Dougherty: Faster Packers defense ready to fly in rematch vs. Falcons

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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Some Green Bay Packers players, such as Clay Matthews, watched the videotape the day after.

Packers safety Morgan Burnett tries bringing down Eagles receiver Torrey Smith after Smith’s catch in their preseason game Aug. 10. Burnett is adding inside linebacker to his responsibilities in the team’s ‘Nitro’ package.

Others, such as Joe Thomas, waited until they reported back for offseason workouts a couple months later.

Either way, the videotape of the Atlanta Falcons scorching coordinator Dom Capers’ defense for 493 yards and 44 points in the NFC Championship game last January had to be horrifying viewing for anyone who had a hand in the collapse.

“I hated (watching) it,” Thomas said. “It was devastating.”

It’s not like general manager Ted Thompson, coach Mike McCarthy and the rest of the football staff didn’t know before that day that they had to get faster and more explosive on defense. By halfway through the season, it was clear the team’s greatest needs were pass rushing and coverage.

But the conference championship meltdown was a frying pan to the face.

Even with the NFL’s 31st-ranked passing defense, the Packers were good enough to beat most teams. But to win a Super Bowl, you have to beat an offense or two in the Atlanta and New England class. That is, elite quarterbacks who, especially in Atlanta’s case, are surrounded by some first-rate weapons.

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The defeat laid plain the Packers’ desperation to get faster, as the Falcons had in 2016.

It directly led to Thompson drafting defensive players with his four picks, including cover men with excellent 40 times, Kevin King (4.43 seconds) and Josh Jones (4.41), with his first two selections.

It also triggered a fundamental change in Capers’ scheme: Safety Morgan Burnett’s move from safety to inside linebacker.

We got a first extended look at that "nitro" scheme last Sunday in the Packers’ 17-9 win over Seattle. Capers played it for but a handful of the 49 defensive snaps. And a comparison with the video of the NFC title game shows that this isn’t just a tweak in Capers’ defensive approach. It’s an evolution in philosophy.

In that game last January, the Packers’ primary defense was their normal nickel, with two traditional inside linebackers, usually Thomas and Jake Ryan.

Of the Packers’ 73 defensive snaps that day, 53 were in nickel. That might work well enough against a lot of teams, but not against a Matt Ryan or Tom Brady.

Jake Ryan (4.65 40) and Thomas (4.70) were ripe pickings, down after down, against running backs Devonta Freeman (five catches for 42 yards) and Tevin Coleman (three for 35), and in zone matchups with receivers and tight ends crossing the middle of the field.

The most telling stat of the day, other than the scoreboard, was Atlanta’s 10-for-13 conversion rate on third downs. And really, it was 10-for-12, because the final failure came in the last three minutes of a game the Falcons led by 23 points.

Matt Ryan’s passer rating on third downs was 144.9, and he converted first downs on nine of his 11 third-down attempts. That was the game. He made the play almost every time he needed to keep the drive alive. The Packers’ defense couldn’t get off the field.  

“(Ryan) was red hot,” said one scout for an AFC team, “and he took what they gave them, dink and dunk and the tight end. … They just kept Green Bay off balance.”

With Burnett (4.51 40) replacing one of the inside linebackers, the Packers now are faster in two places: The middle of the field with Burnett at linebacker, and on the back end, with the more explosive Kentrell Brice (4.44, 42-inch vertical) replacing the 28-year-old Burnett at safety.

“(The Falcons) will spread you out,” said a defensive assistant coach for an NFC team. “Getting faster and more athletic, that’s good. Limit the yards after the catch.”

But linebacker wasn’t the only issue. Matt Ryan scorched the Packers’ cornerbacks, too. Only personnel changes could solve that, though whether the cornerback play has improved a little or a lot is very much an open question in only Week 2 of the 2017 season.

The most telling change is that the No. 1 cornerback last season, LaDarius Gunter, couldn’t stick on the roster this year. The Packers cut him this week.

Gunter has decent size (6-1, 202) and competitive fire, but his athletic limitations (4.69, 33 ½-inch vertical) were never going away. He followed Jones all over the field in the championship game, but even with constant help over the top Gunter was no match for the All-Pro (180 yards and two touchdowns).

Jones has torched plenty of cornerbacks, but his 73-yard catch and run for a touchdown early in the third quarter was the eye opener in the talent gap. Gunter even got caught holding on Jones’ crossing route, but Jones shrugged him off, made the catch, ditched Gunter’s tackle, stiff-armed Damarious Randall to the ground, and scored.

On Sunday, if Capers matches one cornerback with Jones, it probably will be Davon House. If not,  House, Randall and Quinten Rollins will share the responsibility. And you have to wonder if Capers might even give the 6-3 rookie King a shot at the game’s best receiver, who himself is 6-3.

It’s also safe to assume there will be plenty of help from the safeties, just like last January.

“Last year is last year,” Randall said. “We have a different swagger, we have a couple new faces. I feel like we’re a totally different defense.”

Along those lines, I asked several players how much the defensive meltdown at Atlanta stuck with them in the offseason. Thomas expressed the strongest feelings.

“Thinking about my play in that game, I get sick myself,” he said.

But no one offered up carrying a sense of embarrassment, humiliation or anger into this game.

“I don’t think we have any resentment in the way we lost, or added motivation,” Matthews said. “I’d say Seattle (in the championship game in the 2014 season) was a more devastating loss than last year, not to say losses have different severities of depression or whatever negative word you want to put with that. But to be completely honest that (Atlanta) game hasn’t been talked about. It’s been used as film to watch.”

That’s hard to take that at face value. Players rarely cop to their feelings about such a humbling big-game performance in the lead up to the rematch. That’s human nature and NFL coaching culture.

But I suspect plenty of Packers players and staff remain mortified at what happened in the Georgia Dome eight months ago. And I’ll bet at least some coaches have brought it up this week to keep the fires burning.

That game certainly removed any doubt about the Packers’ urgent need for speed on defense. Now we’ll see just what kind of a difference nitro really makes.

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