4 Downs: Packers must rely on young running backs
Every week I’ll share four observations the day after the Green Bay Packers' game. Here they are after the Packers’ 35-14 win over the Chicago Bears on Thursday night.
Ty Montgomery’s rib injury is forcing coach Mike McCarthy to do something he wasn’t inclined to do early this season: play his rookie running backs. So the Packers should find out in the next few weeks whether one or two of them can add something to the running game that they weren’t getting with Montgomery playing almost every snap. Jamaal Williams was the No. 2 but also was knocked out of Thursday's game because of a knee injury. That left Aaron Jones as the only other running back active – Devante Mays was a healthy scratch – and Jones flashed some vision and quickness to the edge that Montgomery and Williams hadn’t shown. Montgomery reportedly has broken ribs, which suggests he’ll probably miss a few games. And if Williams missing any games, Jones and Mays should get most of the snaps in the backfield, though Aaron Ripkowski and even Randall Cobb could get some work there, too. McCarthy clearly was concerned about Jones’ and Mays’ play in the passing game, especially in protection for Aaron Rodgers, and that’s why Williams was ahead of them. But now the coach will have no choice but to play them, and if either shows anything as a runner, it could end up helping McCarthy’s offense sooner rather than later.
Chances are Dom Capers won’t play as much base defense as he did Thursday night for the rest of the season, and maybe beyond. The Packers’ defensive coordinator played his old base 3-4 personnel for most of the first half because the Bears are a run-oriented team with a suspect and limited quarterback in Mike Glennon. That means Capers had a big front seven (three defensive linemen, four true linebackers) to stop the run but matched up poorly in the passing game. The reason it worked was Glennon, but it’s hard to find another team on the schedule against whom Capers could get away with that. The Packers play the Bears again in six weeks, but you have to think first-round pick Mitch Trubisky will be the Bears’ quarterback by then. He’ll be inexperienced, but he also is way more talented than Glennon, including as a scrambler. That means Capers probably will need faster, smaller players on the field than he used against Glennon.
Whatever was going on with Damarious Randall’s benching and exit to the locker room in the second half – it wasn’t an injury, and coach Mike McCarthy called it an internal matter – it gave second-year pro Josh Hawkins a chance to play, and Hawkins might have helped himself in the ongoing jockeying for playing time at cornerback. His best play came early in the fourth quarter when Glennon tried to hit receiver Deonte Thompson on a long fade route in the corner of the end zone. Hawkins ran with Thompson stride for stride and had great position as he pinned Thompson to the end line while turning back for the ball and breaking up the pass. Kevin King is the Packers’ best cornerback, but there’s no knowing who will be the other starter by season’s end from among currently injured Davon House, Randall, Hawkins and Quinten Rollins. Randall’s hold on the job is clearly in jeopardy after he appeared to blow coverage on an easy five-yard touchdown pass to Kendall Wright at the end of the first half, and then was benched and ended up going to the locker room in the second half. Capers on Thursday turned to Hawkins rather Rollins, who was a starter to open the season.
Justin Vogel is quietly off to a good start in his NFL career. The Packers’ rookie punter has had a couple shanks through four games but continues to hit his share of boomers as well. On Thursday night he had a gross average of 47.6 yards, including a career long 62-yarder, and a net average of 46.2, which means he’s getting enough hang time on his long kicks to give his teammates a chance to cover. The Bears have an exciting young returner in rookie Tarik Cohen, but he averaged only 3.5 yards on his two returns.