Green Bay Packers free agent film study: Linebacker Cory Littleton

  • Cory Littleton
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By Ben Clubb March 16, 2020 0 Comment
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The Packers have been searching for a playmaker at inside linebacker in 2020. Cory Littleton could be the missing piece to the puzzle.

Ever since Mike Pettine took over as the Packers defensive coordinator, he knew he would have his work cut out for him. After all, Packer fans nationwide knew he would be fighting an uphill battle. Year after year, the Packers continually saw their defensive rankings dwindle towards the bottom during the final years of the Dom Capers-era. A big concern for him thus far has been at the inside linebacker position.

One of the most important aspects of defensive football (or football in general for that matter) is finding the right pieces to the puzzle. If you’re around football coaches for any length of time, you’re bound to hear them say that football “is about the Jimmy’s and Joe’s, not the Xs and Os.”

That’s what makes the offseason so vital to each NFL team in the offseason. It’s the time that teams can start piecing together the puzzle in their attempts to assemble a championship team. These pieces are crucial in 2020 for the Packers defense and their defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. Pettine enters his third year season with the Packers in 2020, and this will be a make or break year for him.

The inside linebacker is at the heart of that defense. Blake Martinez is more than likely on his way out of Green Bay, and the Packers defensive staff is looking for answers as to how they can fill the position. Do they take a chance and roll the dice on a draft pick, or do they address the need in free agency?

We all know that the Packers front office has been somewhat passive in the front office when it comes to signing players, but that all changed last year when we saw the signings of several top defensive playmakers. General manager Brian Gutekunst could leap of faith again in the 2020 offseason and sign free agent Cory Littleton, which could pay off in the long run for the Packers defense. Let’s roll the film on Littleton and see what would make him such an attractive prospect for the Packers defense.

Pass Coverage

To be a solid inside linebacker in today’s day and age of football, you must be successful in defending the pass. Teams are throwing the ball more now than ever. In what used to be a league where defenses would load the box and force the pass, they must now be alert to defend the pass more so than the run. It is an area that Littleton will shine in.

via GIPHY

Here’s an example of the Rams playing their base cover 3 against the quick screen. Littleton starts this play lined up to the strong side of the formation. As the Seattle Seahawks motion into their 3X1 set (3 receivers to one side), you can see Littleton bump with the motion. It may be easy to overlook, but it will put him in a much better position to defend plays like this one.  The pre-snap position is everything. It can be the difference between being out of position and defeated by a block or being in the right place at the right time.

The quick screen has been a favorite for teams like Seattle in early downs. The role of the Littleton in this cover 3 look would be to defend the curl/flat area. As soon as he reads the quick throw, he shows tremendous closing speed and can close in on the receiver. There are three small, but important things I want you to notice on a play like this. They are:

  1. Closing speed
  2. Quick read
  3. Playing inside-out

When referring to a player playing “inside-out,” that simply means that he takes away the inside threat first while working to the outside of the play. If the play is overrun, that will expose the cutback lane, and the offense would have an easy gaining play. Patience is key for an inside linebacker when defending plays like this.

via GIPHY

Here we see a great example of Littleton’s closing speed against the pass. He doesn’t bite on the play-action as the flow of the play goes away from him; rather, he shows discipline in reading his key and getting in position. Watch as he stays square, pursues the ball-carrier from inside out, and makes the play in space.

via GIPHY

Angles are everything in defensive football, both in the pass and run game. It was one of the best examples that Littleton showed of that. The Rams again show a cover 3 look out of this base package against the 49ers 2X2 (2 receivers to each side) formation. An easy way to recognize the coverage being played is keeping an eye on the three defensive backs playing deep and four defenders playing underneath.

Littleton lines up this time to the strong side of the wide side of the formation, playing the hook/curl zone. His aiming point in coverage is 10-12 yards deep and about 2 yards outside of the hash mark. He is responsible for any curls or underneath routes being run.

The pass goes away from him here, but notice the sharp, flat angle that he takes to get to the receiver. The defense must get as many players to the ball as possible to get him to the ground. Defensive football is a team effort, and Littleton always seems to find himself around the ball at the end of every play. Coaches will take note of his crisp angles here, which reduce his time getting to the football.

Defending The Run

There’s always three things to watch when breaking down film of linebackers against the run: downhill angles, pad level, and block shedding.

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A good linebacker will find ways to incorporate all three of these against the run on every play. Let’s take this first clip as an example. Littleton does a good job right from the snap of taking his steps downhill. This may not seem like much, but the first two steps of an inside linebacker are the most important. These are known as the “read steps.” They allow the linebacker to read his key and get in position. The key for a linebacker (depending on the scheme) typically is the near back, or sometimes the guard. At the professional level, though, you’ll usually find the linebacker able to read both.

Keep an eye on the guard and tackle on this play. Both players take a hard step inside to down block, leaving Littleton to come up to the line of scrimmage and seal the C gap. Notice that he takes a flat downhill angle, engages the block and sheds it with his hands, and gets in on the tackle. It is a perfect example of how to play the run.

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Littleton can find himself in different positions at times when defending the run, which is all dependent on the defensive front being ran. The Rams come out here in an over front against Tampa’s 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends). An “over” front means that the defense has a 3-technique (outside shoulder of the guard) lined up to the wide side of the formation, with a 1 technique (outside shoulder of center) lined up to the short side of the formation. This is vital for the inside linebacker, as it will tell him which gap he is responsible for.

Here’s how the gap responsibility would look for the defense against this formation:

  • Edge – Sets force. He is responsible for turning the play back inside.
  • 3-technique (#99) – Plugs the play side B gap.
  • 1-technique (#69) – Plugs the backside A gap.
  • 4-technique (#90) – Plugs the backside B gap.
  • Buc linebacker (#51) – Plugs the play side A gap.
  • Littleton – Plugs the play side C gap.

Normally, this wouldn’t be the typical gap responsibility for an over front. However, because they are defending 12 personnel, Littleton must cover the C gap. He does a great job of it here. It can sometimes be tricky to take on a pulling lineman, but he uses great technique on this play to stuff the play in the backfield. Watch how he takes on the block with his inside shoulder while staying low, which blows up the play in the offensive backfield. Had he taken this block on with high pad level, it would have been a well-executed trap play for the offense.

via GIPHY

What makes Littleton a unique linebacker is his ability to line up at different positions in the defensive front. Here we see him line up to the short side of the formation and chase this play down from the backside. It’s always a good sign in the 3-4 defense when you see a defensive coordinator able to use his inside linebacker at multiple spots. The Rams use him here at the edge to roll up a defensive back in the box to have a favorable matchup against the tight end in case he runs vertically in the passing game. However, the run goes away from the wide side of the formation, and Littleton again demonstrates his quick closing speed and is able to make the play. Mike Pettine could line Littleton up in various positions in the defensive front and trust him to get the job done.

Honestly, none of us know what Brian Gutekunst and the front office is going to do this offseason when addressing the inside linebacker position. One thing is for sure though: if it isn’t addressed in this year’s draft, several free agents could step in and do a fine job for the Packers, and for Mike Pettine and Cory Littleton could be one of those guys. While there may be a little fine-tuning to do, this defensive staff could bring out the best in him.

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Make sure to follow me on Twitter for more Packers film breakdowns and content: @BenClubb1919


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