A year ago, the Green Bay Packers used their midseason bye week to transform themselves into a team with a championship-caliber defense.
It was a shock when the Packers hosted the Chicago Bears in their first game back and linebacker Clay Matthews lined up inside instead of on the edge, where the five-time Pro Bowler had played since being drafted in 2009. Matthews was one of the NFL’s elite pass rushers, able to cause havoc for opposing quarterbacks.
In the middle of the field, he’s something more.
Overnight, Matthews’ move inside changed a run defense ranked last in the league. It’s no coincidence the Packers’ best defensive performances came in December, with Matthews in the middle. The Packers coaching staff was able to improve the defense while getting more from its star player, not less. Matthews still rushes the passer effectively on third downs — his 4½ sacks are tied for sixth-most in the NFL — but has made a game-changing impact against the run.
It’s an example of how important a bye week can be for NFL teams. More than rest — which the banged-up Packers desperately need — the week away from competition allows coaches time to reflect. Mike McCarthy and his staff undergo an extensive self-scouting process this week, poking for weaknesses.
There are few glaring needs for a team that started 6-0. The Packers are one of five undefeated teams in the league. The Carolina Panthers remain the only other undefeated team in the NFC. Clearly, things are going well.
That doesn’t mean the Packers are without pressing issues. Here are three areas that could become critical in the season’s second half:
1. Sparking the offense
The individual numbers don’t seem to be off. Aaron Rodgers is averaging 8.2 yards per pass, just a fifth of a yard fewer than last season, when he won his second MVP award. James Jones has been a revelation on a vet-minimum contract, returning to the Packers with six touchdown catches in the first six games.
Even more, Jones’ nine catches of at least 20 yards are tied with Rob Gronkowski, DeAndre Hopkins and Jeremy Maclin for fourth-most in the league.
Yet the Packers' offense hasn’t looked the same without Jordy Nelson, who was lost for the season with a torn ACL in August. The Packers' offense has been good, ranking fifth in the league with 27.3 points per game, but it hasn’t quite met its usual standards. The Packers have gone three weeks without hitting the 30-point mark. The last time that happened was late in the 2012 season.
There’s a chance the offense will sort itself out once receiver Davante Adams returns after the bye. Adams has missed almost the entirety of the Packers’ past four games after aggravating a sprained ankle on the first possession against Kansas City on Sept. 28. He’s a receiver Rodgers loves. The quarterback has raved about him multiple times.
Still, it’s hard not to wonder whether the Packers might use their bye week to find more ways to get former seventh-round receiver Jeff Janis involved.
Janis is a different player than Adams, which is to say he’s a raw prospect. The Packers have had to be more patient with his development, but Janis has the kind of game-breaking speed the Packers have lacked this season. He ran 40 yards more than a tenth of a second faster than Adams at last year’s NFL scouting combine.
Janis showed what that speed can do last Sunday, leading the Packers with 79 receiving yards on just two catches. He may not be the potential No. 1 perimeter target Adams can become, but Janis makes a play every time the football finds him. Perhaps the football should find him more often.
2. Maintain pass-rush depth
The Packers are the only team in the NFL with two defensive players ranking among the league’s top 10 in sacks. The combination of Matthews and Julius Peppers — who was signed before last season — has been everything general manager Ted Thompson could’ve hoped for. They’ve been a big reason the Packers rank second in the NFL with 23 sacks.
Still, Matthews' and Peppers’ production has been abnormal in different ways. For Matthews, it’s rare to see inside linebackers have so much impact rushing the passer. Peppers’ production has come at the age of 35, and while he’s on track to match his career high, there’s no guarantee he’ll continue that pace in the season’s final two months.
The key to sustaining an elite pass rush over 16 games will be depth. More than half the Packers’ sacks have come from players other than Matthews and Peppers. By committee, the Packers’ revolving door of defensive end Mike Daniels along with outside linebackers Nick Perry, Mike Neal and Jayrone Elliott have helped provide constant pressure.
Elliott may be a wild card later in the season. The special teams ace has a significant role in the game’s third phase, but it’s worth remembering his pass-rush burstearned him a roster spot as a rookie free agent last year. Elliott already has 101 defensive snaps this season, almost double the 54 he played his rookie year. He has been used as a pass rusher on more than half of his snaps. If he continues to develop, Elliott could give the Packers a fifth edge rusher from the second level (counting Matthews). That’s an area where NFL teams can’t possibly have enough capable players.
3. Continue developing rookie cornerbacks
So it turns out depth in the secondary isn’t as much of an issue as some feared it would be before the season. Even after losing Tramon Williams and Davon House, the Packers have plenty of capable defensive backs.
Thompson replenished the secondary through the draft, using his first two picks on cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins. Both have proven they can make a positive impact. Randall had the game-winning pass breakup on the goal line last Sunday, and Rollins had two interceptions with one returned for a touchdown the previous week.
There has been a place for Randall and Rollins in the secondary mostly because of safety Morgan Burnett’s calf strain, which forced him to miss five of the team’s first six games. With Burnett out, nickel back Micah Hyde replaces him as the starting safety, and cornerback Casey Hayward drops inside from the perimeter. That allows Randall to play perimeter in the nickel package, while Rollins is the team’s dime back.
Burnett’s return will be critical for the defense, but it could also diminish the snap counts for Randall and Rollins. The Packers may have to get creative to keep both rookies on the field.
One solution could be the “dime-plus” package defensive coordinator Dom Capers unveiled Sunday. The Packers had an extra defensive back on the field, aligning Rollins where a defense would typically place its middle linebacker. Rollins wasn’t a linebacker, of course. His responsibility was to match up against Chargers running back Danny Woodhead, a difficult cover for linebackers.
The “dime-plus” package could be a useful way to keep Randall and Rollins engaged with the defense.
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