GREEN BAY – The group of wide receivers the Green Bay Packers are going to face over the final five weeks of the season does not include anyone in the same stratosphere as Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, A.J. Green or Dez Bryant.
But Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans is hovering just below, Minnesota’s Adam Thielen is trying to get there, Carolina’s Devin Funchess is coming into his own and Detroit’s Marvin Jones and Golden Tate might as well be Jerry Rice and John Taylor for how well they perform against the Packers.
As Green Bay showed Sunday night in a 31-28 loss to Pittsburgh at Heinz Field, it does not have anyone who can match up with a top-flight receiver on the outside and make him fight for every yard.
In case you forgot, here’s what some top receivers have accomplished against the Packers this season:
» Brown: 10 catches, 169 yards, two touchdowns.
» Marvin Jones, seven catches, 107 yards, two touchdowns.
» Tate: seven catches, 113 yards.
» Ted Ginn: seven catches, 141 yards.
» Thielen: nine catches, 96 yards.
» Bryant: five catches, 52 yards, one touchdown.
» Green: 10 catches, 111 yards, one touchdown.
» Julio Jones: five catches, 108 yards.
The Packers have given up only five plays of 40 or more yards, which is remarkably good given they rank 25th in passing defense. But it comes with an asterisk because the Packers have given up the sixth-most completions of 20 or more yards in the NFL with 39.
They are on pace to allow 57, which would be one fewer than last year, 11 more than in ’15 and seven more than in ’14. Their season high since coordinator Dom Capers took over in ’09 was 71 in 2011 and their low was 44 during the Super Bowl season of 2010.
It is commendable that they aren’t letting receivers beat them over the top, but what the stats show is that opponents own the swath of turf between the safeties and the linebackers.
If this were 2015, the Packers would have stuck Sam Shields on Brown on Sunday night and let the two go at it for 60 minutes. No one can completely stop Brown, but Shields would have made it possible for Capers to blitz quarterback Ben Roethlisberger more because Shields could be trusted to cover Brown one-on-one in those situations.
It’s easy to romanticize Shields’ career and make him out to be a Pro Bowl corner, which he wasn’t. He led the team in 20-yard receptions allowed in 2013 and ’14 and did his share of guessing wrong and peeking in the backfield.
But Shields had 18 career interceptions and was tough in the end zone, giving up just 10 touchdowns in his final four seasons (not counting 2016) before the Packers parted ways due to repeated concussions.
Capers played more zone coverage than he probably wanted to against the Steelers because he just didn’t have someone who could match up with Brown. Unable to get pressure on Roethlisberger with his front four, he desperately needed to blitz, but he decided to play the percentages with coverage.
One of the few times he did blitz, it cost him big. With cornerback Damarious Randall and linebacker Blake Martinez part of a six-man rush, Brown caught a 14-yard pass in man coverage on rookie corner Kevin King, setting up the game-winning field goal.
“It’s always that balancing act, how much are you willing to go one-on-one with a guy like ‘84’ (Brown) because you see when people do that a lot, it normally doesn’t work real well for them,” Capers said. “I think the question was a good question, why did we decide to come with pressure then?
“Just felt like, hey, we maybe needed a change-up.”
A veteran corner might have played Brown’s route on that play a little differently than King did. One could imagine Charles Woodson or Shields acting as though they were playing soft and then taking off in an attempt to break up the pass or pick it off.
As crazy as it sounds, Randall, the guy who was banished to the locker room in the middle of the Chicago game Sept. 28, is playing better than any of the other corners. He came into the game having allowed a team-high four touchdowns and five plays of 20 or more yards.
But playing exclusively in the slot, he picked off his second pass in two games and played good all-around coverage the entire night.
Asked if he thought about putting Randall on Brown, once he saw how well Randall was playing, Capers said no. The coaches have carved out a role for Randall in the slot and they are keeping him focused on that position.
“Randall’s reps have been inside at the star position and we like him in there because of his ball skills,” Capers said. “And you’re going to normally be around the action in there because you’re closer to the action than outside.”
That doesn’t leave Capers with many options.
King, the Packers’ top pick this year, was developing nicely, but he’s taking his rookie lumps while trying to play one-armed due to a recurring shoulder injury. Veteran Davon House has been too up and down to lock on a top-flight receiver and simply can’t run like he did coming out of college.
The bottom line is the Packers need a stopper in the worst way.
General manager Ted Thompson hasn’t always had the luxury of selecting a replacement high in the draft, where most of the best cornerbacks come from. But he has had multiple opportunities to upgrade his secondary – corner or safety – and instead has taken his cut at pass rushers.
In 2012, Thompson took linebacker Nick Perry one pick before Minnesota selected Harrison Smith, one of the best safeties in the NFL.
In 2013, he let the Minnesota Vikings select Xavier Rhodes one pick in front of him and then took end Datone Jones at No. 26 over cornerback Darius Slay, who fell to Detroit early in the second round. Rhodes and Slay are two of the top corners in the NFL and play against the Packers twice a year.
Earlier this season, Thompson could have gone after veteran Joe Haden, who was released by Cleveland at the end of August. He stood pat and the Steelers jumped all over Haden, inserting him into the starting lineup right away.
Haden had been ably covering the opponents’ best receiver until he broke his leg two weeks ago against Indianapolis.
The Packers will finish out the year keeping their fingers crossed that King’s shoulder holds up, Randall doesn’t implode and safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett start showing up. But it’s just not going to be enough.
And so, when they head into the offseason, they can start looking for a cornerback in the draft again.