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Quantity could make up for quality for Pack at inside backer

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Quantity could make up for quality for Pack at inside backer

If indeed the Packers are dedicating themselves to a sub package, hybrid-friendly defense, then they are positioned nicely with more chess pieces to move around next season. 
 
In this post, we’ll take a look at their options at inside linebacker. As Ryan Wood wrote Thursday for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the Packers have for years relied on bigger, more traditional options at inside backer — this despite the league’s shift to shotgun-heavy spread offenses with three or more receivers (or with multiple, receiver-like tight ends). 
 
Last year Green Bay started out with Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez sharing much of the load early on. The two more time-honored archetypes, who were drafted three picks and a year apart, were actually fairly effective when healthy. But injuries again thrust Joe Thomas into starting minutes, and despite his above average speed and athleticism for the position, he was often a liability in the run and easily swallowed by blockers. 
 
Ryan’s instincts and toughness give him a chance to start in the NFL. Between he and Martinez, the latter would figure to have more to prove in his second season than Ryan in his third. Thomas, meanwhile, is good for a few flashy plays here or there, but has likely hit his ceiling as a pro. It’s too early for consensus on Ryan and Martinez, just as it’s too early to assume that going smaller and faster at the position dooms the number of snaps the two will see. From a production standpoint, Ryan led Green Bay linebackers in tackles for loss despite missing three games. 
 
My guess is their usage will be based on matchups and tendencies. Having lots of pieces to work with gives the Packers quantity over quality. 
 
Green Bay also has in camp an athletic contemporary of Thomas — one even more impressive on paper. Former 9-man football high school standout and Division II star Cody Heiman joined the team as an undrafted free agent. His low time in the 40 clocked in at 4.58 seconds (slightly ahead of Thomas’ 4.6) and he’s similarly sized at 6-foot-1, 230 pounds. What stands out are Heiman’s 6.84 second 3-cone and 31 reps on the bench. Strength and explosiveness are qualities the Packers have lacked since a healthy Desmond Bishop occupied the middle (sans Clay Matthews’ late 2014 heroics). 
 
Of course, Heiman is a long shot to make the 53-man roster, but if the Packers see in him an athletic linebacker capable of filling Thomas’ role, then, well stranger things have happened on Lombardi Ave. 
 
Let us not forget that Matthews will see time inside next season. How much is hard to say and likely reliant on health and production at both linebacker positions, but he has to at least be figured in to the Packers inside backing corps. Matthews has never been given credit for his heady style of play and pre-snap diagnosis. I think we took for granted his nano-blitz tackles for loss over the years were merely the product of explosive athletic ability. Those plays were as much brains as they were braun. These days he’s treated in comment sections as though he has literally nothing left to offer. Health is the key for Matthews — as is proper deployment. Move him around, with purpose, and he can still make plays. 
 
That leaves Burnett and second-round pick Josh Jones, who will see potential snaps at inside backer against pass-happy teams. Burnett was also forced into the role last season because of injuries, but the veteran safety adapted well — and having alented but unpolished Kentrell Brice on the backend helped. With high pedigree Jones in the mix, the Packers gain considerable flexibility at multiple positions. Players with characteristics similar to Jones have recently become popular. These hybrids, formerly without a position because of their tweener status, are becoming worth their weight in gold. 
 
Jones hits with the power of a homing missile — when he’s on target — and is nearly the size of Thomas and Heiman, only several degrees faster. 
 
When teams go run-heavy, the Packers have options with youngsters Ryan and Martinez. Add in Matthews, Thomas and possibly Heiman, and there are even more combinations. And there’s also Burnett and Jones, the latter who’d be partially wasted in the box if he’s not also asked to blitz. 
 
Dom Capers defenses have never been shy about thinking outside the box. There’s the Psycho package, with a single downed lineman and five roving backers in front of five defensive backs. They’ve converted defensive tackles (Mike Neal) and defensive ends (Julius Peppers and Datone Jones) to outside linebackers. They’ve moved outside backers inside (Matthews) and safeties to backer (Burnett). 
 
They’ve been hybrid for quite some time, but Burnett and particularly Jones signal that they’re not going to be forcing square pegs into round holes. Now they are better equipped to move the pieces around. 
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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (27) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

Worztik's picture

It will be interesting to see!!! Just sayin' as usual!!!

Handsback's picture

A good write-up on the ILB potential. Potential is a YUGE word when applied to football players. Injuries seem to separate everyone into realized potential and never met potential. If these guys can make it through the season w/o major injury, then that middle kingdom that teams have made their playground against the Packers will be off limits. Now Dom it's your job to make it happen!

JohnnyLogan's picture

If it happens it likely won't be because of Dom but despite him. He could make the Lombardi defense look like the Keystone Kops. Want him gone!!

Finwiz's picture

@JohnnyLogan - Thank you.
A rare burst of accuracy around here.

chugwater's picture

Dom has coached championship worthy defenses in two of the last three years. Not sure where the hate comes from.

Spock's picture

David Nicholson (author of the piece) I think you are a little cavalier with the "These days he’s treated in comment sections as though he has literally nothing left to offer." comment. There is a lot of people saying he's lost his "elite" status, but not ALL of us feel that he's "washed up" or has "literally nothing to offer"! I've always admired Clay's "all out" style of play. Is he the player he was in his 20's? Probably not as father time waits for no one, but I, for one, haven't given up on him just yet. Not sure who this Cody Heiman dude is (I don't watch college ball) but he seems to have a bit of a "Janis" like cult following on some blog sites. LOL.

dnicholson's picture

I don't mean explicitly in CheeseheadTV comment sections. I said "in comment sections," which from my observations, I stand by.

There are plenty here who think he has something to offer.

Since '61's picture

Including Jones and Burnett the ILB position group has become a very versatile position group particularly if they all remain healthy. If as a group they get better at stopping the run and protecting the middle of the field the Packers defense will be much more solid than it has been for years. It's too early to tell but we should have a pretty good idea by the 4th or 5th game of the season if our defense is improving. Thanks, Since '61

Turophile's picture

So, Martinez and Ryan - two of the most instinctive LBs in the country coming out of college are just 'quantity'. They are better than that.

Burnett, when playing an ILB type role and potentially Josh Jones (who has very good measurables), are better than that dismissive 'quantity' label.

I think the ILB position is on it's way to being a strength - the investment is there (two recent 4th round picks and a 2nd rounder this year). I feel pretty good about a position that has been weak for the Packers in the past. I don't think it's weak now, David. It's not your article I disagree with, more your headline.

dnicholson's picture

I don't consider a pair of fourth-round picks and a second invested in a player who may see snaps at the position means they've invested a ton. What they've done at defensive back, by comparison, shows they're intent on turning things around.

That said, I like Ryan and Martinez and I think their talents are well acquitted in the story. And, agree to disagree, their advantage at ILB comes in the number of options they have -- not on elite talent.

Turophile's picture

"I don't consider a pair of fourth-round picks and a second invested in a player who may see snaps at the position means they've invested a ton"

Tell that to Ted Thompson, he'd laugh in your face. As for the player "who may see snaps" (at ILB), Jones is training there, right from his first visit to Green Bay, he has played a S/ILB role in college, as well. The Packers see him as a Cardinals Deone Bucannon type S/ILB hybrid - that's how the modern game is evolving.

You also mentioned "elite talent" in your reply, but elite is not what your headline says, it says 'quality'. Surely you can see the difference between quality and elite. Morgan Burnett is a quality starter, he is not elite.

The Packers did not pick up Jarrad Davis or Zach Cunningham (both of whom could be very talented and versatile LBs), and I would have loved either as a pick (Davis went too early, at #21, Cunningham lasted until #57), but they addressed ILB in another way, and I'm happy they did that, as early as they did.

I guess nothing but a first round pick there will please you. Maybe you should pack away that Luke Kuechly picture on your bedside table, it's giving you unrealistic thoughts.

Gman1976's picture

Yes, it will be a strength if we use Matthews more in the middle. While I am for moving him around, it seems that when he plays ILB, he is healthier and holds up better. He's a very good OLB, but he's a great ILB (even as age catches up to him). We'll get more mileage without as many injuries out of him if he plays more ILB.

dobber's picture

The improvement the defense saw from Matthews moving inside was in that he displaced a weak player (Nate Palmer, et al.) and allowed a better player to come in and play on the outside. In the end, it wasn't what CMIII brought to the middle, but that the overall talent on the field improved by subtracting a piss-poor ILB.

dobber's picture

Yep...and an antibiotic cleared it right up! ;)

dschwalm's picture

We will all have a better idea of this defence after the first 3 games. That will be the acid test!

Packer Fan's picture

The Pack has some known quantities in Ryan, Martinez and Thomas. It would be nice if either Ryan or Martinez take a big step and become more of impact player. But there is also that "if" along "if" there are more injuries like last year. Heiman is an unknown. And with the uncertainty of how fast Biegel will come along, there are not enough OLB"sand ILB's on the roster for adequate depth and injury replacement. TT should pick up another veteran LB.

RCPackerFan's picture

The ILB position really is one of the biggest question marks on the team. Ryan took a big step last year, and Martinez looked good. Hopefully both players take steps this year. I have liked Thomas more then others. He can hit!

The question about the position though is who are they going to play at the position? With Mathews, Burnett, Jones all playing hybrid roles that really changes the look of the ILB position. The versatility that these guys give Capers will all him to do a lot of different things.

I am looking forward to seeing how the defense looks this year. To see what Capers comes up with schematically and especially how he uses the ILB position.

RCPackerFan's picture

See I don't think it's going to be that easy. I think it's going to be more situationally... such as how the opposing offenses line up and what offenses they are playing. More run based offenses I think we will see more Ryan and Martinez. More passing offenses I think we will see more combinations of Martinez, Thomas, Mathews, Burnett, Jones...
I am looking forward to seeing how Capers does in fact use these guys.

Nick Perry's picture

Martinez came in last season and was the starter entering week one. He may not have filled some peoples expectations but I still think this kid can be a REALLY good ILB for the Packers.
The Packers could have taken Reuben Foster or Zach Cunningham in this draft, both were there for the taking. I think that speaks pretty loudly to how TT either feels about who he has now or how he feels about the position, maybe both.

Last season there were plenty of folks around here excited about Martinez. Being able to start week one calling the defense should say a lot about this kids smarts.

Spock's picture

NP, I'm one of those people high on the abilities of Martinez. Can't wait to see how the revamped Packers (somewhat "all in" LOL) play on BOTH sides of the ball this year. I just have a hard time tempering my expectations for the team this year; I haven't felt that way in a long time!

dobber's picture

I like the athleticism of Martinez and the physicality of Ryan--they're a significant upgrade from the likes of Nate Palmer and Brad Jones and AJ Hawk (in his later years)--but I can't help but find myself thinking that they aren't necessarily going to play all that many defensive snaps. With the Burnett/Jones experiment at ILB, the nickel essentially serving as the base defense, and the CMIII/Fackrell/Biegel composite giving the flexibility to play inside and out, it might limit them pretty significantly.

dschwalm's picture

Spock, just think about the pass defence and you will come down to earth with a thud.

Bearmeat's picture

Lots of good points. We've seen the "quantity over quality" approach before though. Especially on defense. At times, it turns a unit into "greater than the sum of its parts." Most of the time though, game changing talent wins out.

dobber's picture

I think it was DPF who posted not too long ago that ILB as we've known it has essentially been rendered a dying position by the transition the NFL has made to being so pass-friendly. Your ILBs, if they're on the field, need to be athletic and aware enough to cover, or they need to be able to get after the passer, or--more likely--flexible enough to do both. Pluggers have been relegated to short-yardage and goal-line work, if a team still has them. They only need to be serviceable in run defense because, frankly, 3rd and 3 is now a passing down. If you look at the top 15 teams in the league from last season against the run (in ypc), it's more teams that didn't make the playoffs (8) than teams who did (7). The result is that giving up 4 ypc isn't the end of the world, and as we saw with this defense a year ago, stopping the run doesn't mean much if you can't get off the field regularly on 3rd and 8+.

If Heiman shows that he's not completely out of his element in TC, I wouldn't be surprised at all to see him supplant Thomas--who has pretty much maxed out what he is--as a developmental inside guy/ST jockey.

DThomas's picture

Quantity can't make up for quality. Five mediocre to average players at a position can't make up for one great one, they can only provide depth. If the middle of the Packers defense is going to improve it'll be because of increased quality, not quantity. The problem with needing one ILB in the game to play the run and another to play the pass is opponents can exploit the weakness of both. Particularly come playoff time. That's why I think a lot hinges on how well Jones plays, because he seems to be exactly what the middle of the defense needs. Failing that, Burnett will have to fill that role more than he did last season.

I see Ryan, Martinez, and Thomas vying for time in the "new base" D (it's not really new because Capers has been using it 80% or more for years now) opposite Jones or Burnett inside. Of course it'd be great if one of them took a huge step forward.

I wouldn’t count on Heiman. The analysis of him I've read question his instincts - which are extremely important inside and a few say his best position may be FB. I root for every Packers player and hope he's a huge surprise, but I'll be very surprised if he supplants Thomas.

jlc1's picture

saw the headline and thought Wow! the Pack gets to put 12 men on the field on D. Disappointed to see that the gist of the argument is sadly true, talent is not the hallmark of this unit. Too bad, a 12 man unit would overcome much of that.

MITM's picture

The hybrid safety/ILB can be a double edged sword sometimes. Deone Buccanon who seems to be the reference point for this type of player has put up some gaudy numbers at ILB. That being said, I do remember him being targeted and manhandled on alot of running plays in the Jeff Janis hail mary playoff game. I also remember him making a few nice tfl's. I believe that Josh Jones was drafted to be almost exclusively an ILB, at least for this season while Burnett is still on the roster. I am excited to have him. I know that the league is changing and this type of player is almost a necessity especially if your "base" defense is a 34. My thing is with Capers, historically his best defenses coincidentally had some very good players at ILB, true ILB's too. Think Steelers, Panthers had Sam Mills etc. His best defense here was the Super Bowl year, and Aj Hawk had his best season by far at ILB and Desmond Bishop played out of his mind. I know that they had a fantastic defensive line also and a backend that DC's dream of, and all of that factors into the success of the ILB's. Im not agreeing or disagreeing with anything that anyone else said as there were some great points in the comments. Just trying to add to it.

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