As the injuries pile up, Dom Capers keeps going back to the drawing board with the Green Bay Packers’ defense.
In Monday night’s 38-28 win over Kansas City, the 65-year-old coordinator made several adjustments to his scheme to help replace a pair of injured safeties (Morgan Burnett and Sean Richardson) and accommodate a new dime linebacker (Joe Thomas).
What resulted was a stingy defensive effort through the meaningful portion of the victory. Kansas City’s offense managed only 168 total yards and 14 points through three quarters before practically matching that production in the fourth (14 points and 158 more yards) to keep things interesting.
“We obviously have high expectations for our defense and what we like to do,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “I think for the most part of three quarters we kept that up, but obviously a little letdown in the fourth quarter. We’ll adjust that and correct that. Any time the offense is able to put up that many points, it allows you to play a little more free and a little more loose, and get after the quarterback and create those big plays.”
Many defensive players reiterated afterward in the locker room the need to play a complete game, but it’s still a better showing than the last time the secondary was without Burnett. Two weeks ago, the Packers gave up 404 total yards to now 0-3 Chicago, including 189 on the ground.
The Packers again utilized rookie cornerback Damarious Randall outside in the subpackages and turned to nickel cornerback Micah Hyde to replace Burnett on the back end. Unlike the Bears’ game, however, Capers dropped Hyde back into the slot in the dime and put reserve safety Chris Banjo in center field.
Capers also used Banjo in Richardson’s spot in the Packers’ Big Okie defense, though they didn’t deploy much with Kansas City playing from behind most of the game. He threw in one final wrinkle in the fourth quarter when second-round pick Quinten Rollins entered the game in the slot, six days after being inactive against Seattle.
“We did good, but it was just the first half,” said cornerback Casey Hayward, who rotated outside and inside against Kansas City. “We have to finish games. We have to find a way to finish those games. I think we’ll do that. It’s just the third game and we’re 3-0. That’s the ultimate goal to win the game and that’s what we did. So we’ll figure it out.”
Even more surprising was how quickly the Packers incorporated Thomas, a former undrafted free agent in 2014, into their defensive game plan. Among the team’s final cuts earlier this month, the Packers re-signed him this past week after he had a brief stint on Dallas’ practice squad.
The Packers made their vision clear for Thomas once he returned to Green Bay. He was going to fill the inside linebacker role in the dime, a move that allowed Matthews to revert back to an edge rusher in obvious pass-rushing situations. He also provides linebacker depth in the wake of Sam Barrington’s season-ending foot injury.
Neither of Matthews’ two sacks against Kansas City came as an outside linebacker. He didn’t rush at all in the first, but rather converged on a scrambling Alex Smith for a 1-yard loss. His second came as an inside linebacker rushing through the B-gap.
Thomas wasn’t thrilled with his debut. The 6-foot-1, 227-pound linebacker felt he had too many missed tackles, but he still finished with four tackles and his first career sack. Thomas understood what his primary objective was — to free Matthews up — and that venture proved successful.
“That’s what I came here to do,” Thomas said. “Get Clay back on the outside where he’s comfortable and where he wants to be, where he makes plays. I just try to do my job inside so he can go outside and rush the quarterback.”
The Packers created some havoc for the Chiefs’ offense. Smith was sacked seven times with defensive lineman Mike Daniels (1½), and outside linebackers Nick Perry (1), Jayrone Elliott (1) and Mike Neal (½) also getting in on the action.
Another pressure near Kansas City’s end zone forced an errant throw from Smith that cornerback Sam Shields intercepted and returned to the 4-yard line. One play later, Aaron Rodgers turned it into a touchdown.
It wasn’t a perfect performance, but it was good enough, all things considered. The Packers jumped from 21st to 16th in total defense (350.7 yards per game), 31st to 27th against the run (127.7 ypg) and fell one notch to 11th versus the pass (223.0 ypg)
“It was pretty close to a complete game,” Matthews said. “Unfortunately, we gave up a few big plays that put them in scoring contention. But other than that, I thought we did a great job, holding them to three-and-out. Forcing them to punt that first half was pretty boring, being on the sideline. But, hopefully, this is just an indication of where we’re headed as a defense.”
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