With McKinney in coverage, Packers will send the house at quarterbacks in 2024

Xavier McKinney unlocks a whole new element of the Packers defense, and it ties in perfectly with Jeff Hafley’s scheme.

Xavier McKinney talks Giants defense, 'disagreements' with previous regime

Every NFL defense wants to get more aggressive. It’s one of the great modern clichés we hear every single offseason, and there’s no doubt you’ll hear it from Matt LaFleur and Jeff Hafley over the next 6 months.

The obvious way to become ‘more aggressive’ is to send more bodies after the quarterback. Any defensive coordinator can call a blitz, but if your almost-naked coverage unit can’t hold up for a handful of seconds, you’re asking to be gashed over and over again by a competent quarterback.

The first thing I want to make very clear is that while Xavier McKinney has a lot of experience blitzing the quarterback, he is not necessarily a good blitzing safety.

McKinney’s 49 pass rushing snaps were the 5th most of any safety last season, however he was only able to muster 4 total pressures on the QB. His pressure rate (and pass rush win rate) ranked dead last among the top 50 total safeties in pass rush snaps.

At 201lbs, McKinney is lighter than average at the position, and was cleared out easily by offensive linemen. The Giants predominantly blitzed McKinney off the edge in hopes of him avoiding all blocking whatsoever. But even then he was swiftly dealt with by chipping tight ends, pass protecting running backs, and pocket-savvy QBs.

Which is fine. Getting after the quarterback is not McKinney’s game. While I appreciate the importance of mixing up your looks defensively, the Giants were wasting their star safety’s raw coverage ability on crucial passing downs by sending him after the quarterback.

However on plays where the Giants sent the blitz after the quarterback and held McKinney back in coverage, that’s where the rangy safety really got to show his natural feel for defending the pass.

McKinney is, of course, very comfortable playing as the deep Cover-1 safety, you know that by now. But the area where I feel Xavier doesn’t get the respect he deserves is in man coverage. This is especially important when the defense is sending 6+ pass rushers on a blitz, and the coverage unit is left with only 5 defenders to deal with the route pattern — oftentimes man-to-man coverage across the board with no help.

The clip below shows the Giants sending the house against the Eagles on a big 3rd & Goal play from the 5-yard line. McKinney is lined up in man coverage against Dallas Goedert with no help to be found. Keep in mind, Goedert is a 9.54 RAS athlete and no scrub when it comes to route running.

McKinney leverages himself perfectly in a position to defend the route breaking in any direction. He makes contact at the goal line while maintaining clean balance throughout, ultimately forcing the ball incomplete and holding the Eagles to a field goal.

A similar situation came against the Commanders. Once again, it’s 3rd & 5 in a one-score game against a division rival, and the G-men are sending the house. This time, McKinney must defend the quick out route against Logan Thomas who is, oh boy, just a specimen at tight end. Thomas is a 9.75 RAS athlete who runs faster and jumps higher than McKinney all while weighing 50lbs heavier and measuring 6 inches taller. If that’s not enough, McKinney has to rotate down from a deep safety position post-snap to even get within hearing distance of Thomas.

Is the throw great? No. But this pass is still getting completed if not for the superb click & close skills of McKinney. He is so fast to read the route that he almost overshoots the ball at first. Even if this throw was on the money, Xavier still had a great chance of forcing the incompletion.

Those are just a couple of examples from McKinney’s portfolio of covering tight ends in “gotta have it” situations. He has plenty more quality man coverage reps in non-blitzing situations, but I wanted to stress the importance of those plays in particular — critical downs in close games where the defense is bringing the house and you simply can’t afford to make a mistake. Those are the plays you pay $17 million per year for.

McKinney is an awesome safety blanket when you want to send the house at the quarterback. And oh baby what did Jeff Hafley enjoy doing last season? You guessed it. Boston College got AFTER quarterbacks last year.

Ostensibly, Boston College ranked a measly 41st among 69 Power Five schools in blitz rate last season, but you’re not looking closely enough. There’s a big difference between sending 5 rushers while playing whatever coverage you like on the back end, and sending 6 or 7 rushers while clinging on for dear life in the secondary.

Hafley loves the latter. Boston College ranked 4th in the Power Five in 6+ man blitzes, a.k.a. sending the house. Of these 62 total blitzes, an alarming 41 of them involved some kind of stunt too. Not only does Hafley love sending extra rushers, he gets creative with it too. Perhaps it’s a reason why he brought defensive line coach Vince Oghobaase with him to Green Bay.

Just look at these clips below. The Golden Eagles didn’t have exceptional athletes in the front seven, but they were scheming up some beautiful looks all season long.

It’s organized chaos. Bodies flying in every single direction.

My personal favorite: watch how the linebacker affects the pass protecting running back in this clip. He completely clears him out, opening up a lane for the looping 3-tech.

Guys like Quay Walker were made in a lab to do exactly what is on that film. Joe Barry was actually blowing me away early in the season with some of his creative pressure packages. And then he just… stopped. After blitzing on 36% of snaps through the first 10 weeks of the season, that figure dropped to 23% from Week 11 onwards. The Packers went from being the 6th most blitz-happy defense in the NFL to the 20th.

You would figure with a reliable safety blanket like McKinney on the backend season, and a healthier secondary (God willing), Jeff Hafley will have the license to let his dawgs up front go hunting once again.

One last note on non-blitzing plays

When the defense brings a more conventional 4-man pass rush but still plays man coverage on the backend (pretty much always Cover-1), the Packers will have the flexibility to either match McKinney up with a tight end, or play in his usual deep center-fielding safety role which we already know about.

For that reason, I don’t have a strong opinion on which safety the Packers should pair with McKinney. Ideally, you would just have 2 Xavier McKinney’s, but I doubt Brian Gutekunst has a spare $67 million down the side of the couch. In reality, Rudy Ford isn’t a million miles away from what the Packers want out of their second safety, and I don’t see a draftable option they would trust to start >90% of defensive snaps next season. Heck, maybe Anthony Johnson gets the nod at starter. It’s all up in the air right now.

One thing is for sure, the Packers have found the perfect fit in Xavier McKinney. He fills a crucial role on Jeff Hafley’s defense, provides them with flexibility and most importantly, gives Green Bay the license to send their big athletes after the quarterback.

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