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Packers have more versatility on defense

Green Bay Packers safety Josh Jones (27) during the Green Bay Packers rookie orientation. (Mark Hoffman/Journal Sentinel via USA TODAY Sports)

Tom Oates

The Wisconsin State Journal

Despite needs at multiple positions entering last month’s draft, the Green Bay Packers used their top two picks — both second-rounders — on defensive backs.

Still, assuming cornerback Kevin King and safety Josh Jones possess NFL-caliber talent, the Packers’ preoccupation with upgrading their secondary could be a stroke of genius, perhaps as soon as this season, because it will allow them to alter their approach.

It’s pretty simple: The NFL has become a volume passing league and the Packers defense hasn’t kept pace.

In the NFL last season, more than 60 percent of the snaps came from the shotgun formation, with the quarterback lined up well behind the center. Meanwhile, the Packers used their base 3-4 defense on fewer than 20 percent of the snaps. Those pass-oriented trends don’t figure to stop there, either.

It all came to a head for the Packers last season when cornerback Sam Shields suffered a career-ending injury in the opener and cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins — the team’s top two draft picks in 2015 — battled nagging groin injuries. Slow and short-handed, the pass defense was no match for elite wide receivers and high-powered passing attacks.

The selections of King and Jones, along with the return of free agent cornerback Davon House, indicate the Packers are ready to abandon conventional thinking on pass defense and start trying to match up more effectively with today’s spread offenses.

The key to that is personnel, and the newcomers will give defensive coordinator Dom Capers more size, speed and versatility to work with. Especially versatility.

“Just the way we’ve been able to play with versatility with Micah Hyde and Morgan Burnett, I don’t think you can have enough of those kinds of players,” coach Mike McCarthy said Monday at the American Family Children’s Hospital. “Pro football, it’s (played) so much more in space than it was probably 10, 15 years ago, so the ability to have players play multiple positions to take advantage of matchups and still to be aggressive schematically and fundamentally is obviously a focus that we want to build on each and every year.”

This year more than most.

McCarthy was in Madison to visit the children at the hospital and promote his annual fundraiser — celebrity dinner June 11, golf invitational June 12 — that has raised more than $2 million for the hospital since he and his wife, Jessica, got involved eight years ago. As usual, though, the talk turned to football.

Last season, Capers was handcuffed by injuries and a lack of speed in the secondary. In essence this season, King will replace Shields and Jones will replace Hyde, the nickel back who departed in free agency.

In addition, the Packers have four cornerbacks — House, Randall, Rollins and LaDarius Gunter — with considerable starting experience and two excellent safeties in Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Several young players who were pressed into emergency duty last year also are around, giving Capers a pretty full deck.

He can use the help. It’s getting increasingly difficult for conventional defenses to match up with offenses that routinely use four and five wide receivers or employ tight ends and running backs built strictly for the passing game.

Linebackers in particular are struggling to cover those fast backs and tight ends, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Packers flood the field with defensive backs.

Fans have been clamoring for an inside linebacker who can cover, but it seems more likely the Packers will play bigger safeties near the line of scrimmage more often and cut down on their use of inside linebackers. Burnett played extensively at the line last season and Jones, who weighs 220 pounds, played there some in the team’s rookie orientation camp.

McCarthy said King and Jones looked good in the camp, adding, “They were definitely everything we thought they would be.”

That’s good because the Packers need more size, more speed and more versatility at their coverage positions to match up with opponents.

“I think you have to be cognizant of what people are trying to do with their playmakers,” McCarthy said. “The last three or four years, we’re operating close to 80 percent in sub defense. With that, you want to play more DBs and the ability to play as many players (as you can) is important. It’s a long year. Injuries are a part of the game. We experienced it at a high level, particularly at the cornerback position, last year. You want to have as competitive a 90-man roster as you possibly can and sub defense is a focal point for us.”

Could we see the Packers defense line up with seven backs at times this season?

“It really depends on the players,” McCarthy said. “It’s our responsibility to create opportunities and be creative to get all the different combinations of players on the field. This NFL is so competitive, you really want to have a scheme and system where you can fit any player into your program.”

The pass rush remains a question mark, but the Packers’ combination of new players and a fresh approach could allow them to dictate matchups in coverage instead of the other way around.

— Copyright (c) 2017, The Wisconsin State Journal/Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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