Quarterback Aaron Rodgers caused a minor stir when–in the wake of the Detroit Lions win–called for the offense to have its best players on the field. Now, with news that safety Morgan Burnett is lost for the season and inside linebackers Nick Barnett and Brandon Chillar possibly missing an extended period of time, the defense is faced with the same dilemma.
What amounted to a training camp-like audition for the outside linebackers in Week 4 with Frank Zombo, Brady Poppinga and Brad Jones all sharing time, the Packers have all but admitted they don’t have an unquestioned starter opposite Clay Matthews.
And what may follow could be an attempt by defensive coordinator Dom Capers to get the best players on the field and put the Packers in the best position for a Super Bowl run, the same goal of any NFL franchise.
The best pass rusher aside from Matthews has been Cullen Jenkins, both this year and for some time before that. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Jenkins start playing opposite Matthews, at least in subpackages.
Jenkins has 26 career sacks and is in a contract season, meaning he has a major incentive to continue to play at a high level. One could also make the argument that his performance will only get better once he loses his club-like cast in a couple weeks.
Several factors would play into a situation in which Jenkins would basically assume an outside linebacker role in subpackages. Chief among those reasons is the return of Mike Neal from injury uncertainty.
The Packers already have to be concerned with B.J. Raji’s high snap count, but with some combination of Neal and Pickett to rotate among the interior defensive tackle position in “sub,” Jenkins can afford to play more snaps at outside linebacker.
And no, no one is suggesting a full-on outside linebacker role for Jenkins. The Packers experimented with such a situation to an extent in both the offseason and during training camp. Jenkins can not handle dropping into coverage any more than once or twice per game when it catches the offense by surprise.
But there’s no reason to think he couldn’t be used at outside linebacker strictly in subpackages on a limited basis.
In two weeks, with the possible additions of Al Harris and Atari Bigby to the team, one could easily make the argument that the best 11 players on defense would be part of some nickel or dime subpackage.
Imagine a nickel defense with Jenkins, Raji, Neal and Matthews along the line of scrimmage, your choice of any two healthy inside linebackers, and then Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, Nick Collins, Harris and Bigby in the secondary.
Take it a step futher and imagine a dime defensive package with the same personnel except substitute Sam Shields for one of the inside linebackers. Given the defense’s struggles–particularly by the linebackers–to keep up with the much faster perimeter players of the Lions, heavier use of the dime may be a wise choice going forward, particularly against pass-heavy offenses.
How far the Packers get this season may depend how they respond to adversity. It’s up to Capers to use all his resources and get even more creative to put the team in the best position to win.
And getting the best pass rush available opposite Clay Matthews will have the added effect of benefiting the secondary as well.