Silverstein: Kevin King's potential return could be game-changer for Packers' defense
GREEN BAY – Entering as close to a must-win as a team can face 11 games into a season, the Green Bay Packers might have to take on the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night with a secondary that features four of its 10 members listed as questionable or worse on the week’s final injury report.
This is not an unusual position for the Packers, and to the credit of defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, defensive passing game coordinator Joe Whitt and secondary coach Jason Simmons, those injuries, along with the decision to ship out safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Jermaine Whitehead, haven’t put the defense out of business.
The Packers haven’t allowed a quarterback to throw for 300 yards since Kirk Cousins piled up 425 in an overtime game with the Vikings in Week 2. They rank 19th in the NFL in opponent passer rating with a 94.5 mark, but they have given up fewer 40-yard completions (six) than the Vikings (eight), Detroit Lions (seven) and Chicago Bears (seven).
Despite all of that, the Packers really need Kevin King to get healthy and stay healthy.
Statistically, the Packers have allowed roughly the same opponent passer rating (95.9) on the 304 snaps King has played this season as they have for all 668 snaps (94.5). They have a slightly higher rate of sacks per snap (5.5 percent) without King then they do with him (4.6 percent).
And they have made just one of their six interceptions – his own against San Francisco – with him on the field.
The statistics might say there’s not a big difference defensively with him on the sideline, but the ability to stick him in one spot and let him cover whichever receiver comes his way is invaluable. To have a 6-3, 200-pound cornerback who isn’t prone to making assignment errors and can play both press and zone coverage is a true asset for Pettine.
With Tramon Williams shifted over to safety, the Packers have had to cycle through a combination of Whitehead, Beshaud Breeland and Josh Jackson at the nickel position, sometimes needing them outside and sometimes needing them in the slot. Because Whitehead is gone, Breeland (groin) is hurt and Jackson is raw, the Packers have not been able to withstand momentum shifts on the road.
Opposing quarterbacks are too often targeting Jackson or cornerback Tony Brown or safety Raven Greene when they are in trouble.
Having King in the lineup changes a lot.
PACKERS' NEXT OPPONENT: Crucial rematch vs. Vikings
Just look at the Los Angeles Rams game. The Packers' defense held a team that just put 54 on the Kansas City Chiefs and is averaging 35.4 points per game to 27 points on offense in a 29-27 loss. They sacked quarterback Jared Goff five times and held him to a 55.5 percent completion percentage.
King played 76 of 78 snaps that afternoon, teaming with Williams and rookie sensation Jaire Alexander to hold the Rams to just two plays of 40 or more yards. The second-year pro didn’t allow a completion over 20 yards or a touchdown.
The following week in New England, the Patriots didn’t test him and went after Breeland instead. Unfortunately for King and the Packers, he pulled his hamstring after 24 plays. The Packers were down 10-3 when King left the game in the second quarter and wound up losing, 31-17.
This is a critical week for both King and the Packers.
If King can return Sunday night from his latest injury, it would provide a lift to a defense that may have to carry a bigger portion of the load given the offense’s struggles. It would also allow Pettine to move Alexander around and put him in spots where his skills can be fully tapped.
It would also provide general manager Brian Gutekunst a chance to find out what King is made of and whether he’s someone to count on next season.
Since entering the NFL, King has missed 11 of 22 games, including four this season with groin and hamstring injuries. He finished 2017 on injured reserve and needed offseason surgery to repair his left shoulder.
There’s a chance he will need surgery on his right shoulder after the season.
If you want King to admit he’s injury prone, he won’t do it. If you want him to say out loud that he needs to get on the field because his team needs him, he will gladly do it.
“There’s nothing that someone could show me that could make me think more or less of myself,” King said. “Shoot, it doesn’t matter. It’s a team sport.
“You show me that the team is better with you on the field, that’s not going to make me feel good, it’s going to make me feel bad for not being out there. It’s not going to make me feel better, like, ‘Yay, me.’
“It’s more like, ‘Damn, kid, get your ass on the field so we can be the best team we can be.’”
Despite some people’s impression of his time at the University of Washington, King was not injury prone. He had his left shoulder operated on after his first season, missed one game because of illness in 2014, missed two games due to a concussion and meniscus tear in ’15 and started all 14 games in ’16.
Around here, King will long be remembered as the guy then-general manager Ted Thompson took over Wisconsin outside linebacker T.J. Watt. In 25 games, Watt has 17 sacks for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
As for King, his left shoulder began to bother him again during his rookie season and he tried to gut it out playing with a harness. His shoulder kept popping out and for his own good, King was put on injured reserve after nine games.
King hurt his right shoulder in training camp this year and wore a harness on that side for a while. He hasn’t been affected nearly as much and hasn’t come out of any games because of it. His groin injury came in the Minnesota game and his hamstring in the New England game.
“I’m not injury prone,” King said. “I’ve had some problems with my shoulders. I have problems with my shoulders, but soft tissue stuff, everybody has that. I’m not worried about that. You come into the league and you miss a few games early, that’s just they jump to the conclusion: injury prone.”
One thing King would like to be labeled as is a pro. He said the injuries have sharpened his view about what it takes to make it through an NFL season. It’s a lesson many young players must learn because they often think they’re doing enough to get ready and there’s really a lot more they can do.
King said he’ll continue to explore ways to attack the offseason and do more to ward off injury.
Before he can do that, however, he has some business to take care of in the 2018 season. Both he and the Packers are hoping it won’t come too late.