For several months, the Green Bay Packers have tossed around the idea of using Brandon Chillar as an outside pass rusher.
For four years, they’ve tried to get Desmond Bishop on the field.
In one fell swoop, they may have done both.
With starting left outside linebacker Brad Jones out indefinitely because of the back injury he sustained in the first training camp practice on Saturday, defensive coordinator Dom Capers on Monday unveiled a package that included both. He debuted a nickel alignment that had Chillar at right outside linebacker and Bishop at one of the two inside spots along with Nick Barnett. It also meant Clay Matthews moved from the right side to the left outside spot, where Jones opened camp.
This could be only a backup plan in case Jones can’t come back from injury or doesn’t produce when he returns. But at least for now, the Packers want to see how this configuration works out.
“It’s definitely an intriguing idea,” said Barnett, whose position and responsibilities wouldn’t change. “Having so much depth at that position, inside linebacker, and with some athletes there, we can do some great things, but we’ll see. This was the first day running it, so we’ll see how it fares.”
Chillar was one of the Packers’ most versatile defenders last season, when he even played strong safety in spot duty. Before he came to the Packers as a free agent in 2008, he played four years in St. Louis, where he was used in several different linebacker positions in the Rams’ base 4-3 defense and an outside spot in a specialty 3-4 pass defense.
“Chillar is definitely a player that has the ability to play a number of different positions,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “As far as the outside linebacker position, he gives you flexibility, both in the base and the subpackages because he has rush ability. That was something going back to free agency when we acquired him from St. Louis, playing against him his last year in St. Louis, we felt he was a very good blitzer, a natural and instinctive runner, but also had the ability to play inside.”
With the Packers, Chillar didn’t take a single rep outside until Sunday night’s practice, when he worked both outside spots in the base defense.
It wasn’t until Monday morning that the coaches told him he would be moving outside in the nickel, too. Last season, his main role was an inside linebacker in the nickel package.
“It was a little bit of a surprise to me,” said Chillar, who had two sacks last season and has never had more than 2˝ sacks in any of his six NFL seasons. “But with Brad going down, I think they wanted to give us reps just in case. I take it as a challenge, and it’s fun for me.”
Chillar had an interception in Monday’s practice, picking off a ball that tipped off the hands of running back Ryan Grant in a screens and deceptions team period.
“I had some fun out there,” Chillar said. “Obviously, I have a lot to learn. It was the first day, and I messed up some stuff, but I think that goes along with a new position. I think it’s always fun to try something new and look forward to trying to get better at it.”
After losing Aaron Kampman, last year’s opening day starting left outside linebacker, in free agency, the Packers chose not to draft or sign anyone of significance at that position. As early as the NFL owners meetings in March, McCarthy mentioned using Chillar in a pass-rushing role.
By playing him on the right side, it forced Matthews, who led the team with 10 sacks last year as a rookie, to switch sides. But he played both sides during his final year of college at USC, so playing on the left side isn’t entirely new.
“You’re putting your best athletes on the field, and that’s what you want to do as a defense,” Matthews said. “I think Chillar brings a different aspect. (At 237 pounds), he’s not your prototype outside linebacker, but we’ve seen the guy hurdle a running back and sack a quarterback. That speaks volumes for his athleticism. That’s what we need as an outside linebacker.”
It also suggests the Packers think Chillar is a better outside rusher than Brady Poppinga, who had been playing Jones’ spot before Monday’s switch, and that they believe the combination of Bishop inside and Chillar outside is better than the combination of Chillar inside and Poppinga outside. Poppinga hasn’t shown much pass rush so far in camp. A.J. Hawk hasn’t been a factor in the nickel defense at all.
The move could appease Bishop, who has made rumblings about his unhappiness with his limited role, which is largely on special teams. The fourth-year linebacker has talked before about wanting to be traded, and said Monday that he’s trying not to get too excited about this new package because he’s not sure it will stick.
“They’re trying Chillar at the outside spot, so I don’t know if that’s permanent,” Bishop said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m not going to get my hopes up.”
When asked what he thought of the group with Chillar, Matthews, Bishop and Barnett, McCarthy said: “Very athletic, multiple. They’re good run players. They all have coverage ability, and they’ve all shown the ability to rush the passer.”