In their week three contest against the Detroit Lions, the Green Bay Packers lined up with five veterans on defense inactive due to injury. Clay Matthews, Datone Jones, Morgan Burnett, Sam Shields, and Letroy Guion all sat out the game, forcing the team to use a heavy dose of youth to fill in for the missing snaps.
Today, the Packers will get to work after their bye week, and head coach Mike McCarthy is eager to get as many of those players back as he can. In his press conference this morning, McCarthy indicated that he expects all but one of the injured defensive players to practice in some fashion today, with Sam Shields being the only non-participant among them (along with tight end Jared Cook, who will sit out as well).
This is crucial for a Packers defense that struggled in the second half against Detroit last week. The front seven remained stout throughout, particularly against the run, but the secondary was in rough shape without two starters and allowed Marvin Jones to record over 200 yards receiving.
For that reason, this writer believes that if any one of the four players not named Shields were to return, Morgan Burnett would be the most impactful. Although he has not played exceptionally in coverage this season, it would allow the team to return Micah Hyde to his nickel/dime role rather than focusing on the safety position. That in turn would limit the number of snaps that the Packers would need to give to undrafted rookies Josh Hawkins and Kentrell Brice, who combined to allow Jones’ 73-yard touchdown a week ago. Both of those undrafted rookies are talented players, to be sure, but that play demonstrated the need to use them sparingly especially against a talented receiving corps.
And a talented receiving corps is exactly what awaits the Packers next Sunday night. The New York Giants come to town with one of the league’s best wideouts in Odell Beckham, Jr. and dynamic rookie Sterling Shepard manning the slot. With Victor Cruz back and healthy as well, Eli Manning has a multitude of weapons to throw to, meaning that the Packers will likely play almost exclusively with five or six defensive backs. We will remain hopeful for the return of Matthews, Jones, and Guion in order to put more pressure on Manning, but the secondary is the critical point for now.
Finally, on the subject of the secondary, the question remains about when Shields may be able to return to the field. McCarthy simply described Shields as “improving” as he works through the concussion protocol, but that he would not practice Monday. That makes it unlikely that he would be able to play Sunday. The Packers face a tough slate of top wideouts over the next several weeks even after the matchup with the Giants, so Shields’ return will be eagerly anticipated.
Following this week’s game, the Packers will line up for contests against the Cowboys (whose top receiver is Dez Bryant), Bears (Alshon Jeffery), and Falcons (Julio Jones). Atlanta’s passing game looks particularly potent at this time, with Matt Ryan throwing for 500 yards on Sunday (300 of which went to Jones).
The Packers will certainly hope to get all of these injured players back soon, but bolstering the secondary may be the team’s best hope if they plan to play winning football on defense over the next month.