why he wasn’t cut this off season. There’s a reason why he won’t be trade bait during this year’s training camp. There’s a strong reason to believe, if he can keep his mouth shut, he’ll be signed to lucrative extension. All this tells us that a major portion of the Packers passing category goes through Finley. That’s not to say he’s always the primary receiver. In fact, he’s often not. But, where he goes on the field often dictates the defensive coverage, freeing up his teammates to make plays (which is why he needs to learn to be less selfish). He’s a cog in the passing machine. Here’s how.
But, we first have to talk about some very basic concepts of pass defense before we can explain how Jermichael exploits the coverage. The vast majority of teams defend the pass in the “inside-out” concept. This means that the defense guards the middle of the field above everything else. Once they have secured the middle, the defense will then work outside in an attempt to cover the the space outside the hash marks and numbers. In most cases, one or more safety has the responsibility of guarding the middle of the field, whereas the cornerbacks have the task of guarding the outside.
What is a pass defense’s second best friend? Well, their first best friend is a good pass rush. Their second best friend is the sideline. Why is the sideline such a good friend? Because a pass caught out of bounds is an incompletion. If the pass is completed on the sideline, the defender can push the receiver out of bounds. And, only the best quarterbacks can zip a ball to the sideline while the receiver is being guarded. Essentially, the sideline is another defender. Therefore, actual players must cover the middle of the field. There’s no way around that.
Now, let’s talk about other basic defensive principles. There are two main ways to cover a receiver: man-to-man and zone coverage. Man-to-man coverage means the defender follows the receiver anywhere he goes on the field. Zone coverage means the defender guards an area. When a receiver enters that area, the defender then covers him. When the receiver leaves his area, the defender stops covering him. It’s very common in pass defenses that the deep safeties play zone, while the underneath coverage differs between man-to-man and zone based on the play call. The deep safeties play zone because it’s an efficient way to ensure no one gets behind the defense deep while the safeties are still safeguarding the middle of the field.
When defending the pass, the cornerback and safety combination is essential. Also, the way the cornerbacks and safeties interact depends on whether the defense has assigned the cornerbacks to play man-to-man or zone coverage. If the cornerback is in zone coverage, he knows that the deep safeties, also playing zone, are there to help him. Undoubtedly, you’ve hear the television commentators say, “He was expecting safety help.” Since the cornerback is expecting help, he wants to push the receiver into the help. So, when the ball is snapped and the receiver begins his route, the cornerback wants to give an inside release. This means the cornerback is in between the receiver and the sideline; the help is the safety over the top. In contrast, if the cornerback is in man-to-man coverage, and the safeties are also in man-to-man, he wants to give the receiver an outside release. He’s not counting on safety help, so he has to squeeze the receiver in between himself and the sideline. The sideline is the help. However, if the cornerbacks are playing man-to-man, but the safeties are in zone, the cornerback wants to give the receiver an inside release and direct him into the helping safeties over the top. These three combinations (full man-to-man, full zone, combo man underneath-zone over the top) are basic ways the defense is designed to guard the middle of the field in the “inside-out” concept.
Are you still with me? I haven’t bored you into clicking over to Facebook or Twitter? Good, let’s continue with how the Packers attack the inside-out defensive concept.
A standard personnel for the Packers is the “Posse” that calls for 3 wide receivers, 1 tight end, and 1 running back (called the 3-1-1). This is typically a passing formation. The Packers like to align the tight end and slot receiver on the same side of the field, creating a “trips” formation, which is sometimes called “doubles slot.” Since this is a passing formation, the defense usually counters with their nickel package, which has 4 defensive linemen, 2 linebackers, 2 cornerbacks, 2 safeties, and 1 nickelback (called 4-2-5); this deploys a total of 5 defensive backs. The weak side cornerback covers the split end (87), the strong side corner covers the flanker (89), the nickelback covers the slot receiver (18), and the strong side linebacker covers the tight end (88). The safeties vary their responsibilities based on the play call. See Figure 1 below.
[Figure 1; click to enlarge]
Since the Packers are primarily a passing team, many defenses deploy the “Cover 2 man” defense, sometimes shortened to “2 Man.” You’ve probably heard the television commentators mention this. This defense sends both safeties deep in zone to split the coverage of the deep half of the field. The rest of the defenders play man-to-man coverage. The cornerbacks play man-to-man, bump-and-run coverage, and they try to jam the wide receivers into an inside release. We also heard ad nauseum about how the Packers receivers can’t get off their jams. An inside release means the cornerbacks are in between the receivers the sideline; the cornerbacks are expecting inside help from the safeties. The nickelback tries to give the slot receiver an inside release because he also expects deep strong safety help. This technique is a little different, which I’ll explain in a bit. It’s basically a way to get double the help out of the strong safety. See Figure 2 below.
[Figure 2; click to enlarge]
Cover 2 Man is primarily a pass defense. It’s first predicated on the free safety and weak side cornerback double covering the deep route of the split end (2:1). Second, on the other side of the field, it has the strong safety helping both the strong side corner and the nickelback to guard the deep routes of the flanker and slot receiver, respectively. This means that three defenders are guarding two receivers (3:2). The strong safety is able to help cover both the slot receiver and flanker because both receivers are “inside” the other defenders. He can react to the ball while it’s in the air and defend the reception. The tight end is usually single covered by an outside linebacker. Most defenses assume that their best outside linebacker is better than the offenses’ best tight end. Oftentimes, this is the case, but the notable exceptions are Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham, Anthony Gonzalez, Rob Gronkowski, Jason Witten, and our own Jermichael Finley. Overall, the Cover 2 Man is a very effective defense against a 3-1-1 offensive personal; it’s most effective when guarding against the pass. The 2:1 split end coverage and the 3:2 slot and flanker match ups favor the defense, at least on paper. Advantage: defense.
However, Cover 2 Man is considerably less effective against the run. It has limitations against the run because both safeties are deep, the cornerbacks and nickelback are running down field with their backs turned to the running back, and there is one less linebacker on the field if they are in the nickel package. The best way to get a defense out of Cover 2 Man is to have an effective running game. An effective running game makes the defense play a safety closer to the line of scrimmage “in the box”, taking away his deep pass help. As we’ve seen in recent years, the Packers have not exactly had an effective running game, so the defenses stay in Cover 2 Man and jam the receivers aggressively at the line of scrimmage. In the absence of a good running game, the best way to defeat the Cover 2 Man is have a good tight end. Enter Jermichael Finley. Advantage: Packers.
The Packers use Jermichael Finley to open up the passing game, much the same way the Buffalo Bills used Keith McKeller in their K-gun offense. Below, I’ll highlight some of the passing routes that I have seen Jermichael run in the past, as well as routes I expect to see him running this upcoming season. With a keen eye, you should be able to easily recognize these during games.
Jermichael Finley is more athletic and fast than most outside linebackers. He’s also bigger and stronger than most defensive backs. A typical route for him to run in the 3-1-1 trips Posse formation is an in route. The split end is bracketed on an inside release, the flanker is bracketed on an inside release, and the slot receiver is bracketed on an outside release. Therefore, the tight end only has to be beat the outside linebacker on single coverage, so, he becomes the primary receiver. Since Jermichael Finley is faster and taller than most linebackers, so this is a mismatch. See Figure 3. Advantage: Packers.
[Figure 3; click to enlarge]
Now, let’s say the offense wants to get the split end involved. To do this, they need to break the 2:1 bracket coverage provided by the free safety over the top. The easiest way to do this is to send the tight end on a deep post route. Remember, one of the biggest weaknesses is the Cover 2 is the space between the safeties. If Jermichael runs a deep post, and he’s certainly fast enough to do so, he is presenting a challenge to the free safety. The strong safety is committed to his 3:2 coverage on the other side of the field, so he cannot help guard the space between the safeties. The free safety has to make a decision to help the linebacker covering the tight end on the post route or the cornerback covering the split end on the streak. Usually, the free safety will be conservative and help the linebacker guard the middle of the field based on the “inside-out” concept, freeing up the split end into single coverage. Since the cornerback gave the split end an inside release, the middle of the field is now vulnerable. See Figure 4. Advantage: Packers. This is a preferred route combination for Jordy Nelson. Watch for him streaking down the sideline. He’s the go-to deep threat.
[Figure 4; click to enlarge]
Next, let’s take a look at the tight end screen. This is a very popular play in the Packers playbook. First, what is a screen pass? It is a passing play that invites the pass rushers to aggressively rush the quarterback without much blocking. Then, the quarterback tosses the ball over the pass rushers’ heads. Usually, all but one receiver are running deep, opening up a large open space for a receiver to run with the ball underneath the deep coverage. Most teams throw a screen pass to the running back. Mike Holmgren’s Packers were the best running back screen team in the league for several years. Mike McCarthy’s Packers use the tight end screen.
The tight end screen is very effective against the Cover 2 Man. All three wide receivers run deep streaks, taking all five of the defensive backs into deep coverage. This opens up the underneath coverage and forces the linebackers to cover all underneath receivers. All defenses are trained to recognize the running back screen. Just watch Clay Matthews recognize the screen. He’ll immediately stop his pass rush and close in on the running back he expects to receive the pass. He’s a real master at this, actually. The Packers are relying on over-aggressive linebackers recognizing and covering the running back in a screen. So, they’ll intentionally sneak a running back into the middle of the field, hoping he will be covered by that linebacker. When this happens, Jermichael Finley runs a shallow out pattern into the flat. He’s completely wide open and has room to run. Once he catches the ball, the down field slot receiver and flanker immediately block their defenders. See Figure 5. The Packers have the best blocking receivers in the league. Advantage: Packers.
[Figure 5; click to enlarge]
A staple in the Packers passing game is the “all go” concept. This sends all receivers on deep streak routes. If run from the 3-1-1 Posse trips, it’s called “999″. This was a standard concept in the run ‘n shoot and K-gun attacks. It’s considered a very aggressive play call and is effective because helps remove the 3:2 coverage of the slot receiver and flanker. When the tight end also runs a streak route with the slot receiver and flanker, that side of the field overloads the stong safety’s zone, which is called “flooding.” The bracket coverage breaks down because the strong safety is challenged into making a decision. He will usually favor the middle of the field, which means the two outside routes lose the strong safety help, and one of them will most likely come open. See Figure 6. Advantage: Packers.
[Figure 6; click to enlarge]
There are other ways to challenge the Cover 2 Man defense. A popular one in the Packers playbook is a deep crossing of the tight end and the slot receiver. Pre-snap, the slot receiver is guarded by the nickelback and the tight end is guarded by the outside linebacker. The strong safety is expecting to help guard the slot receiver over the top. The deep crossing concept attempts to exploit the defensive assignments and use them against themselves. First, during a crossing route, the defenders are often trained to “switch” to avoid being “picked”. Rather than follow their men, they often exchange responsibilities. So, if the slot receiver crosses to the inside of the formation, the outside linebacker picks him up. Likewise, if the tight end crosses to the outside of the formation, the nickelback picks him up. This now creates a mismatch. Jermichael Finley is larger than the nickelback, making for an easy pitch and catch. The slot receiver is faster than the linebacker, also making for an easy pitch and catch. Even if the defenders don’t switch, the crossing pattern still presents an advantage; the real beauty of the play comes from making the strong safety play conservatively. Remember, the safeties are often trained to guard the inside of the field, the strong safety will often follow the slot receiver who is now running a post towards the middle of the field. This removes all help from the tight end running the to the corner of the end zone and the flanker running the streak. See Figure 7. Advantage: Packers.
[Figure 7; click to enlarge]
A related concept to the deep crossing of the tight end and the slot is the dino double post pattern. This concept has both the tight end and the slot receiver running post patterns. Since the strong safety should be guarding the middle of the field, he will peel off the flanker. Then, due to the angles of the double posts, the strong safety cannot adequately apply any help to the tight end. Therefore, Finley and the flanker should be able to come open. See Figure 8. Advantage: Packers.
[Figure 8; click to enlarge]
After the defense has seen a steady dose of passes, they become very aggressive. Their pass rushers will go white-knuckled and launch themselves toward the quarterback. The defensive backs will begin to cheat a little in their drop backs, anticipating which routes they’ll need to guard. With these things occurring, it’s the perfect time to unleash the draw play. A draw play is a running play that is set up by successful passing. During a draw, the offensive linemen start the play with pass blocking techniques and stances. This tricks the defensive linemen into assuming a pass rush. The receivers run deep passing routes, which tries to run their defenders out of the play down field, which also turns the receivers into excellent down field run blockers. Even though the draw play is a run, it’s still considered a member of the passing category. The pass sets it up, it’s executed with pass personnel in passing formations, and it’s executed during passing downs. The combination of tricking the pass rushers and the pass defenders really opens up the middle of the field.
A favorite draw play of the Packers is the middle draw. The defensive ends take wide pass rushes, trying to out-flank the offensive tackles in their attempt to decapitate Aaron Rodgers. They will have basically taken themselves out of an inside draw play because the overran it. The Packers like to double team the center and weak side guard on the nose tackle. Therefore, the real success of the play depends on the strong side guard winning his block one-on-one with the defensive tackle and the tight end winning his block on the outside linebacker. Since the tight end is an eligible receiver, he can also sell the pass to the defense, which often results in the outside linebacker dropping into pass coverage. When running back hits the hole, the tight end doesn’t need to apply a smashing block; it’s more of a screen block. Jermichael Finley need not be a devastating run blocker for the draw play to work. He just needs to sell pass and get in the way of the linebacker. See Figure 9. Advantage: Packers.
[Figure 9; click to enlarge]
Well, you’ve seen just one, of many, play calling sequences that are all dictated by the play of the tight end. These nine plays came out of one formation against one defensive coverage. Now, imagine how many formations the Packers use in one game and how many defensive coverages they will face. The number of combinations is mind blowing. But, as you can see, Jermichael Finley plays a very important role in dictating how the defense reacts. Therefore, the success of the Packers this year will largely depend on the success of Jermichael. There’s a reason why many people say a quarterback’s best friend is a good tight end, and there’s a reason why Mike McCarthy and Uncle Teddy put a premium on tight ends in Green Bay. And, now you know a little bit more why. The next time you watch the Packers, hopefully you can put up with his mouth and see his true value to the offense. However, if he can’t get his mouth under control and becomes a locker room cancer, I’m the first to admit he has to go. D.J. Williams is a capable talent, and he did win the John Mackey Award for the best collegiate tight end. His development will also be interesting to watch.
I suppose I could have split this into two articles rather than making you read a dissertation about the passing game, but if you’re anything like me, I thought you’d want it all in one single dose. Stay tuned for more breakdowns of the Packers offense, as well as other musings about playbooks everywhere. I’m new to the blogosphere, so let me know how I’m doing and if the articles are enjoyable and helpful. Also, feel free to send me suggestions if there’s a topic you’d like me to write about. I have some other articles in the pipe, but the season is a marathon.