Dougherty: Packers going all-in with commitment to 'nitro' defense

Pete Dougherty
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Green Bay Packers safety Josh Jones (27) walks along the sideline at Packers Family Night on Saturday, Aug. 5, 2017, at Lambeau Field.

If you’ve been following the Green Bay Packers this summer, you’ve probably heard about their “nitro” defense.

You know, the one where a safety, usually Morgan Burnett, plays inside linebacker.

You also should know this: The Packers’ success or failure running it will go a long way toward determining whether they win the Super Bowl.

Their defensive identity is changing in a league where nickel (three cornerbacks) is now standard personnel. Nitro is their latest nickel, souped-up, and the Packers proved their commitment to it when they drafted safety Josh Jones in the second round this year.

He’s a prototype for the nitro (220 pounds, 4.41-second 40). So now the Packers have two guys who can play that role, meaning an injury to Burnett doesn’t scrap their plans.

This isn’t just the future of NFL defense, it’s the now. Inside linebackers are going the way of the fullback, and unless you have the rare one who runs in the 4.4s, like the Seahawks’ Bobby Wagner or the Jets’ Darron Lee, you just can’t play two of them together much anymore.

ANALYSISRookies King, Jones look the part early in camp

CAMP INSIDER: Morgan Burnett sets the tone

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“If you’re not clocking a 4.4-something, we have a mismatch,” said Packers defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois, “and those guys like (Tom) Brady and (Aaron) Rodgers are going to find it.”

In fact, you can’t help but wonder why the Packers didn’t go this way a year or two ago.

“We like the flexibility it gives us especially week to week when you’re playing different styles of offenses,” said Dom Capers, the Packers’ defensive coordinator, this week. “A lot of these offenses, (they’re) just looking for matchups now. You’ve got to be able to match up with the same caliber of athlete.”

The Packers aren’t doing anything to hide the nitro, so you’ll probably see a decent amount of it in their preseason opener Thursday night against Philadelphia.

That’s unlike 2014, when they planned to make the “elephant” package a big part of their defense. If you don’t remember, that’s where one of their outside linebackers lines up as a true defensive end with his hand on the ground.

They rarely showed the “elephant” in training camp, not at all in preseason games and then unveiled it in the regular-season opener at Seattle. It bombed, and within a couple weeks Capers basically scrapped it.

Not so with nitro, which opponents already have on tape anyway because Burnett played plenty there late last year. The Packers have been practicing it regularly in camp and talking about it publicly in general terms. And Capers wants to hone it in game settings in the preseason, just like he showed many of his zone blitzes in his first preseason with the Packers in 2009.

“Sometimes, (keeping it under wraps) gets to be overrated,” Capers said. “You don’t want to go into regular-season games not having worked much on what you’re going to work on during the regular season.”

The starters won’t play much Thursday, but Jones will get a long look with the backups at both linebacker and safety. He needs the work and the Packers need him, because he already looks like one of their most talented guys on that side of the ball.

Let’s face it, Thompson went all-in on coverage this offseason as he tried to upgrade the NFL’s 31st-ranked pass defense. He signed cornerback Davon House in free agency and drafted cover men with his first two picks (cornerback Kevin King and Jones). But the only pass rusher he added was Vince Biegel, in the fourth round, and Biegel still hasn’t practiced in camp while recovering from offseason foot injury.

RELATED: Packers' offense prefers practice reps over preseason snaps

So getting heat on the quarterback could be a problem. Clay Matthews and Nick Perry have rushed well when healthy, but both rarely have been healthy at the same time. Behind them the Packers don’t have an outside rusher who’s done anything in camp to suggest help is on the way.

That means the Packers have to cover well, with Nitro a big part of that plan. Then Capers can take more chances blitzing than in 2016.

The NFL is changing, and the Packers should have adapted more quickly. Arizona (Deone Bucannon) and the Rams (Mark Barron) have been playing a safety at linebacker for several years. Last year, Washington (Su’a Cravens, second round) and Atlanta (Keanu Neal, first round) used high picks for safeties to play similar roles as well.

Capers went to the nitro a season ago out of desperation more than anything else. With offenses scorching his undermanned secondary, he had to find a way to get an extra cover man on the field, anyway, anyhow.

Now it’s by choice and part of a plan. And it’s a big part of who the Packers will be in 2017 and beyond.


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