McCarthy's challenge: Winning with backups
GREEN BAY – It can be argued day and night whether it’s Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson’s fault that the team doesn't have a deep enough roster to withstand its injury epidemic.
But with six games left in the season and the Packers staring a ghastly 4-6 record in the face, it’s on coach Mike McCarthy and his staff to figure out a way to win with a bunch of players who still are trying to prove they are worthy of playing in the NFL.
During parts of their demoralizing 42-24 loss to Washington on Sunday night at FedEx Field, the Packers were playing with third-, fourth- and fifth-string cornerbacks, a fourth-string inside linebacker, second- and third-string guards, a second-string running back and a fifth-string receiver.
Some teams can overcome that kind of depreciation, but not a team whose draft class has been a bust so far and whose Pro Bowl selections at the end of the year will equal the number of turnovers its defense forced Sunday (zero).
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If this isn’t the sternest test of whether McCarthy and his staff can get the most out of limited talent, then it’s a close second
“When you get into spots where we’ve been the last month, where you do have heavy injuries with more particular guys’ roles and responsibilities, (the) description of what they’re doing each week is adjusted,” McCarthy said Monday. “How do you max that out?
"You have a role player that’s usually playing 25 to 30 plays, but now he’s playing 60. We have a number of those situations on defense. How are we offsetting that? It’s a challenge, particularly when you continue to have injuries in the game. We had some of that last night. We need to continue to work through that.”
So far, the Packers haven’t done it very well.
The loss Sunday night was a prime example.
McCarthy and his staff miscalculated that guard Don Barclay, who injured his shoulder in pregame warm-ups, still wound be a better option than rookie tackle Jason Spriggs. When Barclay finally couldn’t go any longer, Spriggs came in and played effectively, especially pass blocking.
When cornerback Demetri Goodson left the game with a devastating knee injury and coordinator Dom Capers had his three slowest cornerbacks – LaDarius Gunter, Quinten Rollins and Micah Hyde – to defend Washington’s talented receiving corps, he called a game that left them in one-on-one situations.
Gunter, Rollins and Hyde all allowed touchdowns in man coverage.
Then there was the blitz call on third-and-7 at the Packers 44 with Washington ahead 29-24 with 4 minutes, 44 seconds left. The pressure didn’t get there and Washington receiver Jamison Crowder got matched up with linebacker Joe Thomas in man coverage.
Crowder won that race easily, gaining 53 yards on the completion from quarterback Kirk Cousins and setting up a 1-yard touchdown run that all but put the game out of reach for the Packers.
“Any time a call doesn’t work you wish you hadn’t (blitzed),” Capers said. “But the reasoning there, ‘OK, it’s third-and-7, we’re trying to get the ball back.’ We had run the same pressure earlier and we had a guy come free and he had a quarterback hit; he (Cousins) just got the ball out of his hand earlier.”
Capers probably would have been criticized if he didn’t blitz and Cousins had stood in the pocket and completed a pass in zone coverage, but at least he wouldn’t be playing to the weakness of his unit: lack of speed.
McCarthy and Capers say they're not going to construct new schemes to account for less-talented backups, but they better figure something out because a fifth straight loss Monday night against Philadelphia would put the Packers three games behind the NFC North leader with five games to go.
“There’s no reinventing the wheel,” McCarthy said. “We’ve talked about this since the day I arrived here. We have a system of football – offense, defense and special teams – that accommodates any football player on our roster.
“If we’ve got to reinvent the wheel in Week 11 or Week 12, we haven’t set our plan the right way for the season. We have the adjustments and everything we talk about – football IQ, being proactive with our adjustments, that’s all part of the game. The execution of it, the communication and the little things, that’s where we need to be better.”
Maybe if the communication isn’t good, it means the players aren’t capable of the assignment. The Packers blew so many assignments against Tennessee the week prior that it looked like they were running a defense they never had played before.
Simplicity may be the only option. It’s what special teams coach Ron Zook has tried with inexperienced players passing through a revolving door all season long. It hasn’t always worked as the Indianapolis game showed, but it has kept things from falling apart.
“The thing we have to do is, you can’t have them out there thinking,” Zook said. “When you’ve got young guys out there that are inexperienced, they’ve got to play fast. The only way they can play fast is do the things they’ve done.
“We had some guys out there that haven’t gone through the minicamps and the OTAs and those things, so we’ve got to get them up to speed fast. It’s better to be simple than complicated and let them use their athletic ability.”
It may not be just the rookies who need to cut back the volume and increase the speed.
The offense, which does not include a rookie in the starting lineup, seems to have a different identity every week. Spread this week, run it the next, tight end emphasis one week, receiver emphasis another week. What is the Packers’ base offense when they most need a first down?
Whatever that answer is, McCarthy has to find it this week.
“We’re fully aware of the things we need to do better,” McCarthy said. “Just focus on the things you can control. We’ll sort through this injury thing today and tomorrow, but our process as far as getting ready for the Eagles is the same.
“We’re pouring everything into beating the Eagles. We need to get to win No. 5, and that’s where our energy is at.”