Dougherty: Packers' defense making strides

Pete Dougherty
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San Francisco 49ers tight end Garrett Celek (88) is stopped with the ball by Green Bay Packers free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix during the first half.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. - The dress rehearsal is in, and if nothing else we can say that the Green Bay Packers are playing better defense than a year ago at this time.

That isn’t to say they’ve cleared a high bar. If you don’t remember, in 2015 in this same second-to-last preseason game — that’s the one where starters traditionally play the most — the Philadelphia Eagles absolutely scorched coordinator Dom Capers’ defense.

The Eagles, with Sam Bradford and Mark Sanchez splitting time at quarterback, put up 39 points and 325 yards in the first half playing against the Packers’ starters, or at least most of them as the half went on.

Friday night at Levi’s Stadium the Packers faced the same high-tempo offense, because Chip Kelly has taken his act west to the San Francisco 49ers after the Eagles fired him last January. The comparison isn’t apples to apples, because the Eagles last season were in their third year in Kelly’s system, whereas the 49ers are in their first. Then again, Bradford was new to that scheme last year, and that didn’t slow the Eagles at all in August in Lambeau Field.

Regardless, the Packers handled Kelly’s tempo and spread scheme much better against quarterbacks Blaine Gabbert and their former nemesis Colin Kaepernick. While playing the entire first half with all or most of their starters, the Packers allowed one score (a touchdown) in five possessions. Gabbert led a TD drive in his two turns at the helm; Kaepernick went 0-for his three drives.

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Kelly’s teams play faster than anyone else in the NFL and go from being tackled to getting off the next snap in about 16 or 17 seconds. The 49ers played at that pace Friday night but put only 94 yards in total offense along with the seven points.

Now, take this for what it’s worth. This is preseason NFL. Game plans are watered down and outcomes don’t matter. Any idea how the Packers played in the preseason in 2010, the last time they won the Super Bowl? Me neither.

So maybe the 49ers are a bad team with a new scheme, and that accounts for much of what we saw Friday night. Gabbert is 8-27 as an NFL starter, and even he hit the Packers with a 53-yard touchdown drive. It’s also hard to believe Kaepernick, this skittish and indecisive quarterback, is the same guy who beat the Packers in the 2012 and ’13 playoffs. There’s no way Kelly can make him the opening-day starter ahead of Gabbert.

Still, the Packers' defense looked fine playing without two injured players, Letroy Guion (knee) and Kenny Clark (back), at their thinnest position, defensive line.

This also was the first and almost surely only preseason appearance for outside linebacker Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers, and neither played much — fewer than 10 snaps each.

Matthews made a play on the game’s first snap when he chased down running back Carlos Hyde from the backside for only a one-yard gain. He still plays fast.

Peppers’ indifferent performance actually played a big role in the 49ers’ touchdown, but based on his history I’m not making anything of it. Twice he was sucked in and blew contain on the edge, one a nine-yard keeper by Gabbert, the other on a big 27-yard gain by Hyde on a cutback. But we’ve seen this from Peppers in previous preseasons. All that matters is that when the games count, he comes to play.

The one surprise Friday night was that Mike Pennel started at defensive tackle in the nickel opposite Mike Daniels with Guion and Clark out. That’s a surprise because Pennel has a four-game drug suspension to start the season, and suspended players don’t play with the starters in the preseason.

Yet there Pennel was in the starting lineup Friday night instead of fourth-round pick Dean Lowry, who had been in the base 3-4 to open the first two preseason games precisely because of Pennel’s suspension. Undrafted rookie Brian Price eventually subbed in for Pennel in the second quarter even while Daniels stayed in the game. So maybe the Packers won’t be using Lowry inside in the first month unless they have no other options.

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If you’re looking for potential problems, yes, the Packers’ defensive line is the place. The depth is shaky even at full health, especially early because of Pennel’s suspension. That first month could be rough.

But there also are two front-seven players with checkered histories of production, Nick Perry and Datone Jones, who look ready to do more than in the last couple years.

Perry, who has been healthy since the offseason for the first time in his career, knocked down two passes at the line of scrimmage Friday night. And Jones has been more of a factor playing as an outside linebacker and occasional inside rusher at 275 pounds than he ever was as a 295-pound defensive lineman.

On one play Jones chased down Kaepernick for a three-yard loss, and on another he was fast enough in the open field to prevent the speedy quarterback from turning upfield to convert a third and 13 with his legs. The Packers drafted Jones in the first round in ‘13 to get more athletic on defense, though who would have guessed at the time that he’d do it as outside linebacker rather than interior lineman?

The strength of this defense is proving to be where it was expected, the secondary. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is a budding star at safety, and second-year cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins are more talented than Casey Hayward, the departed nickel cornerback from last season, and better than they were a year ago.

Randall looked like he probably was responsible for leaving receiver Quinton Patton essentially uncovered on a three-yard touchdown pass Friday night and still shows inconsistencies, but he also has made his share of plays in camp. Rollins had an open-field tackle on Kaepernick on one play and nearly an interception on another. And the other starting safety, Morgan Burnett (back), still hasn’t played in the preseason.

Now, it bears pointing out that last year, the Packers’ horrible defensive performance against Philadelphia in the dress rehearsal didn’t portend disaster for the regular season. They finished No. 12 in the NFL in points allowed and No. 15 in yards, which should be good enough for a team that’s built to win with offense.

Still, there are times when even the best offensive machines need a stop. And the Packers have to feel a little better about that than they did a year ago at this time.

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