'Big Okie' defense adjusts without Richardson

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Packers safety Sean Richardson, lower left, and linebacker Julius Peppers (56) converge on tight end Martellus Bennett (83) against the Chicago Bears on Sept. 13.

Dom Capers talked so often in the past about needing to find more ways to get Sean Richardson involved in the Green Bay Packers' defense.

This season, the long-time defensive coordinator finally did.

Capers concocted two different packages designed to maximize the 6-foot-2, 216-pound safety's skill set. The first, the Big Okie, saw Richardson sub into their 3-4 base defense as a third safety in place of a perimeter cornerback. The second, the Big Nickel, dropped Richardson into the slot.

However, the viability of the package was uncertain after Richardson dropped out of practice Thursday with a neck injury and was ruled out of Sunday's game against St. Louis. An NFL source indicated it's related to the herniated disc he suffered in 2012. It likely will end his season and possibly his career.

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Instead of scrapping the package, the Packers plugged second-year safety Chris Banjo into Richardson's spot in the Big Okie in addition to having him play his natural position in the dime packages, which requires six defensive backs. He filled the same void two weeks ago against Kansas City when Richardson sat out because of a sprained ankle.

The Packers split reps between their traditional 3-4 defense and the Big Okie down the middle Sunday despite Richardson's absence. In 10 snaps, the bigger base resulted in seven rushes for 28 yards, a 4-yard completion and Julius Peppers' strip sack of Rams quarterback Nick Foles in the third quarter.

Banjo, who finished with three tackles, held running back Tre Mason to a 6-yard gain on a screen pass from Foles with a solo tackle in the first quarter. It turned out to be the biggest play St. Louis executed against the package all day.

"He's contributed when he's been called upon, and he's a smart guy," Capers said. "He knows all the adjustments. Quite frankly, two out of the last three games we've gone in with three safeties. He's been called upon to play in the dime package, to play in the Big Okie package. It's good to have guys like Chris because he can do a lot of different things."

Richardson was the perfect candidate for a hybrid role. Despite his size, he went undrafted out of Vanderbilt because of questions about his ability to play safety at the NFL. He never has been natural turning his hips in coverage, but he has a knack for defending the run in the box.

The only problem is that's also the biggest strength of starting strong safety Morgan Burnett, who led the Packers with 130 tackles a year ago. Depth and health at safety led to Richardson playing only 115 defensive snaps (10.5 percent).

Still, Green Bay felt so strongly about Richardson's potential in specialty packages that it matched a one-year, $2.55 million offer sheet in March from the Oakland Raiders, who guaranteed nearly all of the contract. The deal made sense for both parties.

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The Packers, lush with cap space, needed to increase their low tender offer by only an extra million to hold onto Richardson. Even if he didn't make the final 53-man roster, absorbing his contract would be nothing more than a flea bite on what's expected to be a $150 million cap in 2016.

For Richardson, it was his first guaranteed salary since the Packers gave him a $5,000 signing bonus as an undrafted free agent in 2012. It also provided some peace of mind for the defensive back, who had his C-5 and C-6 vertebrae fused in January 2013 and didn't return until 10 months later.

However, the Packers didn't proceed without a plan. Even their ill-fated 4-3 quad defense came with a backup in case it lost Clay Matthews. Since the scheme barely worked with the all-pro linebacker, you could imagine the damage if Green Bay needed to lean on Jamari Lattimore next to A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones.

The difference now is the Packers are better positioned to replace injured players in their packages than two years ago. It's what has enabled the secondary to survive the absence of Richardson and Burnett, who has missed four games this season because of a strained calf.

"The guys we have on our defense, we have a good amount of talent," Banjo said. "Whenever somebody may be down unfortunately, I definitely feel like we not only have the talent for guys to come in, but they're also very aware of what's going on."

The zone-blitz defense Capers utilizes is based on the 3-4 defense, also commonly referred to as "The Okie" after former Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson developed the formation during his tenure as Sooners head coach.

Capers' Big Okie is a spinoff of the quad, which featured two linemen, two elephant rushers and three linebackers behind them. Instead of using their best pass-rusher (Matthews) as the pseudo-slot defender, they have since opted to pull a boundary cornerback to get Richardson onto the field.

Banjo (5-foot-10, 207) is the exact opposite of Richardson in terms of size, but the two are more similar than it would appear on the surface. Both are undrafted overachievers, respected contributors on special teams and known for their willingness to tackle.

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The Packers chose to keep Richardson over Banjo during the final round of cuts in 2014, but the new veteran exemption on the practice squad allowed Banjo to stick around until he was brought back to the active roster in December.

Banjo has served as the No. 3 safety the past three weeks with Burnett out and Richardson missing two games. Prior to playing 68 defensive snaps during that stretch, his last regular-season work came in the Packers' 33-28 win over Chicago on Dec. 29, 2013.

"I felt good for the most part," said Banjo, who has seven tackles and a pass deflection this season. "You can feel prepared as much as you possibly can, but a lot of things come with reps and experience. That confidence gets built by the more playing time you get. Regardless of the situation whether we have everybody healthy or not, you still have to prepare yourself like a true professional."

The Packers could be leaning on Banjo again this Sunday if they hold Burnett out until after the bye week. Once he returns to his spot next to Ha Ha Clinton-Dix on the back end, Capers will have a number of combinations to choose from in filling the Big Okie, nickel and dime subpackages.

So far, the Packers have relied on Micah Hyde's versatility, the maturation of rookie cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, and the experience of Banjo to keep the defense afloat. The Packers are no worse for wear, ranking seventh in total defense and fourth against the pass.

It's a stark difference from a few years ago when Capers admittedly had to discard packages at times due to injury. Now, he should have enough depth to even keep a specialized package such as the Big Okie in the fold despite Richardson's injury.

"I think we have a little more depth," Capers said about the difference from past years. "Those guys have done a nice job of communicating because Morgan is a big factor in our communication back there. They've done a good job of their preparation and they know the importance of communication and they've done a good job of it. Through five games our depth has been tested pretty well."

whodkiew@pressgazettemedia.com and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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