Silverstein: Packers may need inside move to make 'nitro' work

Tom Silverstein
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews tackles Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott during the Packers's 34-31 victory in the NFC playoffs last January.

GREEN BAY - If you’re Mike McCarthy or Dom Capers and you’re crunching the numbers, you probably need more data before determining whether the defense’s three-safety scheme known as “nitro” can hold up against quality rushing attacks.

The results from Week 1 and Week 2 are too disparate to reach a conclusion that would cause the Green Bay Packers coach and his long-time defensive coordinator to conclude anything about their decision to replace one of the inside linebackers with a safety.

Seattle managed just 70 yards on 19 carries (3.68 average) against “nitro” in what was a successful debut of the defense in Week 1 at Lambeau Field. Atlanta did much better, however, rushing 14 times for 78 yards (5.57 average) and two touchdowns against “nitro” in Week 2 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Looking ahead, maybe even as soon as Sunday afternoon when the Cincinnati Bengals visit Lambeau Field, the Packers are going to have to tighten up their shoulder pads and prepare for opponents such as the Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers testing their run defense.

Assuming McCarthy and Capers are locked into using either Morgan Burnett or rookie Josh Jones as “nitro” linebackers in 3-4 or 4-2-5 personnel combinations – and so far they’ve used “nitro” on 82 of the 111 times they’ve lined up – then they’re going to have to anticipate some challenges ahead.

The biggest question they face is whether they’re going to need someone more dynamic than Blake Martinez or Jake Ryan to team with a 209- or 220-pound safety and take on the run.

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The answer is probably yes and the logical move is going to be using some combination of outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Ahmad Brooks in the middle. As much as the Packers value those two as “elephant” ends and edge rushers, their presence in the middle would give the Packers a chance to survive against power running teams.

If outside linebacker Nick Perry were healthy, McCarthy and Capers would be rotating Matthews, Perry and Brooks at outside linebacker Sunday, hoping the 33-year-old Brooks could offer something close to what he did in San Francisco if his snaps were kept down. Eventually, they’d like to add fourth-round pick Vince Biegel – on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list but likely ready to practice when he is eligible to return Week 7 – into the mix as well.

Perry, who broke his finger against Atlanta and underwent surgery Thursday, will be able to play again this season, and given he has played 20 games in his career with a cast or club on one of his hands, he should be able to function at a relatively high level.

If that is the case, McCarthy and Capers have a duty to put the best 11 players on the field and the versatility of Matthews and Brooks, both of whom have played inside linebacker during their NFL careers, makes it possible for them to do that.

It doesn’t mean either of the two would be drastically altering his game; with the way Capers rushes on third downs, the outside linebackers are often standing up in the middle anyway. It just might mean sharing inside linebacker duties on first and second downs.

Maybe Martinez, who has played the most in the “nitro” alongside Burnett, will develop into a capable run defender, but you’d be hard-pressed to find somebody who wouldn’t take the 255-pound Matthews or 259-pound Brooks over the 235-pound Martinez when it comes to fending off the big uglies.

Start with Brooks, who began his career in Cincinnati as a 4-3 inside linebacker, and during his heyday in San Francisco played left outside linebacker in a 3-4.

“I can play anywhere,” Brooks said. “I can play the left side, the right side, it doesn’t matter. They (the 49ers) played me as a middle linebacker on goal-line defense. That’s my natural position. I got drafted at inside linebacker.

“It’s like when they asked me to do it, it’s a piece of cake.”

Matthews doesn’t want to play inside linebacker. He was drafted as an outside linebacker and he’s on the verge of becoming the franchise’s all-time leader in sacks. But one of his most productive seasons came in 2015 when Capers asked him to start in the middle.

He ranked second on the team with a career-high 84 tackles. His sacks dropped from 11 the year before to 6 ½, but he still led the team in quarterback pressures (27), quarterback hits (14) and tackles for loss (6 ½).

More importantly, he started all 18 games that season. And the year before that, when he was moved to inside linebacker after the bye week, he also played in every game. In the seasons he has played outside linebacker, including last year when a shoulder injury rendered him ineffective the final eight games, he has missed 15 regular-season games.

When asked whether the defense could hold up against the run playing with three safeties and one inside linebacker, Matthews admitted it’s going to be tough. He noted that Atlanta had some success and that other teams will try to find new ways to test them.

“We have all the confidence in the world putting a safety down in the box, whether it’s Morgan or Josh or whoever it may be,” Matthews said. “I think you kind of play that out, and see if you stop the run like Seattle; (then) it’s no big deal.

“Obviously, Atlanta, maybe you put your big guys in the box. I think we’ll see what that means moving forward as far as certain teams, certain schemes, but obviously, teams are probably going to test you a little bit whenever you lighten the box.”

The “nitro” defense has helped Capers neutralize opposing tight ends and given him someone capable of playing man-to-man coverage on receivers and backs in the middle of the field. It was not very effective in slowing down Atlanta’s passing game, although Burnett had a solid game with five tackles and a third-down pass break-up while covering Julio Jones.

If the emergence of rookie cornerback Kevin King can allow Capers to continue playing man-to-man coverage without gushing so many passing yards, then he can continue developing ways in which to use Burnett and Jones near the line of scrimmage.

What threatens to scrap the whole thing is the run threat. Capers insisted that “nitro” wasn’t the reason why Atlanta had such great success running the ball last Sunday, but everything is connected when it comes to personnel and scheme.

“We had a couple breakdowns where they came out of there with longer runs, and that was just a matter of fitting our gaps,” Capers said. “But when you're playing run defense, I don't think it had much to do with the nitro.

“You saw us the week before in the 'nitro' against a team that I think prides themselves in running the ball.”

Capers may resist moving either Matthews or Brooks inside because he believes Martinez will continue to improve and he doesn’t want to dilute his outside pass rush in any way. But those same gap fits that Capers referred to are often lost when lesser players are blown out of their space.

Eventually, he’s going to need someone who can handle that heavy demand. Matthews and Brooks are the two guys who can do it.

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