The Green Bay Packers' big defensive change over their bye weekend was moving Clay Matthews to inside linebacker.
It was surprising, creative, and at least for a week made their defense far more dynamic.
But their self-scouting over the bye also led to another, less noticed effort to improve their run defense: They played Micah Hyde as the No. 3 cornerback ahead of Casey Hayward and Davon House. And Hyde had maybe his best game of the season in the Packers' 55-14 win over the Chicago Bears.
There's no knowing whether Hyde's role as the No. 3 was opponent-specific or a sign that he might become their primary nickel back. We'll find that out over the next two months.
But at minimum it shows the Packers' uncommon depth in the secondary is more than just injury protection. It also gives them flexibility to match their nickel personnel, which they use most of the time, based on their opponent's skill position players.
Coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers clearly were desperate to do something to help their run defense after it gave up 193 yards rushing to New Orleans in their game before the bye. The Bears had gashed them for 235 yards rushing when the teams met in Chicago on Sept. 28, so their charge was stopping Bears halfback Matt Forte.
Foremost, that meant playing Matthews liberally as a true inside linebacker. But it also meant playing Hyde in the slot, where he is a better run defender than Hayward and Tramon Williams, who moves to the slot when House is the third corner.
Hyde isn't fast for his position, as his 4.56-second 40 time attests, and he's not much bigger than average in size (6-feet, 197 pounds) for a slot corner. But he's a better all-around player near the line of scrimmage than Hayward, who has a nose for the ball in pass coverage, and Williams, who at age 31 remains a quick and instinctive cover man.
Hyde, as he showed even last season as a rookie, is the best tackler and blitzer of the three, and he showed it Monday night while often matching up against tight end Martellus Bennett, who's one of the Bears' key offensive weapons.
Hyde's biggest play came halfway through the first quarter, when he intercepted a Jay Cutler pass by being quicker to the ball than the much larger Bennett (6-6, 265). That set up the Packers' second touchdown, and the rout was on.
But he made several other eye-catching plays, including early in the second quarter.
On a second-and-10, the Bears threw a wide-receiver screen to Alshon Jeffery, looking for the big receiver (6-3, 216) to break the first tackle and pick up at least a few yards and possibly even a big gainer. But Hyde dropped Jeffery with a sure tackle for a one-yard gain, which left the Bears in third and long.
Later in the second quarter, Hyde showed his blitzing skills when the Bears threatened get on the scoreboard and maybe back into the game with a first-and-goal at the 6. He lined up in the left slot over Bennett, but just before the snap he stepped closer to Cutler.
He timed the blitz well enough and was unblocked as Cutler tried to throw a fade to Jeffery in the end zone. Hyde didn't get a sack or even quarterback hit, but he leaped in Cutler's face and forced the quarterback to flutter a high, harmless pass well over Jeffery's head. The Packers ending up stopping the Bears on downs.
Later in the third quarter – yeah, it was 48-7 at the time – Hyde stayed with Bennett when the tight end basically tried to outmuscle him on a crossing route on a third-and-8 play. Cutler even bought extra time by scrambling up the middle, but Hyde stayed on Bennett's hip and tipped the pass away for an incompletion.
Again, only the Packers' coaches know whether this plan was specific for Chicago or something we'll see more as the season goes on. But there are advantages to playing Hyde in the slot, especially now that Capers feels more freedom to blitz now that first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has improved the Packers' security at safety.
RODGERS ON THE RUN
Aaron Rodgers showed again Sunday night what separates him from even the top quarterbacks in the league: his ability to throw on the run.
Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees are premier pocket passers. Colin Kaepernick, Cam Newton and Russell Wilson are superior running threats.
But no one other than maybe Andrew Luck can throw as well as Rodgers on the run. With most quarterbacks on the move, the defensive adage is, "don't let him set his feet." With Rodgers it doesn't matter. He puts the ball on the money anyway.
Rodgers' 40-yard touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson in the second quarter – it's simply a rare play for a quarterback to throw it that far and accurately while on the run. And even his second touchdown pass of the night, a four-yarder to tight end Andrew Quarless, was a difficult throw made to look easy. Rodgers was running hard to his right and snapped off a quick-release pass against his body that had some zip on it, traveled 15 yards in the air and hit Quarless in the chest with a defender closing fast.
PERRY ON EDGE
One reason Capers was able to make the daring move of Matthews to inside linebacker is the play of Nick Perry in Matthews' place at outside linebacker.
Perry has had a lot of trouble staying healthy, and he's not a game-changing pass rusher. But this season he's been playing the best football of his three-year career and is proving to be physical and disciplined while holding the edge against the run.
Perry (6-3, 265) is big through the haunches and doesn't get blown back. He doesn't shoot too far up field and take himself out of plays. He also keeps his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage, which makes it hard for running backs to get outside him, where they can break off big runs. Down in, down out he plays the run from outside linebacker better than Matthews did.
Meanwhile, Matthews' debut at inside linebacker showed how athletic and instinctive he is.
He hasn't played there since high school, so his footwork wasn't very good. Inside linebackers have a favored stance, usually parallel with the line of scrimmage, and their first step when reacting to a play should have a purpose. His feet were all over the place.
But Matthews overcame that because he's so big and quick, and his ability to play sideline to sideline is impressive. He's also a naturally forward-going player, so he'll be effective on run blitzes. That play late in the second quarter when he flew into the backfield and dropped receiver Chris Williams for an eight-yard loss on an end around was a run blitz.
Also, with Matthews at inside linebacker, the Packers' Double-A gap blitz, where the inside linebackers shoot the gaps on either side of the center, has to be scary for offenses.
— Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty