Since the day training camp opened in late July, virtually every conversation about the Green Bay Packers defense with Dom Capers has invariably included one word:
The Packers 62-year-old defensive coordinator had been rejuvenated after last year’s defensive struggles by a draft that saw general manager Ted Thompson add players to his side of the ball with his first six draft picks (and increase the talent on defense in other ways as well). And as training camp went on, you could just tell that Capers was becoming more and more convinced that he’d been given the players he needed to get things turned around.
On Sunday in St. Louis, the Packers will find out just how deep they really are on defense.
The Packers could be without four starters on defense -- inside linebacker D.J. Smith is out, and outside linebacker (and rookie first-round pick) Nick Perry, cornerback Sam Shields and defensive tackle B.J. Raji are unlikely to play – against the Rams, but at least three of those four positions, they appear to be well-protected by their backups.
On Wednesday, the Packers officially placed Smith on injured reserve, where he joins the guy he replaced in the starting lineup, Desmond Bishop. The coaches aren’t tipping their hands on who’ll assume the starting job, but fourth-year man Brad Jones, who took over after Smith went down against the Houston Texans last Sunday night, is the logical pick to start, while Robert Francois, Jamari Lattimore and Terrell Manning are also in the mix.
At outside linebacker, veteran Erik Walden, who had been splitting time with Perry, figures to play the entire game, or at the very least play most of the snaps with undrafted rookie free agent Dezman Moses possibly in the mix, too. Long term, Frank Zombo returned to practice from the physically unable to perform list, and while he won’t play this week, he’ll also provide depth once the team adds him to the 53-man roster.
At cornerback, rookie second-round pick Casey Hayward, who had two interceptions against Houston, is on course to start while Davon House, who had been working with the starters before an Aug. 9 shoulder injury, should also be back in the plans. Jarrett Bush, who started training camp as a starter, is also an option.
And without Raji, who made his first Pro Bowl last year, the Packers managed to bottle up running back Arian Foster (17 carries, 29 yards) with strong efforts from veteran defensive tackle Ryan Pickett and defensive ends C.J. Wilson, Jerel Worthy, Mike Daniels and Mike Neal.
“It’s one of the real keys in this business: You have to have depth,” Capers explained. “You’ve certainly seen it with us. We’ve gone with inside Bishop to D.J. to whoever’s next. I felt we’ve had better depth at outside linebacker this year than what we’ve had since I’ve been here. You’ve seen all four of our outside linebackers play and play significantly, at times.
“It’s one of the real keys because there’s going to be times where guys get banged up and you have to have somebody else to step in and do the job, and they have to be ready to do and they have to understand that. That’s why you tell these young guys, ‘You never know when you’re chance is going to come, but you need to be ready when it does come.’ With the number of young guys we’ve played to this point in time, you’ve seen some of those guys get better.”
That’s especially been the case with Hayward, who has three interceptions in the past two games and has shown remarkable growth since the start of training camp.
“Casey Hayward, I think he’s been steady since the day he arrived here,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Wednesday. “He’s got excellent ball skills, he gets his hands on the ball quite a bit. He got a couple today at practice, so I just have always liked the way he has played football, whether it’s inside (covering the slot receiver) or outside. He’s being given more responsibilities and he leads the team in interceptions. So that says a lot for a rookie.”
The one position where the depth is murkier is inside linebacker. Losing a starter and then a highly capable backup at any position would be a challenge, but at inside linebacker, Bishop arguably was the team’s best defensive player last year, and the torn hamstring tendon he suffered in the Aug. 9 preseason opener at San Diego was a blow, even though Smith proved he could handle the starting job while filling in for Bishop last season when Bishop was out with a calf injury.
While Smith wasn’t perfect in the first six games, he managed the game as the defensive signal caller – A.J. Hawk will now wear the radio transmitter helmet with Smith out – and his loss leaves the Packers thin there. Jones was OK playing in place of Smith, but Capers indicated that he could use a myriad of fill-ins. For example, he could play one of his inside linebacker options in the base and go with another in sub packages. Hawk, who hasn’t been playing in dime situations, seems like the obvious choice there, although he’s had a renaissance season this year in part because he hasn’t had to spend as much time in coverage as in past years.
“I think we have to take a look at these guys and see where they are. They’re all capable of handling certain facets of the game,” Capers said. “We’re playing a lot of different personnel groups and sometimes it’s good to have guys who are specialists in their personnel group. We’ll take a look at them on the practice field this week and certainly discuss it as we go through game-planning meets tomorrow and decide what direction we want to head.”
Even if he doesn’t have his mind made up, though, it’s refreshing for Capers to have options.
“Casey Hayward played a tremendous game (on Sunday) night. You saw him come up with two nice interceptions. He had a couple pass breakups. He’s certainly made improvement,” Capers said.. “I think Jerel Worthy, you saw him show up with a sack. He can be disruptive up front and I think he continues to improve. Mike Daniels played.
“All these guys can hopefully continue with the experiences they’re gaining to help make us better here as we move forward.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.