Packers show weak link at inside linebacker
One of Ted Thompson's strengths is his self-discipline.
The Green Bay Packers' general manager adheres as well as anyone in the NFL to two long-proven tenets in building a football team: Draft and develop, and don't reach on draft picks for need.
However, there can be a downside to that approach, which is compounded by Thompson's disdain for free agency. He hasn't reached for picks, but in the last couple seasons he's also not drafted at positions of need, and it's left some weak spots on defense that he hasn't filled via other avenues.
Last year, it primarily was safety, where he didn't draft anyone, then watched his team pay as M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian shared time at one starting spot.
This year, Thompson drafted a safety in the first round but didn't select an inside linebacker even though it was one of his weakest positions going into the draft. That left Brad Jones and A.J. Hawk as the starters, and sure enough, they were the defense's weak link Thursday night against the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks and their marauding halfback, Marshawn Lynch.
After watching Lynch control the game by rushing for 110 yards and averaging 5.5 yards a carry, and the Seahawks rush for 207 yards total in their 36-16 win, it's not too early to wonder if defensive coordinator Dom Capers is strongly considering a personnel change over the Packers' mini-bye this weekend.
Don't be shocked if fourth-year pro Jamari Lattimore gets significant playing time next week against the New York Jets. His strength last year when he filled in for an injured Jones was his aggressiveness to the line of scrimmage as a run defender. He pressed the line and made tackles or forced running backs off their course, something the Packers were missing Thursday night.
Lattimore has some issues in pass coverage, but don't be surprised if Capers finds a way to get him on the field on early downs.
The Packers' changes in their defensive scheme make it more important than ever that their inside linebackers press the line of scrimmage and play physically against the run. Their defensive line is smaller and playing more in single gaps rather than eating space and shielding blockers from the linebackers.
But Jones and Hawk aren't physical enough; they mostly rip over the top or under blocks. So they have to fill fast to account for their gaps and leverage ball carriers. That isn't how they play. They were slow to fill and not aggressive enough to take on linemen at the line of scrimmage, which created running lanes for a top back such as Lynch to exploit. The Packers can afford to have only one of that kind of inside linebacker in the starting lineup.
Back-to-back plays at the start of the third quarter Thursday night were emblematic of the problem. On both plays, the Packers were in their nickel personnel.
On first-and-10 from the Seahawks' 14, Lynch took a handoff for an inside run to the right, and there was no hole so he cut back immediately. But Hawk didn't press the line. Instead, guard James Carpenter engaged Hawk 4 yards downfield and pushed him back to the 27. Lynch barreled for 14 yards and got the Seahawks out of a hole.
Hawk needed to take on Carpenter closer to the line. That would have forced Lynch to change course. Hawk knew he had safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to fill the alley and cornerback Sam Shields on the perimeter. They could have kept it to a short gain.
On the next play, Lynch again took a handoff to his right. Outside linebacker Clay Matthews got too far upfield, which gave Lynch a hole to cut up through. But it was hardly a disaster, because he had to cut into traffic.
However, Jones was a little tentative filling his gap, which gave Lynch time to bounce outside and pick up 9 yards. Jones avoided right tackle Justin Britt's block, but he was a half-beat late getting into the gap. A more confident run defender such as Seattle's Bobby Wagner would have exploded to that gap and hit Lynch before he could bounce outside.
First-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix had some glaring errors, but his NFL debut was promising.
Yes, Clinton-Dix missed a couple of key tackles, including in the open field against receiver Ricardo Lockette on a 33-yard touchdown pass. He also dropped an interception in the final minute of the first half.
But Clinton-Dix also showed that he's a natural filling against the run. Even in the second quarter when he missed Lynch in the backfield on a second-and-1 run, he at least shot into the backfield and forced Lynch to redirect, which helped limit Lynch to a 2-yard gain. The difference was, this wasn't a good back from the Southeastern Conference, where Clinton-Dix played last season; it was Lynch, one of the best running backs in the NFL.
The important thing is, Clinton-Dix was in position to make those plays. This was his first NFL game, he has to adjust to regular-season speed. As the season goes on, he'll make those tackles and interceptions.
Clinton-Dix didn't start, but don't be surprised if he's starting before the season is over. It wouldn't even be a total shock if Clinton-Dix and Micah Hyde were the starters at some point.
Clinton-Dix is a more natural run defender than fifth-year pro Morgan Burnett and is much quicker to attack his gap. Lynch had a 21-yard run in the second quarter where Burnett made the tackle, but it was 21 yards downfield. He could have made that play several yards or more earlier. Same on Lynch's 9-yard touchdown run. Burnett lingered at the goal line for a beat or two rather than attacking, and that gave Lynch room to bounce outside him at about the 3-yard line for the score.
■ The Packers had only 10 defensive players on the field on Lynch's 9-yard touchdown run. Nickel cornerback Casey Hayward was the missing man. How did someone in the secondary not see that and call a timeout?
■ Rookie Corey Linsley was fine in his debut as the starting center. He had the one bad play in the second quarter when he didn't snap the ball because he thought quarterback Aaron Rodgers changed the count. Rodgers called time out and got in his face. But other than that, Linsley looked good. He was strong blocking for the run. When he gets his hand on his man, it's over. He's going to be starting at least eight games while JC Tretter is out with a knee injury, and if Linsley keeps improving, it could be hard to take him out of the lineup when Tretter returns.
Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week.
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