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Christl/Baranczyk column: Defensive tinkering pays off vs. Bears

Sep. 14, 2012
 
Green Bay Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk pressures Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler during the fourth quarter of Thursday night's game at Lambeau Field. Dan Powers/Gannett Wisconsin Media
Green Bay Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk pressures Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler during the fourth quarter of Thursday night's game at Lambeau Field. Dan Powers/Gannett Wisconsin Media

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There have been times in the past where it seemed as though the Green Bay Packers were reluctant to make changes in their lineup, the classic example being when Desmond Bishop would outplay the starting inside linebackers in the summer and then sit and watch A.J. Hawk and Nick Barnett in the fall.

But finishing 32nd in defense one season and then getting trampled in the opener of the next apparently can create a sense of urgency.

Four days after the San Francisco 49ers devised a game plan that clearly focused on attacking Hawk and Jarrett Bush in the passing game, and exploiting Nick Perry’s inexperience at outside linebacker, the Packers reduced each one’s playing time and benefited from it in their 23-10 victory over Chicago.

Bush not only was replaced as a starter by Sam Shields, but in the dime by rookie Casey Hayward. Bush didn’t play a down on defense. Another rookie, Dezman Moses, subbed for Hawk in a pass defense package where only one lineman was on the field with four linebackers and six backs. As a result, Hawk’s number of plays was cut by almost a third. And Erik Walden played almost twice as many snaps as Perry.

In addition, rookie safety Jerron McMillian replaced M.D. Jennings in the nickel and dime; and two rookie linemen, Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels, made their first start and first appearance, respectively.

Make no mistake here, the Bears aren’t the 49ers and have nowhere near as good an offensive line. Plus, it’s much easier to play defense with a lead than from behind. But the Bears’ offensive skill players are just as talented as the 49ers, except at tight end.

Rookie defenders

It was clearly a much more inspired defensive effort by the Packers and maybe no play illustrated that better than 32-year-old Ryan Pickett chasing a receiver to the sideline and making the tackle. But with more youth on the field, the Packers looked as though they were playing faster and flying to the football more.

McMillian seems to bring an edge to the field that Jennings doesn’t have. McMillian is a thumper. So far, he also appears to have some cover skills and a nose for the ball. And after two games, he has been more assignment sure than Jennings, although all the Packers did was sit back in a cover two zone and make sure those big storks the Bears have at wide receiver didn’t beat them. That makes it pretty easy on a safety.

Moses was on the field for his pass rush, not his ability in coverage. And while he didn’t register a sack, he contributed to the pressure that rattled Jay Cutler all game.

Hayward’s cover skills are way better than Bush’s. Hayward has good hips, good balance and, it appears, good football instincts. He might not be the fastest corner, but those qualities should help compensate for some of that.

Another thing is that Hayward doesn’t have to waste all his energy, like Bush, just trying to cover a guy. With Bush, there’s nothing left in the tank once the ball is in the air.

Worthy played the run better and if his initial pass rush move was nullified he came back with a counter and kept his feet moving. He used his hands much better. On the Bears’ first offensive play, he was the one who set up D.J. Smith’s sack. Daniels is constantly working his hands, and he, too, just kept hustling.

The linebackers

Perry’s biggest problem against the 49ers was that he was getting reach blocked, getting hooked on tosses to the outside. The Bears didn’t have the linemen nor did they overload their formations to run outside. But Walden is much better at this point than Perry at holding the point. And Walden is more active rushing the passer, although Perry showed some improvement in that area in his limited snaps.

Last year Clay Matthews played predominantly to the left side. He seems much more comfortable playing on the right side. What’s more, he practiced this summer unlike last year.

Hawk and Smith were two others who played better than last week. Smith didn’t look as hesitant. Hawk played more physical and more downhill, although he’s just not one of those inside backers who’s ever going to play with his shoulder pads.

The cornerbacks

After the 49ers had virtually taken Tramon Williams out of the game at times with their formations, he was assigned to go wherever Brandon Marshall went, and he clearly won their battle. Williams’ performance was game-ball worthy. Shields played well, too. Unlike Bush, he at least has the ability to run and jump and play the ball.

Cedric Benson

The difference from the first game was that the Packers blocked for him. The linemen actually moved people. Against the 49ers, the best they ever got was a stalemate. Every running play looked like a muddled up scrum.

Keep in mind, though, that playing against the Bears’ even or four-man front can make it a little easier in the running game. No Justin Smith makes it easier, too. T.J. Lang didn’t have the problems on backside blocks that he had last week. And against the 49ers if there was even a small hole on occasion, it closed fast because of their inside backers. Watching Brian Urlacher was almost painful.

Former Press-Gazette sports editor Cliff Christl and former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offer their analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week.

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