Rookies fade to background in playoff push

Michael Cohen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Jim Matthews/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
Packers safety Kentrell Brice (29) gives up a long reception to Titans tight end Delanie Walker (82) Sunday at Nissan Stadium.
Green Bay Packers defensive back Kentrell Brice (29) gives up a long reception to tight end Delanie Walker (82) against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, TN Sunday, November 13, 2016.

Green Bay - Among the credos fastened to the draft-and-develop philosophy of Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson is the steadfast belief that rookies can and will contribute during their first year in the league. They hone their craft from spring through fall until, during the latter stages of the season, the coaches don’t view them as rookies anymore.

Now in his 12th season, Thompson configured his initial 53-man roster to include all seven draft picks and six undrafted free agents, the latter serving as a new high in the Thompson era. Nine of the original 13 rookies carved out consistent roles on offense, defense or special teams before Thanksgiving. Four of them have started at least one game this season.

Yet as November came to a close, something was amiss; the Packers, chosen by many to win the Super Bowl, were losing games in alarming fashion. They were manhandled by Dallas in mid-October and shocked by Indianapolis three weeks later. They were obliterated by Tennessee and embarrassed by Washington. Five defeats in six games meant something had to change.

It finally happened in Philadelphia earlier this week when coach Mike McCarthy muzzled the playing time of his rookies, especially on defense. The same group that accounted for 15.3% of defensive snaps during the six-game stretch from Dallas to Washington played just 2.5% of snaps in the win over the Eagles. Injuries were a part of the drastic reduction, but the overarching message from McCarthy was abundantly clear.

“We’ve played a lot of young players to this point, so with that we’ve gained a lot of experience with those guys,” McCarthy said. “But at the end of the day, you have to play your best players and most importantly at the key times.”

The most drastic changes came on defense, where coordinator Dom Capers had leaned heavily on youth in recent weeks. Beginning with the loss to Dallas, nine rookies or players with no game experience prior to 2016 played at least one snap over the next six weeks. Three of those players — nose tackle Kenny Clark, inside linebacker Blake Martinez and safety Kentrell Brice — played 15 or more snaps in at least four of the six games.

(Moving forward, the term “rookies” will lump together all traditional rookies and any older players with no prior game experience.)

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Percentage-wise, the playing time for young players remained consistent during that six-game stretch. Defensive rookies played anywhere from 12.8% of snaps against Dallas, which was their lowest involvement, to 18.6% of snaps against Tennessee, which was their highest. On offense, rookies and second-year players ranged from 8% playing time against Tennessee to 14.4% against Atlanta.

Like a basketball coach in the playoffs, McCarthy squeezed those numbers in the win over Philadelphia, which was arguably the team’s best performance of the season. Outside of Jason Spriggs, who played the full game at right guard in place of the injured T.J. Lang, offensive rookies and second-year players saw their playing time dip to 6.4% of snaps. The defensive rookies played even less, just 2.5%.

“We’ve had probably more than the norm where big plays against us were caused because of inexperience and not the details of what we needed to do,” McCarthy said of the defense. “You factor all those things in when you game plan, but it’s December football, so we’re going to play the best players to win the game.”

The majority of snaps were siphoned from Brice, Clark and 5-technique Dean Lowry on defense; wide receivers Ty Montgomery, Trevor Davis and Geronimo Allison on offense. Davis, a rookie fifth-round pick from California, did not play from scrimmage in either of the last two games after a costly muffed punt and dropped pass against the Titans.

Brice, an undrafted free agent from Louisiana Tech, was the biggest victim. An otherworldly athlete, Brice splashed in training camp with a steady flow of eye-popping plays. He made the team and, within a few weeks, forced his way onto the field as a safety in the dime defense. When Morgan Burnett moved to slot corner, Brice played alongside Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.

But Brice endured a brutal game in the loss to Tennessee and was victimized on multiple occasions by tight end Delanie Walker, who finished with nine catches for 124 yards and a touchdown. He struggled as much to tackle as he did to cover. The next week, against Washington, Brice was walled off by blockers on a run by tailback Rob Kelley that went for 18 yards.

Brice averaged 16.7 snaps per game during the six weeks from Dallas to Washington. Against the Eagles he did not play a single snap from scrimmage.

Neither did Lowry, who was averaging only a couple snaps per game. And Clark, the team’s first-round pick from UCLA, saw his playing time nosedive from 22 snaps per game over the last six weeks to just 13 in Philadelphia.

“Monday night was a critical game for us,” Capers said. “ … You want the guys out there, the vets, and so every play’s important. You get to that situation, you’re going to make sure that you have the guys out there that have been there before.”

McCarthy and Capers turned instead to defensive back Micah Hyde, who replaced Brice in the dime. Up front they employed a tighter rotation of linemen Mike Daniels, Letroy Guion and Mike Pennel, with supplemental rushes from outside linebackers Julius Peppers and Datone Jones.

The offensive skill positions tightened in predictable fashion: Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams earned the overwhelming majority of snaps. Montgomery chipped in with 16, Allison played five and that was it.

“We hadn’t played a complete game maybe yet this season,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said Monday night in Philadelphia, “so this was a great effort in all three phases for us: offensively controlling the ball and third downs, defensively getting the turnover and holding them in the second half and on special teams not giving up any big plays.”

That McCarthy and Capers spoke so openly about shortening their bench suggests a similar road map could be followed this weekend against Houston. The only asterisk is the potential return of Martinez, a starter at inside linebacker, who is questionable with the same knee injury that kept him off the field in Philadelphia.

But much like his availability, Martinez’s playing time is uncertain. The poster boy of OTAs and training camp — his work ethic is voracious, his personality infectious — Martinez has fizzled with a slew of mistakes in recent weeks, most of which were in coverage. He is easily hoodwinked by play-action fakes and winds up yards out of position downfield. It would not be a stretch to call him a liability.

Those are the types of mistakes McCarthy was desperate to avoid Monday night. Experience trumps youth in the throes of a playoff push.

“At the end of the day,” McCarthy said, “you can’t beat yourself.”

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