McGinn: Middle of Packers' defense unproven

Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY - Fielding the dominating type of defense the Green Bay Packers envision this season will demand better performance at inside linebacker than they’ve had this summer.

Green Bay Packers inside linebackers Carl Bradford (54) and Blake Martinez (50) do a drill during Green Bay Packers training camp  Aug.15, 2016.

Yes, Blake Martinez is only a rookie, Sam Barrington still might be working his way into form after major foot surgery and Jake Ryan remains inexperienced and missed three exhibition games with a hamstring injury.

Try telling that to the Jacksonville Jaguars or any other opponent on the Packers’ schedule. Teams are going to probe the middle of this defense for weakness, and all that will matter then is the ability to do the job.

Martinez is industrious, sharp and versatile. He has been calling the defense. His teammates already appear to trust him.

He seems to have won the dime job and is expected to figure prominently in nickel. He might start in the 3-4 base, becoming a fixture on every down.

For some reason the Packers have limited Martinez’ playing time. Injury was never a factor, but his snap total of 73 ranks fifth at linebacker. Maybe the Packers have seen enough in their “thud” practices, but it remains unclear how effective Martinez will be against the interior run.

Martinez is somewhat undersized at 6 feet 1 1/2 inches and 240 pounds, and he tends to play small. There’s no evidence yet of punishing hits being delivered.

As always, Barrington has tried to be active and aggressive. However, his hardest shots have been on special teams. In 68 snaps from scrimmage, there’s just one play in which he knocked a ball carrier back.

Just as it’s too early to suggest Martinez and Barrington are the answers, the same would hold true for Ryan. He has eight more days to fare better than he did Thursday night in 14 snaps against Kansas City, when his play was pedestrian.

Carl Bradford, with 110 snaps, has established a consistent performance level superior to that of 2014-15. But really, is it good enough to warrant a roster berth over Joe Thomas, who before missing the final two games with a leg injury probably was playing faster and hitting with more authority than anyone else at the position?

Let’s take a look at other issues weighing in the roster deliberations that will lead to the current 73-man roster being whittled to 53 by 3 p.m. Saturday.

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BOX SCOREChiefs 17, Packers 7

Defensive imbalance: From 2011-15, the number of defensive players on the opening-day roster was 26, 26, 27, 26 and 25. In fact, only once in coach Mike McCarthy’s first 10 years did general manager Ted Thompson keep more players on offense. That was 2010, the Super Bowl season, when the offense had 26, including 10 linemen.

With Chiefs coach Andy Reid keeping every one of his 22 starters (and 32 players in all) under wraps, it was hard to evaluate much of anything. Suffice it to say that watching 2’s and 3’s beat up on each other, and it was a slugfest along both lines, isn’t the standard Thompson and Co. are keeping in mind.

Some of the so-called “bubble” players on offense who could be called disappointing in the exhibition finale were wide receivers Ty Montgomery and Davante Adams, tight end Justin Perillo, guard Lane Taylor, tackle Kyle Murphy, quarterback Joe Callahan and running back Brandon Burks (only because of his fumble).

Among the players on the fence from the defense, only safety Marwin Evans appeared to hurt his chances Thursday night with three missed tackles.

Is there reason to keep Perillo over a potential No. 3 tight end currently on another roster? Is there reason to keep an eighth offensive lineman, a third quarterback or a third running back?

Not that there’s an abundance of top-grade wide receivers, because there isn’t. It’s just that the eight leading wide receivers haven’t separated themselves, and until they do the Packers might just retain a record seven.

Since returning to the 3-4 defense in 2009, the Packers haven’t kept more than 21 linebackers and defensive backs. It’s possible 22 players from those two positions stick this year because that’s where the best depth resides.

The Taylor file: In March, the Packers gave guard Lane Taylor a two-year, $4.15 million contract containing $600,000 in guarantees. That isn’t starter money, but it is third guard/fill-in starter money.

The deal was in response to 2015, when Taylor did serviceable work in 137 snaps after two ho-hum seasons. They paid him expecting further improvement.

Unfortunately for the Packers, that hasn’t happened. One personnel man went so far as to rate Taylor, the left guard, as the poorest member of the No. 2 line that also includes left tackle Jason Spriggs, center Don Barclay, right guard Lucas Patrick and right tackle Kyle Murphy.

Taylor’s level of intensity Thursday night suggested he knew it was bubble time. He anchored well against bull rushes and used his strength and mean streak to pancake some defenders. He battled ferociously.

At the same time, Taylor’s limitations in flexibility, body control and change of direction were evident several times when he couldn’t prevent a linebacker from slipping past him and tackling the back.

Taylor also was penalized three times. The false-start foul was inexcusable but not the other two. He torqued a linebacker to the ground for one hold, and on the other he didn’t need to hold on a running play but the official ruled he did.

Spriggs’ inability to sustain blocks and punish defenders in the run game remains a negative. Nevertheless, after allowing just one pressure in 62 snaps against the Chiefs, he’s unquestionably the No. 6 O-lineman.

Gentleman Don Barclay has his legs back underneath him and warrants the No. 7 berth. He’s finally found his best position, center, but can play guard and, in an emergency, both tackles.

It’s possible that Murphy, given two or three years, might become a starter with his height, intelligence and competitiveness. Scouts also can see that he tends to be a waist-bender and needs strength development.

It’s hard to predict waiver claims in the offensive line because traditionally teams find it to be the most difficult position to supply. The guess is that the Packers figure Murphy will make it through to their practice squad.

If there is a No. 8 slot, rookie free agent Lucas Patrick could steal it from Taylor.

Patrick, a two-year starter at Duke, suffered a major hand injury early in camp but never missed a day. In 187 exhibition snaps, his play probably improved each game.

Patrick had three or four bad plays in Kansas City. He also went wild finishing blocks late in the second half. The Packers must project what he might become with two good hands.

Under center:  Assuming Brett Hundley could make it through the Jacksonville game on his bum ankle, Callahan isn’t worthy of taking a roster berth from a seventh receiver or an additional offensive lineman.

The Packers can’t permit the minimal expectations associated with an NCAA Division III quarterback to affect their judgment of Callahan. Yes, he was much better than expected, but it’s hard to imagine entrusting a regular-season game to him.

He made some remarkable throws on the run and displayed almost a sixth sense for avoiding trouble. He’s also short (6-1), slow (4.98), inaccurate and holds the ball too long.

Smashing debut: After watching Jacob Schum punt eight times with a new snapper for a brand-new team, Chiefs special-teams coach Dave Toub was impressed.

“He had a great day,” Toub said after the game. “Outside the numbers. Hung the ball up. We don’t fair-catch it; he forced us to fair-catch it. That’s a good pickup.”

Schum’s averages were 45.5 yards (gross), 41.3 (net) and 4.63 hang time. The Chiefs made three fair catches. He had three hang times above 4.9 (5.06, 4.98, 4.93).

McCarthy saluted Schum’s directional punting. Three of the eight hit outside the left numbers, three hit between the left number and the left hashmark and two hit outside the right numbers.

Although the job appears to be Schum’s, Toub expects Tim Masthay to be signed by another team before long.

“He’s too experienced,” Toub said. “You need guys.”

Best foot forward: The Packers just might try to skate by with four defensive linemen before Mike Pennel’s suspension ends after four games. If not, Christian Ringo, Brian Price and Tyler Kuder will know they saved their best showing for last.

For possibly the first time, the undersized Ringo looked like a threat. He beat guard Daniel Munyer for hurries on the first two of his 30 snaps. He showed some quick twitch off the ball, gained penetration and didn’t get washed down at the point.

Price had three plus plays, including a flush that led to an interception, a forced fumble and a run for minus-3 in which he pressed Munyer back several yards.

Kuder was a tower of power against the power game. He and center-guard Jordan Devey, a 13-game NFL starter, kept trading body blows. He’s not a bad space-eater.

Big night: Outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell, in 75 snaps, for the first time showed why the Packers drafted him in the third round.

The Chiefs are high on James O’Shaughnessy, their fifth-round pick in 2015, as a speedy tight end. It was a mismatch, however, when he tried to block
Fackrell in the run game.

Fackrell beat him three times for losses and two times for short gains. He also beat tight end Ross Travis and tackle Reid Fragel for other tackles for loss, giving him five, not counting a sack.

In the final minutes, just about the entire team was standing around watching as Devey kept giving the business after a play to Kuder, who was on his back. The fact that Fackrell, a rookie, was the one who reacted, angrily shoving Devey aside, should do nothing but endear him to teammates.

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