The Green Bay Packers will have to adjust to put up big points and yards now that Jordy Nelson’s season is finished because of a knee injury.
Nelson makes three kinds of receptions better than any of the other receivers on the roster: big plays downfield; back-shoulder and toe-tapping catches along the sidelines; and getting down for the safe, low passes over the middle and on comeback routes that keep the chains moving and are a big part of quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ arsenal.
That’s a big loss. But we saw Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers one way the Packers can compensate, even though they used it while Nelson was on the field.
The Packers’ primary skill personnel group for years has been three receivers, a running back and a tight end. Coach Mike McCarthy mixes up personnel packages liberally, but that’s the one he’s used most.
But against the Steelers, the Packers played their entire first series in a personnel group they usually don’t use for such a long stretch: two backs and three receivers. They played it all 10 plays of the series and went 80 yards for a touchdown.
And that’s a grouping that could play more this season than planned now than Nelson is out. The reason it’s an attractive alternative is that fullback John Kuhn is a far better run blocker than any of the Packers’ tight ends. So the Packers run the ball better when he’s on the field than when Richard Rodgers or Andrew Quarless plays.
Facing three wide receivers, the defense almost has to go with its nickel personnel (five defensive backs, only two linebackers). The nickel back, who replaced a linebacker, covers a receiver. That leaves only six players (four defensive linemen, two linebackers) in the box.
With a tight end on the field, the Packers would have only five capable blockers (the offensive line). But with Kuhn instead, they have a sixth.
So defenses will take a big risk of Eddie Lacy beating them if they don’t bring a safety into the box as a seventh run defender. And even if a safety comes down, Lacy (and James Starks) still have a fighting chance with six blockers against seven. With a tight end on the field, it’s more like five or 5-1/2 against seven.
To be sure, the Packers’ will feel Nelson’s loss because he could punish defenses with the deep ball when the safety came down, leaving a single safety deep. Randall Cobb and Davante Adams aren’t the deep threat Nelson is.
But they and the No. 3 receiver, either Ty Montgomery or Jeff Janis, will benefit from the matchup.
We can safely assume that with Nelson out, defenses are going to say they’re not letting Lacy and Cobb beat them. So defensive coordinators will bring up one safety to defend Lacy in the run game and have the other help on Cobb in coverage. Then it’s up to Adams, Montgomery and Janis to make plays against mostly single coverage.
If you look at the first series against Pittsburgh, the two-back, three-receiver set worked well in part because Kuhn blocked well and Nelson made a couple of vintage plays (two catches for 24 yards). But it also was the reason Cobb caught a big 30-yard pass on a Rodgers bootleg. Cobb was wide, wide open along the numbers because there was only one safety deep.
The Packers stayed in that personnel for all 10 plays. The Steelers went with a safety in the box on the first seven, with little success. On the second play, Nelson easily got open on a comeback against one-on-one coverage for an 18-yard gain. Two plays later, Cobb caught the 30-yarder.
Kuhn’s blocking stood out on two runs: On the fifth play, he stood up linebacker Sean Spence to help Starks pick up a solid 5 yards on first down. Then on Lacy’s 7-yard touchdown run, Kuhn knocked Spence out of the hole; Lacy was untouched.
And on one of the two plays the Steelers went with only six in the box, Lacy picked up 9 yards on a draw. On the other, Lacy lined up in the slot and converted a third-and-2 with a 3-yard catch.
Now nobody’s suggesting McCarthy should play this way all the time. No team puts the same guys down after down. The tight ends still will play, and McCarthy is sure to mix and match skill players.
And there’s no doubt the Packers will miss Nelson. He’s their best receiver.
But with or without Nelson, they run the ball much better with Kuhn on the field instead of a tight end. That forces the defense’s hand. Then it’s up to Adams, Montgomery and Janis to make it pay.
Janis replaced Nelson against the Steelers, but that may or may not be the way McCarthy goes from here.
Janis offers the length (6-feet-3) and speed (4.42-second 40) to threaten defenses down field. If nothing else, he can occupy a safety by running deep routes. And maybe he can make some big plays.
That matters because Adams (4.59-second 40 at the NFL scouting combine) is more of an intermediate than deep threat, and Montgomery (4.56 seconds) appears to be best running after the catch.
But Janis has proven to be an especially raw player since coming out of Division II Saginaw Valley State last year. This preseason he’s had two drops going over the middle — one against the Steelers on a ball that, while a little behind him, was catchable. He also wasn’t able to get both feet down on an out route that would have converted a third down. A tough play, but the kind Nelson makes routinely.
Montgomery, on the other hand, has been ahead of the learning curve as a rookie, which suggests he can move to playing more outside than in the slot. He doesn’t have Janis length (he measured 5-117/8 at this year’s combine), but he’s big (216 pounds) and has a 401/2-inch vertical jump.
■ Don Barclay’s struggles in his return from knee-reconstruction surgery could be more psychological than physical. He just looks tentative with his hands and setting an anchor. You have to have a strong initial punch as a pass blocker, and to do that you have to feel good planting your feet. Barclay hasn’t been able to do that. His punch looks tentative, and that’s one of the reasons he’s getting beat in pass protection.
■ Some things on the defensive line are starting to sort out. Mike Pennel had a second strong game against the run Sunday and played in the No. 1 base defense as the Packers get ready to play without Letroy Guion and Datone Jones early in the season. Guion is suspended for the first three games, pending his appeal, and Jones is suspended for the opener.
Just as telling, 2014 third-round draft pick Khyri Thornton was still playing in the fourth quarter, when the deepest backups were on the field. There’s early-season playing time to be won on the defensive line, yet Thornton’s motor still runs hot and cold, and he’s still taking some plays off.
— 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