Packers' emphasis on versatility paying off

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Packers safety Sean Richardson (28), cornerback Quinten Rollins (24), running back John Crockett (38) chase after a loose ball on a punt. 49ers cornerback Dontae Johnson (36) made the recovery.

The change didn’t happen overnight. The Green Bay Packers' transition to achieving a more versatile roster has been years in the making.

First, Randall Cobb occasionally lined up in the backfield. Then, Mike Neal shocked everyone when he joined the outside linebackers during the 2012 offseason program. By 2014, elephant rushers had been introduced and defensive backs began playing all across the secondary.

The Packers have reaped the benefits from blurring the lines, particularly on defense where coordinator Dom Capers continues to shuffle the cards whether it’s to better compensate for an injury or maximize the abilities of Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews.

Matthews has become the poster boy for the unpredictability the Packers want to establish in all three phases. His ability to ace a midseason shift to inside linebacker saved the defense’s season. As his role expands — he even wore a communication helmet this year — it has allowed Capers to deploy Matthews from anywhere at any time.

The cross-training has improved the defense and made Matthews even more threatening. According to Pro Football Focus, Matthews has dropped into coverage more (89 snaps) than he has rushed (82) during the first four games, but he’s still on pace for his fifth season with more than 10 sacks.

“He’s an elite guy,” Capers said. “I’ve always felt he’d be a Pro Bowl outside or Pro Bowl inside linebacker. But to be able to go back and forth helps the flexibility of your defense. Against the Seahawks, he was inside the whole time and probably rushed the fewest number of times that he has since he’s been with us, but that was out of necessity. Our job is to figure out what it’s going to take to go win a game each and every week based on who’s available.”

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Matthews’ running mate inside? Nate Palmer, a college defensive end who converted to an outside linebacker when the Packers drafted him in 2013. The starting outside linebackers? Neal, a former defensive lineman, and 35-year-old Julius Peppers, who played 4-3 end in his first 11 NFL seasons.

The versatility spreads throughout the defensive front with both having the capability of rushing from the interior of the line in the dime package on obvious running downs.

The Packers enter Sunday’s game with St. Louis tied for second with the Rams in team sacks (17). It’s the most sacks the pass rush has had in its first four games since 2010 (18). Two other converted outside linebackers, Nick Perry and Jayrone Elliott, have contributed five in the rotation behind Peppers and Neal.

“It’s ridiculous,” Neal said of the defense’s 17 sacks. “Me and Julius were talking about it on the sidelines. Not only do we have depth, but the way the rotation goes we’re able to keep fresh bodies on the field. I think that helps definitely when it comes to sacks; guys can go out there with fresh legs. Nobody is tired, nobody’s legs are bogged down.”

Capers has leaned on the defense’s flexibility to weather the absence of starting safety Morgan Burnett, who has missed three of the first four games with a calf strain. It would’ve been a headache to replace him in the past, but Micah Hyde’s ability to slide from slot cornerback to free safety settled the defense.

Hyde worked strictly as a slot cornerback in the nickel and dime packages as a rookie in 2013 before the Packers taught him the safety position. He started the first half of last season opposite Burnett before first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was given the job full time.

Without Burnett, Capers has utilized multiple dime personnel packages. The most common version has safeties Sean Richardson or Chris Banjo replacing Hyde when he moves into the slot. Starting cornerback Casey Hayward then moves to the other inside post, enabling first-round pick Damarious Randall to cover the boundary.

The Packers also have inserted second-round pick Quinten Rollins in the slot for 20 snaps the past two weeks, leaving either Hayward or Randall to patrol outside based on matchups. Capers has used nearly all of his active defensive personnel the past two weeks, including Sunday’s 17-3 win over San Francisco.

“You see it out there. I don’t have to talk about that,” cornerback Sam Shields said after the game. “If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, each and every game, taking one game at a time, we’ll be great.”

Packers nose tackle Letroy Guion (98) and cornerback Sam Shields (37) celebrate following an interception against the 49ers at Levi's Stadium.

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Offensively, the Packers have added a new dimension to their no-back set with third-round pick Ty Montgomery joining Cobb as receivers who can line up in the backfield. The unpredictability forces opposing defenses to quickly decide how they want to match up with the concept.

If you go with a nickel package of five defensive backs, you run the risk of quarterback Aaron Rodgers finding a one-on-one matchup he likes outside. Show a dime with six defensive backs and it could leave a defense too thin up front if the Packers look to pound the ball.

Montgomery doesn’t have Cobb’s credentials, but his 6-foot, 216-pound frame makes him a bigger threat than the 5-foot-10, 192-pound Cobb between the tackles. He debuted in the backfield as an in-game adjustment against Kansas City before getting two carries for 10 yards against the 49ers.

Associate head coach Tom Clements said Monday the loss of Pro Bowl receiver Jordy Nelson to a torn ACL in the preseason hasn’t changed the offensive structure “much at all,” but in-season adjustments within the scheme are central to avoiding predictability.

Taking advantage of Montgomery and Cobb’s skill set is one way the Packers are helping compensate for Nelson’s lost production, in addition to the return of veteran James Jones and a litany of explosive gains generated off Rodgers’ penchant for forcing free plays at the defense’s expense.

After spending years emphasizing versatility, the Packers are seeing the investment pay dividends.

“There’s no replacing Jordy Nelson,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “It was important for all of us, especially our receivers and our perimeter group, to not look at it that way. It's about taking advantage of the opportunities that are going to present themselves with Jordy not being there, and I think that clearly speaks to the development of Ty Montgomery; you're definitely seeing Randall — he's fighting through each week, he's had some big-time games so far this year.” and follow him on Twitter @WesHod

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