LeRoy Butler and JS reporter Tom Silverstein analyze the Packers' problems playing zone coverage and dissect how Carolina QB Cam Newton could hurt the defense with the read-option. Bill Schulz
GREEN BAY – There’s going to come a point when Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers will need to turn up the heat and risk the thing he hates most in the world: giving up big plays.
That time might be now.
Even with quarterback Aaron Rodgers announcing on Instagram Tuesday night that he has been medically cleared to play, Capers is going to have to dig into his bag of blitzes and pull out everything he’s got.
It’s a big gamble given he is down to one reliable cornerback and would be matching up safeties Morgan Burnett and Jermaine Whitehead with receivers in man-to-man coverage against Cam Newton, one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the NFL.
But if you’ve watched the last three games, you’ve seen the Packers protect their safeties with a good deal of zone coverage and the only conclusion you can reach is that they aren’t very good at playing it.
Time after time, Capers rushed four against Browns quarterback DeShon Kizer and too often the rookie set up in the pocket and patiently waited for the Packers to screw up the coverage.
Sometimes it was inside linebacker Blake Martinez failing to get depth in his drops or chasing receivers he should be letting go. Other times it was Burnett getting fooled with an underneath route or safety Josh Jones a half-second late driving on a throw down the middle.
The Packers always have mixed coverages but their favored style is man-to-man with safeties and linebackers often threatening to blitz. They have taken their lumps in man-to-man, but they’ve been able to create one-on-ones for Clay Matthews, Nick Perry or Mike Daniels with their designed pressures.
Since the Pittsburgh game when rookie Kevin King’s shoulder started costing him snaps – and ultimately landed him on injured reserve – and Capers had to use Burnett and Whitehead as slot cornerbacks, the Packers have backed off blitzing.
Capers brought an extra rusher only a half-dozen times against the Browns, rushing four about 80 percent of the time. The week prior against Tampa Bay he rushed four or fewer about the same percentage and the week before that against Pittsburgh, he rushed four 90 percent of the time.
It’s understandable given he’s playing his nickel defense with three safeties and his dime with four. With Brett Hundley not producing the same amount of points as Rodgers, Capers doesn’t want to give up long touchdowns and have the young quarterback playing from behind.
“You know, that (how much he blitzes) factors in in terms of who you’re going against,” Capers said. “You don’t want to give them the game on one play, which (can happen) if you’re in a lot of one-on-one situations.
“If you’re going against these athletic quarterbacks, you can have a guy free and if they avoid that guy then you have one-on-one situations down the field. So, you have to pick your spots when you’re going to come with it.”
It has been well-documented that Newton struggles against the blitz. Ever since the Denver Broncos buried him in rushers in Super Bowl 50, teams have caught on to that and blitzed him at a fairly high rate.
Just two weeks ago, the New Orleans Saints backed off in the first half of a 31-21 victory over the Panthers only to watch Newton complete 8 of 11 passes for 101 yards and a touchdown. In the second half, they turned up the heat and Newton completed just 9 of 16 passes for 82 yards and a touchdown.
Teams will back off against Newton for the very reason Capers said. If Newton uses the read-option or a scramble to get past the first line of defense, he’s going to go a long way. And so every time you blitz, he’s a threat to complete a pass against man coverage or break a long run.
Playing cautious has helped the Packers win a pair of games against lowly Tampa Bay and Cleveland, but as the Browns game showed, they haven’t avoided giving up big plays when they’re in zone.
Kizer completed passes of 38 yards and 18 yards to receiver Josh Gordon running to the soft spot in zones, the latter a touchdown that tied the game at 7-7. He completed an 18-yarder to receiver Corey Coleman against zone coverage that set up the Browns’ second touchdown.
Kizer completed another 18-yarder to Coleman between cornerback Davon House and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. And he completed a 2-yard touchdown pass to Coleman between cornerback Josh Hawkins and Jones to give the Browns a 21-14 lead.
To their credit, the Packers did tighten up in the fourth quarter and managed to make several key stops rushing just four players. But it was against Kizer, not an experienced passer like Newton.
When they played a good deal of zone against Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers quarterback completed 33 of 45 passes for 351 yards and four touchdowns. He was sacked just once. The defense did force two interceptions and was one phenomenal Antonio Brown catch away from sending the game into overtime.
But the Packers are in a must-win situation and even with Rodgers back at quarterback, can they afford to sit back and let Newton pick apart their secondary? If they had a consistent pass rush, maybe they could avoid blitzing, but they don’t and Carolina’s offensive line is far better than Cleveland or Tampa Bay’s.
The Panthers are coming off a game in which they ran right over the Minnesota Vikings' defense, which is one of the best in the NFL. If Capers doesn’t come up with something that can cause Newton indecision or hesitation, then the Panthers will do the same thing this Sunday.
Having two big safeties like Burnett and Jones can be an asset and this is a game in which Jones especially could be a stick in Carolina’s spokes. It would probably mean cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Josh Hawkins and Whitehead would be on their own in coverage, but they are athletic enough to handle it.
Capers could really gamble and use undrafted rookie corners Lenzy Pipkins or Donatello Brown in some man coverage situations so that Burnett and Jones can focus on Newton. Whatever the case, it’s one-and-done for the Packers the rest of the way and there are no more DeShon Kizers or Jameis Winstons left on the schedule.
Desperate times call for desperate measures and Capers must come up with something to stop the Panthers' offense.