The Script Has Flipped in Green Bay
(973espn.com) - The script has been flipped in Green Bay early in the 2019 NFL season.
For the first time since Aaron Rodgers took the reins from Brett Favre in 2008, slowing down the two-time most valuable player isn't the formula for beating the Packers. That's because the strength of the Pack is now a unique Mike Pettine defense that has excelled due to the additions of edge rushers Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith and reliance on packages on the back end that feature a lot of talented defensive backs.
"They've added some really talented pieces up front, [and] certainly one-on-one those guys are pretty dangerous," Eagles offensive coordinator Mike Groh said earlier this week when discussing the Smiths. "So we're very mindful of those guys."
Pettine, the former area high school head coach at North Penn and William Tennent, has quickly revamped things during his second year in Titletown with what Groh described as “positionless players" earlier this week, something Philadelphia also has experience in with Malcolm Jenkins but in a far more limited fashion.
“They do a great job of mixing their personnel groups," Groh acknowledged. “They’ve got a number of different personnel groups and they try to splash the water over here and then bring guys from over there, or drop everybody out and put eight guys in coverage."
The deception is difficult in any environment but particularly on a short week in which both head coaches -- Doug Pederson and Matt LaFleur -- admitted that it's more about getting back to basics than being game-plan specific to the team you are facing.
While the Packers 3-0 start looks good on paper it's been Pettine’s defense that has carried the water, allowing just 35 points and piling up a league-high eight takeaways along with 12 sacks, numbers that the Eagles defense can only dream of.
“It’s a good defense," Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz said. “They play fast. They play physical. They do so many different things. It has a similar structure to what we saw last week with the Lions defense, just a lot more multiple."
The good news from Philadelphia's perspective is that Wentz is by far the toughest test Pettine has had to deal with, far outpacing the limited Mitchell Trubisky, the struggling Kirk Cousins, and the descending Joe Flacco.
The ramp-up in competition highlights why small sample sizes need context added. Wentz, though, has been impressed by a group that has allowed one touchdown pass so far and a dismal 63.1 passer rating.
“They mix it up really well. Bring a lot of different funky pressures," he said. "They’ll drop eight. They kind of do everything. In a short week like this, you just have to get in there [the film room] and study everything that they do."
Like most coordinators, Pettine's goal is to get his opposition in difficult third-down situations so he can unleash the exotic-pressure looks. To date the Packers have been heavy on sugaring the A-gaps, something that their divisional rival Minnesota is thought to be at the forefront of due to the presence of Mike Zimmer.
While Zimmer is thought of as the expert of muggling the A-gaps, however, he's shifted to more overload-blitz looks in an effort to stay a step ahead while others play copycat.
Although the Eagles 1-2 start can't be described as anything other than disappointing one of the strengths of Pederson's team so far has been third-down offense where Wentz has nearly a 70.0 percent completion percentage and a gaudy 127.7 passer rating.
“We’ve got a lot of confidence in Carson at the line of scrimmage, as far as being able to recognize coverage, recognize pressure, what defenses are trying to do and get our guys in the right play," Groh said. “This certainly is going to be a challenging situation for us, but Carson is playing at a high level."
Helping matters for the Eagles will be the return of Alshon Jeffery and the presumed full clearance on tight end Dallas Goedert, the latter of which puts more Tiger (12) personnel on the table which could help combat Green Bay's pass rush. Za'Darius Smith, meanwhile, is also dealing with a knee injury which has left him questionable for the game.
“Using ‘12’ personnel has always been a big part of this offense," Wentz explained. “It creates mismatches for us and helps us both in the passing game and the running game."
However, the game unfolds, however, the old assumption that stopping Rodgers means stopping the Packers no longer applies.
“Mike Pettine has been doing it a long time and they’ve got a lot of versatile players that go in there and try to mix their coverages up," Groh said.
-John McMullen covers the Eagles and the NFL for 973espn.com. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JFMcMullen