Dougherty: Packers' nitro package proves effective against the run
GREEN BAY - If you were wondering just how big the nitro package will be for the Green Bay Packers’ defense this year, now you have a pretty good idea.
It’s going to be big. It’s probably going to be their identity.
Sure, game plans will change from week to week, depending on opponent. So the play calling won't always look like it did Sunday in the Packers’ 17-9 win over Seattle at Lambeau Field.
But the way the nitro held up against the run had to make a strong impression on coordinator Dom Capers. The plan this offseason was to get as many defensive backs on the field as he can to improve a defense that ranked No. 31 in the NFL in stopping the pass last season, and with safety Morgan Burnett playing inside linebacker in the nitro package against Seattle, Capers was able to put six defensive backs on the field for almost every snap without sacrificing stopping the run.
“I think this was a test,” defensive lineman Dean Lowry said.
“I’m not sure how many times we went to our Okie defense,” linebacker Clay Matthews said of the Packers’ base 3-4. “Not many. That bodes well moving forward.”
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To be sure, this was hardly the toughest test Capers’ defense will face in the coming weeks and months. Seattle is a defense-first team. The Seahawks no longer have a running back anywhere near the class of Marshawn Lynch, around whom their offense was built when they went to back-to-back Super Bowls in the 2013 and ’14 seasons. They also have one of the NFL’s worst offensive lines.
But the Seahawks still have built their offense to run and were hoping to pound Eddie Lacy at his former team, along with change-ups C.J. Prosise and Chris Carson. If they can punish teams on the ground, they can run play action off that.
It didn’t work Sunday even though the Packers had Burnett at inside linebacker for all but a handful of snaps. I can only guess at Lacy’s weight, but whether it’s his listed weight (245 pounds) or more like 10 to 15 pounds higher, his physical running style produced next to nothing: three yards on five carries.
Take away quarterback Russell Wilson’s two runs for 40 yards — one scramble and one draw — and Seattle rushed for only 50 yards on 16 carries.
“I’m surprised they were able to do that,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of the Packers’ domination of the line of scrimmage.
That turned the Seahawks into something they’re not, a passing team. They’d already weakened their offense at the end of training camp by trading their second-best receiver (Jermaine Kearse) to the New York Jets for talented defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson. And with the run game shut down Sunday, they couldn’t do much of anything.
Wilson was under duress on most of his dropbacks and finished with a 69.7 rating. Mike Daniels, the Packers’ best defensive player, absolutely dominated the middle of the line (seven tackles, 1½ sacks, a forced fumble, four quarterback hits and a tackle for a loss). And the Packers’ back seven played fast and well enough in coverage to keep the Seahawks out of the end zone all day.
“You hold an offense to nine points in today’s NFL, that speaks volumes,” coach Mike McCarthy said.
Playing Burnett at linebacker helps the Packers’ coverage against any team, but especially against Seattle because that made it easier to match him with Jimmy Graham, one of the league’s premier tight ends. Graham was basically a non-factor with three catches for eight yards.
One of the game’s big plays was in the fourth quarter, when Seattle faced a third-and-10 at the Packers’ 23 with 6:26 left and down by 11 points. The Seahawks went to Graham over the middle to keep the drive alive. Burnett had him one-on-one and knocked down the pass to get the defense off the field and force a field goal rather than a shot at seven or eight points. Those are the kinds of plays that win games.
“Morgan Burnett did a hell of a job (lining up) in that box,” said new defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois. “Hope we can keep it going with that nitro package.”
Of course, the challenge gets much, much tougher in Week 2. The Packers go to Atlanta, where they were blown off the field by the Falcons’ league-leading scoring offense in the NFC championship game a little more than seven months ago.
That game drove home the absolute necessity that the Packers get faster and more explosive on defense if they’re to win a Super Bowl. And a big part of getting faster and more explosive was making the nitro not just one of their defensive packages, but their primary defense.
There won’t be a better test than Matt Ryan, Julio Jones and Devonta Freeman.
“Whole different team we’re playing this week,” safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix said.
One game does not a season make. But the Packers did about as much as a season-opener allows.
They pocketed a win against what figures to be one of their main contenders for supremacy in the NFC, and they got an encouraging sign that their defense is better than the one that embarrassed in Atlanta late last January.