Packers' secondary plans keep shifting

Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Taylor Gabriel (18) catches a first-quarter touchdown pass against the coverage of Green Bay Packers cornerback Demetri Goodson (39) in October at the Georgia Dome.

GREEN BAY – Long before the Green Bay Packers send out their first injury report of the week Wednesday afternoon, the coaching staff already has tallied the numbers to see how many players actually have a chance of suiting up for the upcoming game.

This year, it has been an absolute crapshoot for defensive coordinator Dom Capers and his staff trying to figure out who they’ll have at cornerback. In some cases, the opposition finds out less than 24 hours after the Packers do.

“First thing we do -- Tuesday is our game plan day -- is we put together a depth chart and we go through worst-case scenario and best-case scenario,” Capers said Thursday. “Before you even start talking about X's and O's you have to look at who’s going to be available and who might not be available because it’s going to have a big influence on what your plan will be.”

So this week, for instance, Capers was delivered the unwelcome news that Demetri Goodson, his No. 5 cornerback who as a result of injury has moved up to No. 2, had suffered a concussion against the Atlanta Falcons. Goodson hasn’t been ruled out, but Capers knows there’s a good chance he’s not going to play.

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On the other hand, Quinten Rollins, who has missed the last three games due to a groin injury, is returning to practice, but only on a limited basis and the chances of him playing Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts aren’t better than 50 percent.

So, starting practice this week, Capers’ No. 4 corner, LaDarius Gunter, is one starter, and either safety/nickel back Micah Hyde is likely the other. The only other fully healthy cornerback is rookie Josh Hawkins, who mostly plays special teams.

“The next phase is taking a look at your opponent and how you match up in different areas,” Capers said.

That next opponent has one of the fastest receivers in the NFL in T.Y. Hilton, who averages 15.4 yards a catch and ranks third in the NFL with 709 receiving yards with four touchdowns. It also sports another speed demon in Phillip Dorsett, who averages 15.9 yards per catch, and a big red-zone target in Donte Moncrief, who is rounding back into shape after missing five games with an injury.

And then there’s Andrew Luck, the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft, who has thrown for 2,284 yards and 16 touchdowns and probably would have far more than that if he had an offensive line that could protect him (league-high 31 sacks).

Game plan that.

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“We have a challenge there again this week trying to take the big play away because when you look at them statistically they can strike with the big play,” Capers said. “They might be No. 1 in the league of four or less plays in drives for touchdowns. That’s always a concern.”

Capers thought he had the deepest secondary he’s ever had with the Packers and it may turn out he’s right. But surviving the long-term loss of his top two cornerbacks – Sam Shields (concussion) and Damarious Randall (groin) – and then his No. 3 and No. 5 corners has been a challenge.

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Assuming Rollins doesn’t play Sunday, the Colts could line up with four receivers and force Capers to find enough corners to play dime (six defensive backs) on almost every play.

Beyond Gunter and Hyde, he could use safeties Morgan Burnett and Kentrell Brice to fill the slot positions in the dime. Burnett isn’t idea for covering a receiver but he has done it as recently as the Jacksonville game.

Brice is one of the fastest players in the secondary and said he played dime corner at Louisiana Tech and could play it here, if necessary.

The only saving grace for Capers is that the coaching staff played many of the younger players on defense just so they’d be available in an emergency.

“I’m not sure where we’d be if we hadn’t spent a lot of time through training camp where you say, ‘This guy is not just this, he has to be able to play here, here and here,’” Capers said. “We certainly make good use of that. You’ve seen so many of our guys move around and play two, three positions, especially in the secondary.”

The question is how much can Capers do with the secondary he’ll put on the field. As coach Mike McCarthy pointed out this week, you have to decide if you have the personnel to put your corners in one-on-one situations in order to get more pressure on the quarterback or just stick in a zone all game.

“You know you look at experience, you tie all those things into the statistics,” McCarthy said. “You look at the video and all the information and you build your plan.

“But it depends on who they have playing on how your young guys match up, too. So we look at the whole picture.”

Which at this point in the week is pretty incomplete.

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