Dougherty: Green Bay Packers need to make shakeups at safety, tight end
In 2014, Mike McCarthy gave the Green Bay Packers a midseason jolt when he moved Clay Matthews to inside linebacker.
It turned around the Packers’ run defense and helped McCarthy’s team advance to the NFC Championship game.
Five weeks into the 2018 season, McCarthy is scuffling along at 2-2-1 and again looking for ways to elevate the Packers’ play.
He might have some options, though no, they don’t include moving Matthews back inside again.
That’s because in ’14, the Packers had Nick Perry and Julius Peppers to play outside linebacker when Matthews lined up inside. Not so now. As bad as the Packers’ outside rush has been this season, Matthews is the best they have.
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The Packers have a young inside linebacker worth playing more, anyway. Oren Burks is going to make rookie mistakes and has his problems holding up against the run, but he brings speed and athleticism the Packers badly need in pass coverage at that position. They’ve got to find out what he might have to offer after his first extended playing time of the season last week.
Still, McCarthy has to at least be kicking around some internal moves after his team’s shaky start. Here are two worth trying:
Make a change at safety, either by giving Jermaine Whitehead a shot at starting or moving Bashaud Breeland into the rotation there.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Kentrell Brice have been as much liabilities as assets. Neither is a true free safety – Clinton-Dix lacks speed (4.58-second 40), is stiff in the hips and freelances too much; Brice is more explosive (reported 4.44) but doesn’t play the ball well, which has already cost the Packers on a couple of big plays downfield. Both are better playing in the box.
Same for Josh Jones, the 2017 second-round pick who has been unable to climb above the No. 4 spot on the safety depth chart. He’s big (220 pounds) and can run (4.41) but lost out to Brice for a starting job because Brice was more assignment sure. Jones is more linebacker than center fielder.
Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine says he wants interchangeable safeties because offenses can scheme to force either to be free or strong. But there’s one quality “near the top of the list” that he’s looking for at that position, regardless of physical traits.
“The communication part, the ability to quarterback the back end,” Pettine said this past week. “There’s a lot of communication that goes on between the safeties, from one safety to the near corner. I think that’s right up there.”
That brings us to Whitehead, a 2016 undrafted rookie who won a roster spot this year precisely because of his smarts. He’s even ahead of Jones at dime linebacker and in limited playing time (104 snaps) has proven to be an effective slot blitzer.
Though Whitehead (4.59) isn’t as talented as Brice, he could play more of a Jim Leonhard role and allow Clinton-Dix to roam more near the line of scrimmage. Leonhard ran a reported 4.63 but started in Pettine defenses for six years and four different teams because he knew the scheme so well. Whitehead might not be the answer on the back end, but there’s only one way to find out.
Another more radical possibility is moving the recently signed Breeland from cornerback to safety and working him into the rotation there. The fifth-year pro isn’t fast, either (4.62), and switching positions while also learning a new defense in midseason – the Packers signed him 2 ½ weeks – would be asking a lot.
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But some teams considered Breeland a better prospect as a safety than cornerback coming out of Clemson. Remember, Breeland was good enough to get a three-year, $24 million contract with Carolina in free agency last March. It was nullified because he failed his physical (foot injury), but if he’s a good player it’s worth finding a way to get him on the field.
Either way, teams have to be open to adjusting on the fly.
“If you have a player that in a limited role is playing well and you want to expand that, then you find ways to expand it,” Pettine said. “We’re also not afraid if a guy’s not playing well to go ahead and make a move to get him off the field altogether or just lessen (his role). And sometimes (lineup changes are) game plan driven.”
Get Robert Tonyan more snaps at tight end.
Through five games it’s clear the Packers’ tight end corps could use more zip. Jimmy Graham is a huge target (6-7) and good athlete, but at 32 his quickness is in decline. Lance Kendricks (age 30) has slowed and looks like he’s fighting the ball as a receiver. And Marcedes Lewis (34) is blocking specialist who is zero threat as a receiver.
Tonyan, on the other hand, has young legs (age 24, 4.58). He also spent the final month last season on the Packers’ practice squad, so the NFL isn’t new to him.
Tonyan (6-4 5/8) has miles to go as a blocker, but the former college quarterback has the athleticism (35-inch vertical, 10-5 broad jump) that’s missing right now in the Packers’ double tight end package.
Last week he played the first three offensive snaps of his career but wasn’t targeted. But in camp he was the Packers’ second-best receiving tight end, even if it was mostly playing with the backup quarterbacks. It might be time for the Packers to see if he can offer Aaron Rodgers a little something more in the passing game.
NFL teams can get better during the season in a few ways. Their young players can improve. They might make a big trade. And they can tinker with their lineup.
The Packers have some young players on defense (Jaire Alexander, Josh Jackson, Burks) who should be better by year’s end. And general manager Brian Gutekunst still has 2 ½ weeks to swing a deal by the Oct. 30 trade deadline.
Regardless, McCarthy and Pettine have had a third of a season to get a read on their roster as it is. It’s up to them to figure out any changes that might help win games.