Dougherty: Packers must play rookie Josh Jones with eye toward playoffs

Pete Dougherty
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Green Bay Packers safety Josh Jones (27) talks to teammates on the bench during the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Rams on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017, at Lambeau Field.

The Green Bay Packers have to find a way to get Josh Jones on the field.

The second-round draft pick opens the season as a rotational player in coordinator Dom Capers’ defensive back seven, at least based on what we saw in training camp. Jones’ primary position appears to be nitro linebacker, where he’s behind Morgan Burnett. He’s also a backup at safety.

But Jones is among the most explosive, dynamic players on the Packers’ defense. That’s something Capers desperately needs, and not just occasionally rotating in to give a starter rest. There have to be ways to get him on the field more than that.

Capers is going with Burnett in the nitro, at least for now, and it’s not hard to figure out why. Burnett is in his eighth NFL season. He has played nitro before and knows what he’s doing. He has seen it all.

Jones is a rookie. His head still is swimming in complex NFL schemes. Reads and adjustments are important, and Burnett is ready made.

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But there are other ways to get Jones on the field. The most obvious is to make him dime linebacker on obvious passing downs. Things vary game to game, but that alone would probably get him at least 10 important snaps a week, maybe more.

Right now, Joe Thomas has that dime role. He’s the best cover guy among the Packers’ three true inside linebackers (Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez are the others).

But compare him with Jones. Thomas is 6-0⅝ and listed at 227 pounds; Jones is 6-1⅜ and 220. So Jones is a little longer, thus a little tougher to throw over, but about six pounds lighter, which comes into play defending the run.

Then there’s athleticism. Thomas reportedly ran a 4.70-second 40 at his college pro day; Jones, 4.41 at the NFL scouting combine.

Look at those times. Jones gives up only seven pounds but runs three-tenths-of-a-second faster in the 40. In NFL speed, that’s rabbit and tortoise.

Of course, it takes more than a fast 40 to play good football. But in the preseason, Jones showed he’s a football player. He’s physical. He willingly fills holes against the run even if he’s a little lighter than Thomas. And in the offseason, he showed closing speed playing the ball in the air.

That’s not to dismiss the downside. The scouting report on Jones coming out of North Carolina State was that he was prone to the occasional assignment error. Being a rookie in the NFL will only compound that. Thomas, on the other, is a third-year pro who has played the dime for a couple years. He knows where he’s supposed to be.

So playing Jones would almost guarantee some blown plays. And yeah, that could help cost a game.

But as coaches say all the time, playing defense in the NFL is all about getting your best talent on the field. And Jones is as fast and explosive as anyone the Packers have on that side of the ball. He can physically make plays that Thomas can’t. That could help win a game.

This dovetails with defensive evolution in the NFL. Just last week in its season preview, a Sports Illustrated story by Andy Benoit addressed the difficulty of defending Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. It pointed to the Houston Texans for the best solution, and it’s worth noting that Houston’s coach, Bill O’Brien, is a protégé of Patriots coach Bill Belichick and was Brady’s position coach for three years.

Houston’s primary defense is “diamond,” when five men line up on the line of scrimmage. They usually don’t all rush, and in fact, one of the Texans’ favorite calls is dropping eight into coverage. That requires your best athletes, because the middle of the field is open, and the guys dropping off the line have to be athletic enough to get back quickly.

The Packers don’t have Houston’s rushers — the Texans’ J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney are elite, and Whitney Mercilus (19½ sacks the last two years) isn’t bad, either. So Capers can’t duplicate the NFL’s No. 1-ranked defense from last season.

But the point is, getting your best athletes on the field on passing downs allows for the most flexibility to play coverage or blitz. And the Packers’ quality defensive depth is at safety with backups Jones, Kentrell Brice and Marwin Evans. FYI, Evans is their No. 5 safety, but Pro Football Focus put him on its all preseason team last week.

So imagine a Packers’ dime with their four best rushers (Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Ahmad Brooks and Mike Daniels), along with their seven best athletes in the back seven: Burnett and Jones at linebacker; Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Brice at safety; and Kevin King, Damarious Randall and Davon House at cornerback.

Capers could even get more athletic and replace Daniels with Evans. Either group would allow for the best coverage and open-field tackling Capers can field. The safeties (and even cornerbacks) would have to be the blitzers.

Of course, this isn’t a cure-all for the Packers’ limitations on defense. But you play the cards you’re dealt.

The NFL is all about matchups, mostly in the passing game. Against a lot of quarterbacks, the Packers would be fine playing Thomas on passing downs.

But to win a Super Bowl, somewhere down the road you have to beat the likes of Brady, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan. And to do that, you can’t give them go-to match-ups in the passing game.

Playing Jones is a step toward taking a favorable match-up away. The more he plays in September and October, the more ready he’ll be to do the job in January.


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