The Green Bay Packers have started a rookie at inside linebacker only three times in Dom Capers’ seven seasons as defensive coordinator.
They may need to consider doing it again.
For the second consecutive week, rookie Jake Ryan replaced Nate Palmer next to Clay Matthews in Sunday’s 37-29 loss to Carolina. Unlike in Denver when Ryan played only two defensive snaps before Palmer was reinserted, the coaching staff stuck with their fourth-round pick the rest of the game.
The Packers shuffled their personnel against the Panthers in hopes of improving their reeling defense. Cornerback Demetri Goodson worked outside in the sub packages, Letroy Guion started at defensive end and Ryan replaced Palmer with 4:47 remaining in the second quarter.
The rookie wound up leading the defense with 10 tackles (six solo) on 38 defensive snaps. It was a small sample size, but he seemed to demonstrate better instincts than Palmer and looked more natural inside than the converted outside linebacker.
The performance was good enough to beg the question of whether he should start this Sunday against Detroit. If the Packers are leaning in that direction, neither coach Mike McCarthy nor Capers let on when asked about the rookie inside linebacker’s performance Monday.
“I thought Jake did some good things,” Capers said. “We’re going to have to look at what the Lions were doing, and we’ll try to decide what type of play time we’re going to have, but Jake’s a young guy that’s learning like all of our young guys.”
McCarthy was even more frank in his assessment.
“Just OK,” McCarthy said. “He had some productivity, but it wasn’t as clean as he would like and as we like. I think he was kind of in line with a number of our performances.”
Ryan, 23, certainly looks the part at 6-foot-2, 240 pounds. A two-time captain at Michigan, he made a switch from outside to inside linebacker during his senior year with the Wolverines. Scouts felt Ryan might have been drafted higher if he hadn’t blown out his ACL during his junior year.
Many saw him as a meat-and-potatoes linebacker who lacked burst and struggled to quickly change directions. The Packers liked him because he was a natural tackler who doesn’t shy away from contact. It was difficult to argue with his production (267 tackles) and effort level.
Those traits could be seen Sunday. Although it was a small sample size, Ryan seemed to react quicker to what was in front of him than Palmer and got tied up less on blocks. His play inside helped the Packers slow down running back Jonathan Stewart, who had 13 carries for 28 yards in the second half.
"He came in and made some plays," defensive back Micah Hyde said. "That’s good to see. Jake does that in practice. He’s a smart football player. Obviously, he’s played on the big stage before, so he’s used to that. He came in and made some plays, and it was good to see."
The defense suffered a significant loss in the season opener against Chicago when Sam Barrington sustained a season-ending foot injury. The more-experienced Palmer was given the first shot at the job and Ryan went into neutral for two games after straining his hamstring against Kansas City in Week 3.
Once he returned, the coaching staff felt strongly he’s more than capable of handling the job. It’s why the Packers turned to him two weeks ago against the Broncos when Capers admitted the defense needed a “spark.”
“He’s ready to play,” assistant linebackers coach Scott McCurley said last week. “He steps in there in a situation like that, especially in Denver where you need all the bodies available. Clay got nicked there for a little bit and he was down. We expect him to come in, contribute and make calls, and play ball.”
Starting in the Packers’ defense is generally an uphill battle for young inside linebackers. The three games D.J. Smith started in place of Desmond Bishop in 2011 remain the only three a Packers rookie has started since Capers was brought in to install his 3-4 defense in 2009.
Inside linebacker is one of the most difficult positions to cultivate given all the responsibilities that are involved. It’s often difficult to find one capable body inside, let alone two, for a 3-4 defense. General manager Ted Thompson still felt good enough about the position that he didn’t really address it much after cleaning house early this offseason.
A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore all were shown the door. Content with Matthews and Barrington as their starters, the Packers made only three acquisitions: Ryan, undrafted free agent Tavarus Dantzler and former Indoor Football League linebacker Josh Francis.
Dantzler was viewed as a possible sleeper out of Bethune-Cookman, but made zero impact before he and Francis were among the Packers’ first round of cuts in training camp. In a battle of converted outside rushers, Palmer beat 2014 fourth-rounder Carl Bradford and James Vaughters for the final spot.
The Packers’ response to losing Barrington for the year was signing first-year linebacker Joe Thomas off Dallas’ practice squad and immediately inserting him as the lone inside linebacker in the dime defense. His role hasn’t shifted much from those duties over the last six games.
Green Bay still had one of the youngest collection of inside linebackers in the NFL even when Barrington was healthy. It's possible Thompson overestimated what he had at the position or just didn’t find any free agents worth signing. Regardless, his reaction to addressing the position in the spring was drafting Ryan.
The Packers already have thrown rookie cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins into the fire this season. Maybe it’s time they do the same with Ryan.
McCarthy said the conversation about how snaps would be divided between Ryan and Palmer would start during personnel meetings Tuesday. Choosing Ryan won’t improve the defense overnight, but a change couldn't hurt after giving up nearly 1,500 total yards over the last three games.
“I think Jake can be an active guy,” Capers said. “I think he’s a smart guy. He’s learning, he’s growing. Again, we’re just going to have to look and see what types of personnel groups we’re going to be playing against the Lions. That’ll probably determine how much Nate or Jake plays.”