Packers defense shares and shares alike
GREEN BAY — There’s an old football credo that if you think you have two starting quarterbacks, you actually have none.
Someone less positive than coach Mike McCarthy might suggest that that’s the case all across the Green Bay Packers’ defense, where the team has a variety of players platooning and rotating. But considering McCarthy’s stated offseason goal of getting more players involved on defense – more personnel, less scheme as he put it – it’s clear that this was the Packers’ plan all along.
Before the bye, McCarthy reiterated that he thought that approach was important, saying, “We want to play as many of our players as we possibly can, particularly on defense.”
This week, in advance of Sunday night’s game against the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field, he said nothing he saw during the bye-week self-scout told him he should change.
“I do want to stay the course of playing as many different combinations as we possibly can,” McCarthy said. “I just feel we’re a better defense when we play more players.”
Beset by injuries in recent years, McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers wanted to give themselves as many options as they could in the event that the injury bug bit them again. And while they’ve been more fortunate in that department this season – thanks in large part to a major commitment to players’ total body wellness – the coaches still feel that the various job-sharing arrangements give them options should a player go down.
“We’ve got so many different packages that you’ve got to have guys that fit in or you can’t do the packages,” Capers explained. “What you can’t do is prepare for a game and you’ve got two or three packages where if you lose one guy, you’re out of that package. Because it takes you out of your game plan. So you have to be careful with that. And then the more packages you run, the greater risk you take of that.
“[With more guys involved], at least we can go in and say, ‘Well, if we’re in this package and we lose this guy, we’re not out of the package the rest of the game.’ Because I’ve been in that situation before and it’s frustrating because you invest all this practice time and a big part of your thinking is we’re going to use this, but bam, one play, and now you’ve got to go to Plan B.”
The rotations have happened all over on defense. Before starting cornerback Sam Shields suffered a knee injury at Miami on Oct. 12, Davon House and Casey Hayward were job-sharing the fifth defensive back job in the Packers’ nickel defense. Sometimes, House would come in as an outside corner and Tramon Williams would move inside; at other times, Hayward came off the bench to line up in the slot while Williams and Shields stayed outside.
With Shields back this week, it’ll be interesting to see whether House or Hayward is first off the bench.
At safety, although converted cornerback Micah Hyde started the first six games, he platooned with first-round draft pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. When the Packers would go to their dime defense, Hyde would move to the dime slot position and Clinton-Dix would come off the field.
With Shields out against Carolina on Oct. 19, Clinton-Dix started at and stayed at safety, while Hyde played the slot in the sub package. In the Packers’ pre-bye loss at New Orleans on Oct. 26, with starting safety Morgan Burnett out with a calf injury, Hyde and Clinton-Dix started together, and when Capers went to the dime group, Hyde moved to the slot and Sean Richardson came off the bench.
“Every situation is different. I know as a [former] player, they all want to play,” safeties coach Darren Perry said. “They all want to stay in the game. Nobody wants to come out. You like to get one guy to be that guy and play 60, 65, 70 plays, and know that you got somebody [else] if something were to happen you have a very capable guy coming in and taking the load. We feel strongly about that. We feel good about our depth and that’s a good thing to have. It’s not good for a player because they want to play. We understand that. That’s a good thing for a coach to be able to know you have somebody else to go back to if something were to happen injury-wise or production.”
With Burnett returning against the Bears, it’s possible that Clinton-Dix will be alongside Burnett full-time with Hyde relegated to playing in the sub packages, but the job-sharing might continue, too.
“Mike and Dom and those guys, they handle that,” Perry said when asked if both Hyde and Clinton-Dix would play safety. “We’ll coach whoever’s out there. We’ve got some guys who can play and we feel good about that.”
At inside linebacker, the Packers have used three different players – Brad Jones, Jamari Lattimore and Sam Barrington – alongside A.J. Hawk, although none of the three has really distinguished himself. Jones, the opening-day starter, lost his job due to injury and ineffective play to Lattimore, who has shared time the past two weeks with Barrington. Barrington (45 snaps) played more than Lattimore (23 snaps) against the Saints.
“This is almost like a, I wouldn’t say game-by-game [decision], but right now it’s A.J., Sam or Jamari, with the possibility of Brad,” linebackers coach Winston Moss said. “That’s what we’re working with right now.”
The rotation even extends to outside linebacker, where top-flight pass rushers Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews even rotate out in favor of Nick Perry and Mike Neal for series when the defense is in its base 3-4 or nickel packages. The Packers’ NASCAR dime package then has all four outside linebackers on the field simultaneously.
In the end, the Packers believe playing more players now benefits them both in reducing injuries and preparing other players in the event of an injury. The defense has been largely injury-free since nose tackle B.J. Raji’s season-ending torn biceps in preseason, so the fact that 14 players have played at least 200 snaps through the first eight games is evidence more of the job-sharing arrangement than players being pressed into duty by injury.
“I know there were a lot of years where we would have one group and those guys would be out there every down. The game’s changed a little bit to where you’re utilizing more personnel groups so you try to use your personnel to the best of your advantage,” Capers said. “You try to look at the big picture of, what’s going to give us the best chance of being as healthy as we can be down the stretch? Because we all know what happens from this point on – November’s one thing, and then you get into December and you want to be as healthy and playing your best football at that point in time so you can pick up momentum like you’ve seen us do in the past.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.
COPYRIGHT 2020 BY CHANNEL 3000. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED.