HOUSTON – The Green Bay Packers never would admit it publicly but they’ve been trying to replace all of their inside linebackers since Desmond Bishop blew out his hamstring in August 2012.
They still are, even after selecting four players there in the last five drafts while at the same time switching two others from outside to inside.
Jake Ryan, Joe Thomas and Blake Martinez were among many on the Packers’ defense who were overmatched 10 days ago in the 44-21 loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC championship game.
“They need a real guy at inside backer,” an executive in personnel for an NFC team said last week. “They’ve got too many slow guys.”
Last year at this time the Falcons were sitting home in the same funk over the inadequacy of their inside linebackers and the future of their defense.
On Sunday, the Falcons will become the first team in Super Bowl history to start four rookies on defense. As magnificent as coordinator Kyle Shanahan has been utilizing his personnel on offense, Atlanta wouldn’t be here if coach Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff hadn’t done magnificent work in the draft and rookie free agency.
“They’ve got at least nine if not 10 of the players on the field, sometimes all 11, I’d say are pretty fast,” New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “The stamp on the team, the thing that I notice most, is just the team speed that the Falcons have.”
When Quinn arrived from Seattle to replace Mike Smith in 2015, the Falcons were coming off a 6-10 season in which the inside linebackers for coordinator Mike Nolan’s 3-4 scheme were Paul Worrilow (4.65-second 40) and Joplo Bartu (4.82).
Quinn went another season with the limited but productive Worrilow playing every snap. Obviously, he and others at the position weren’t speedy standouts like Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright in Seattle, where Quinn had been defensive coordinator.
“We knew what the blueprint looked like,” said Marquand Manuel, a Seahawks’ defensive assistant from 2012-14 who went to Atlanta as Quinn’s secondary coach. “If you don’t have team speed and you have experience, you’re limited by that. It’s a passing league.”
The Falcons used the 19th pick in the first round on strong safety Keanu Neal. His forte is enforcer-style hits, but defensive assistant Doug Mallory insisted he has played faster than his 4.60 speed.
After filling a hole in the defensive interior with the first-round pick of Kenny Clark, the Packers traded up from No. 57 to No. 48 for tackle Jason Spriggs. The cost was a pick (No. 125) in the fourth round and another in the seventh round.
Atlanta actually traded down two spots before taking inside linebacker Deion Jones of Louisiana State at No. 52.
The Packers selected outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell in the third round (No. 88) before the Falcons took another inside linebacker, De’Vondre Campbell of Minnesota, in the fourth round (No. 115). Green Bay got around to adding an inside linebacker, Martinez, later in the fourth at No. 131.
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Jones (106 tackles) and Neal (105) led all rookies in tackles while Campbell, who missed five games because of injuries, finished sixth on the team with 48.
Before the draft, one personnel director for an AFC team called Jones a “novelty” pick because of his dimensions (6-feet-1, 222 pounds). Many scouts loved his speed, toughness, intelligence and high character but were concerned by size.
A personnel director for an NFC team, however, compared Jones to Ray Lewis as collegiate players.
“Ray Lewis was that size coming out of Miami,” the scout said. “Jones is very fast and explosive. You want fast and explosive. You don’t want heavy-legged guys on the field. You’ve got to be able to run.”
Jones, a one-year starter at LSU, was the fastest linebacker in the draft at 4.45.
On Tuesday, Campbell said he didn’t even expect to be drafted. He started 27 games for the Gophers but there were reservations about his toughness, instincts and overall smarts.
“Raw, speed, special-teams player right now,” an AFC scout said in April. “He could be a blue (top) special-teams player as he learns how to play because I like his speed and length.”
Quinn saw Jones as his Wagner and Campbell as his Wright. He reached for Campbell because of his speed (4.56) and arm length (33 5/8 inches).
Jones was a hit from the start. The injury curse delayed Campbell’s ascension but for the last two months they’ve both played virtually every snap. Coverage probably is their specialty but their range against perimeter runs has stood out, too.
“They’re faster than Seattle,” Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears said. “We’ve seen this style (of defense) before but they do a damn good job of running to the football.”
The speed of Campbell and Jones was on full display against the Packers as they switched off spying Aaron Rodgers. Campbell said Rodgers appeared frustrated when Campbell used his burst to sprint forward and cut off his escape angles on scrambles.
“I thought that was a big factor in the game,” Campbell said.
Jones has returned four interceptions for 193 yards (48.3 average) and two touchdowns.
“To me, he’s got a real strong case to be defensive player of the year,” Falcons linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich said. “Campbell’s only going to get better. You can’t teach length and speed, and he’s got it.”
The Packers wanted to draft speedy, somewhat undersized inside linebackers C.J. Mosley and Ryan Shazier in 2014. When both were taken a few picks before Green Bay’s 21st selection, the choice was safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
Thus, Green Bay has tried to make do by adding Thomas (4.71) as an undrafted rookie in 2014, Ryan (4.65) in the fourth round in 2015 and Martinez (4.67) in the fourth round last year.
In a traditional sense, Ryan and Martinez might be better equipped than Jones and Campbell to stop the run for a 3-4 team. In reality, the Packers are a base 4-2 team, and with their short arms and ordinary speed neither player is anything special against run or pass.
The Falcons also filled their hole at nickel back within hours of the conclusion of the draft with the free-agent signing of Florida’s Brian Poole. He’s short but timed 4.50 and hasn’t been close to being an easy mark.
“He’s got tremendous short-area quickness and he runs pretty well,” Mallory said.
When the Falcons lost cornerback Desmond Trufant, possibly their most indispensable player on defense, to a season-ending shoulder injury after nine games, Quinn inserted disappointing Jalen Collins (4.49) and his play shaped up.
The 40 times for other Falcons defenders also include cornerback Robert Alford (4.36), free safety Ricardo Allen (4.51) and pass rusher Vic Beasley (4.53).
“Even their big people can run,” said Brian Daboll, the Patriots’ tight ends coach. “’Beas.’ (Dwight) Freeney. (Ra’Shede) Hageman.
“Every team has their own philosophy. Obviously, speed for the Falcons is a premium. You watch tape after tape after tape, their effort is really unbelievable.”
Did the Packers even have a defensive identity this season? When’s the last time an opponent said the Packers played with unbelievable effort on defense?
It’s hard to come up with answers to those questions.
Another factor working hand-in-hand with the Falcons’ 40 times, according to one general manager, was the simplicity of the Cover-3 scheme that Quinn brought from Seattle.
“They’re not scheming that much on defense,” the GM said. “Part of playing fast is the 40’s and part of it is having guys playing decisively and instinctively.”
Ulbrich, Mallory and Manuel, the Packers’ strong safety in 2006, all agreed that Quinn’s defense as coordinated by Richard Smith doesn’t place a mental burden on players. Certainly the Packers’ fire-zone defense directed by Dom Capers has more volume, especially in its eighth season.
“The advantage to it is we don’t sit there and talk about X’s and O’s,” Ulbrich said. “I can talk about running to the ball, tackling, leverage, hand placement. When you’re not bogged up with so much mentally you can haul ass, you know?’’
Maybe the Falcons will lay an egg, just as they did against the Denver Broncos 18 years ago in their other Super Bowl appearance. Maybe Tom Brady and Belichick will prove unstoppable.
If so, it won’t be because the Falcons are embarrassingly slow in the back seven on defense, as were the Packers, or they’re suffering paralysis by analysis.
Quinn’s foundation, both at inside linebacker and throughout the defense, is firmly in place.