The Packers didn’t have a plan for Justin Jefferson, and it showed

·8 min read

Jaire Alexander is the Green Bay Packers’ best cornerback. But he was injured in 2021, missing all but the first four games of the season due to a shoulder injury. As a result, Alexander missed both Packers games against their NFC North opponent, the Minnesota Vikings.

So, maybe the Packers’ defensive staff forgot that Alexander was available in Week 1 of the 2022 season to cover Justin Jefferson, one of the best receivers in the league?

That’s certainly what it looked like. In a 23-7 Vikings win, Jefferson went all thermonuclear against the Pack, as is his wont. He caught nine passes on 11 targets for 184 yards and two touchdowns. That 184 yards, by the way, was just 11 yards less than the 195 passing yards Aaron Rodgers had in this entire game.

But we digress.

Back to the Packers’ defense, and the plan — such as it was — for covering Jefferson. After the game, head coach Matt LaFleur was quizzed about why Alexander wasn’t following Jefferson all around the field.

“Yeah, it doesn’t necessarily always work that way in terms of — if you just commit to playing man coverage the whole game, sure, you can do it. But they do a nice job of putting them in different positions, whether it’s in the slot, whether it’s motioning. It seemed like he was in motion quite a bit, just moving him all over the place. You’ve got to give them credit. They put him in premier spots and attacked our coverage well, and certainly we had a couple blown coverages, as well, where we’re cutting him loose, and if there’s anybody you don’t want to cut loose, it’s No. 18. We’ll go back and look at the tape. Obviously, again, we have to coach so much better.”

The Packers’ plan was to zone it up a lot, and have different defenders on Jefferson. This certainly was a pleasant surprise for Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins.

“I would be a little surprised, yep,” Cousins said when asked if he expected Jefferson to get better and more compressed coverage. “Whenever he has a game at that magnitude, not because of him, but you expect him to get taken way a little bit, and he will at times. Our coaches are trying to find ways to still keep him involved, and we were able to do that today. So it’s going to be kind of a conversation we had a lot last season, and we’ll have this season each week of how does he get defended.”

It was not a pleasant surprise for Alexander.

Based on my charting, Alexander was not the closest defender to Jefferson on any of his 11 targets. New Vikings head coach and offensive play-designer Kevin O’Connell, fresh off his two-year tenure as Sean McVay’s offensive coordinator with the Rams, did a masterful job of aligning and motioning Jefferson away from Green Bay’s most formidable pass defender. LaFleur brought this up, of course (one offensive coach appreciating another offensive coach), and it certainly showed up on the field. Here’s how the Jefferson distribution looked on Sunday:

Safety Darnell Savage, Jr.: Three targets, two catches, 57 yards, one touchdown.

Cornerback Rasul Douglas: Three targets, three catches, 75 yards.

Cornerback Eric Stokes: Two targets, two catches, 25 yards, one touchdown.

Linebacker Quay Walker: One target, one catch, 22 yards.

Edge-rusher Preston Smith: One target, one catch, five yards.

Safety Adrian Amos: One target, no catches.

So, When you have a rookie linebacker in Walker, and a veteran edge-rusher in Smith, covering the other team’s alpha-dog receiver more than Alexander did, that would seem to be less than an ideal plan. Moreover, the strategy to play a bunch of zone against Jefferson really didn’t work because again, O’Connell did some great stuff to beat it.

So, where did the Packers get it so wrong? Let’s go to the tape.

Basic zone might as well have been Cover-0 -- literally.

(Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports)

Cousins broke down Jefferson’s 64-yard catch with 5:54 left in the first half, where cornerback Rasul Douglas (No. 29) was Jefferson’s nearest target off the snap, and then, Douglas released Jefferson to Green Bay’s two-deep look. Jefferson ran through it like an open gate, enabling Cousins to make the deep throw out of pressure.

“I think I came out of the fake and felt like I needed to slide,” Cousins said. “Your eyes are downfield so you’re just kind of feeling it. You’re not really knowing what’s going on. Try to slide and find the soft spot in the pocket. You know the route hasn’t declared yet, so you’re thinking, I got a shot, there is grass, we will see what the safety and corner do as I move. And then what’s great about Justin, among other things, is when you put it out there he goes and gets it. He has a big catch radius and can bring it in.”

Green Bay's defense couldn't handle the truth.

(Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports)

The Packers had more than their share of alignment and rules errors against Jefferson. Beyond the lack of Alexander to help specifically, this is what killed them generally. Jefferson’s 36-yard touchdown catch with 45 seconds left in the first half had Jefferson and receiver Adam Thielen (No. 19) challenging the defense on deep crossers against what looked like Cover-3, until it disintegrated after the snap.

Darnell Savage Jr. (No. 26) was the nearest defender here, with Alexander over the top to that side, and if there was one instance in which Alexander should have been in a position to carry Jefferson over the middle, it was this one. But Alexander (No. 23) was busy keeping Thielen from breaking up top on the other side.

The rules didn't work.

(Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports)

One reason O’Connell used so much motion and different deployments pre-snap with Jefferson was to catch the Packers in coverage rules that were entirely unfavorable. This is something I think Kyle Shanahan does better than anybody else — motion and location to disrupt and create ideal matchups — and O’Connell had it on lock to an embarrassing degree for the Pack.

Jefferson’s second catch of the day came with 11:35 left in the first quarter, and rookie linebacker Quay Walker (No. 7) on Jefferson on the quick out route, with cornerback Eric Stokes (No. 21) and safety Adrian Amos (No. 31) covering Thielen deep to that side. This was another misbegotten two-deep look that did Walker no favors. You can’t put a linebacker on Jefferson with no help.

Okay, smart guy -- what SHOULD the Packers have done?

(Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports)

A fair question. It’s easy enough to sit on your butt and criticize Joe Barry and his staff for a weird plan that didn’t work; if we want to really analyze the situation, it’s better to dive into what might have been more effective.

When I watched the tape of this game after reading LaFleur’s and Alexander’s quotes, I wondered why the plan wasn’t to play more man and match coverage — in man, it would have been possible for Alexander to follow Jefferson no matter what O’Connell was calling, and if you want to play more zone… well, at least match Jefferson underneath with help over the top to give your guys half a chance.

A friend suggested Cover 57, which is a combo coverage in which defenders are aligned by offensive formation. There are man and match rules, and it’s pretty adaptable to whatever an offense is doing.

Cover-7, which is Nick Saban’s favorite defense, would also be better here. It’s another man-match series of concepts that adjusts to formation and the depth of the routes. There’s defensive motion to counter offensive motion, and the idea is to create numbers advantages at the same time you’re deploying specific defenders in “man-on-demand” situation. More than anything, the idea is to have intermediate case coverage with help over the top in a lot of different ways.

The Packers certainly could have used more of that than they put on the field yesterday. Whether you’re putting Jaire Alexander on Justin Jefferson no matter what or not, the Packers had better have a better plan when they have to deal with Jefferson again in Week 17.

Story originally appeared on Touchdown Wire