Three years ago, over the midseason bye, Mike McCarthy made a decision that changed the Green Bay Packers’ 2014 season.
Tired of watching running backs gash his defense for eight games, the coach moved Clay Matthews to inside linebacker. The unexpected move solved a huge problem, started a five-game winning streak and helped the Packers eventually advance to the NFC championship game.
The Packers’ bye this year was after seven games, not eight. But like in ’14, it came at a time of crisis. Aaron Rodgers is out for at least seven more games and possibly the rest of the season. The Packers’ first game without him didn’t go well, and there’s no telling where their season will go from there.
So what might McCarthy do this time? Does the Packers coach have another post-bye surprise?
Or, after taking a free week to re-evaluate and adjust, does he have subtler changes or adjustments in mind?
We won’t know until his team takes the field. But here are three possibilities to keep an eye on for Monday night against Detroit and the next few weeks:
» The Packers haven’t played second-round pick Josh Jones and Morgan Burnett together much on defense.
Burnett’s recent hamstring injury is one reason. But that’s also how they planned their nitro defense in training camp: When everybody’s healthy, Burnett is the first-string slot, and Kentrell Brice and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are the safeties.
The bye week offered a good chance to revisit getting Jones on the field with Burnett.
Coaches often talk about getting their best 11 on the field on defense. Jones and Burnett are among the Packers’ 11 best. Either could be the nitro guy, and the other the safety alongside Clinton-Dix. But both should be on the field.
Burnett is the better cover man of the two. Jones is bigger (220 pounds to 209) for taking on the run, and as the more explosive player probably the better blitzer.
So take your pick. Burnett’s coverage skills might make him the better choice for the slot. As a safety Jones can still line up in the box to blitz and play the run.
Either way, Jones is more dynamic than Brice, Jake Ryan or anybody else who might be out there in his place. Game plans change based on opponent. But that won’t change.
» The Packers didn’t know what they had in running back Aaron Jones (fifth-round pick) until he had to play. Makes you wonder if they might have something in seventh-rounder Devante Mays, too.
With Brett Hundley just taking over at quarterback, this isn’t the greatest time to introduce a new back into the offense. But Mays still is worth a look.
Ted Thompson drafted three running backs last April, and Jamaal Williams finished training camp as Ty Montgomery’s top backup. But that was based strictly on Williams’ polish as a pass blocker and receiver. In preseason games, Jones and Mays were better with the ball in their hands, though it took real games to find out just how good Jones is. Now he’s not just a guy, he’s the guy. Maybe Mays is more than just a guy, too.
Mays isn’t as dynamic as Jones, but he could have a role as a hammer as winter sets in. Seven of the Packers’ nine remaining games will be in outdoor stadiums in cold climates, and Mays is a 230-pounder who might bring a physical dimension in bad conditions that the 208-pound Jones can’t.
Finding the snaps isn’t easy. Jones has to play, that’s for sure. He’s the best thing the Packers’ offense has going for it. But he’s not a big back, so you have to wonder how he’ll hold up week after week.
McCarthy likes Montgomery as a tough matchup in the passing game, so he’ll want to give him some snaps, too. But good running will help Hundley more. So if I’m the Packers, I’m taking a look-see at Mays in the next couple weeks. If that means playing Montgomery less and leaving Williams inactive, so be it.
Mays may or may not be another hidden gem. But he doesn’t have a carry this season. Time to find out if he can complement Jones.
» Could we see 2014 all over again? Might McCarthy move Matthews back inside a second time?
Seems like a long shot for a couple reasons. Pass rush is one of the Packers’ biggest problems, and Matthews still is one of their best rushers. They also are thin at outside linebacker, especially with Ahmad Brooks’ shaky status because of a back injury.
But fourth-round pick Vince Biegel probably will make his NFL debut Monday night, and if he adds anything over the next few weeks, that could open the door to playing Matthews inside more.
Right now, the Packers’ conventional nickel includes Blake Martinez and Ryan at inside linebacker. A Martinez-Matthews pairing would be a big upgrade. Matthews is more disruptive than Ryan against the run, and he’s better than both Martinez and Ryan in coverage. Inside linebacker might be his best position now.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers also can flip him back to a rusher on passing downs. That’s what he did in 2014 and ’15.
But even considering that change depends on Biegel and Brooks. The Packers need at least three viable outside linebackers to make it work. Nick Perry is one. A healthy Brooks is two. Then Biegel has to prove himself for three. This doesn’t work with Kyler Fackrell or Chris Odom playing a lot.