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Packers defense plays musical chairs again against Cowboys

Once again injuries and inconsistent play forced Dom Capers to shuffle his lineup.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys
Josh Jones was just one of the defensive players whose role had to change to try and defend the Cowboys.
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Lost in the magic of Aaron Rodgers and the superlative coaching job by Mike McCarthy to generate offense despite an avalanche of injuries has been the way Dom Capers has cobbled together a defense for the Green Bay Packers in 2017.

One of the reason it’s been under-discussed is simply that the defense hasn’t been very good. In three of the last four games, its allowed 27 or more points and in two road games couldn’t keep opponents under 30.

But the machinations of this defense certainly contribute to some of those relative failures.

First, Capers inserted Kevin King into the starting lineup opposite Davon House on the outside with Quinten Rollins and Damarious Randall rotating in the slot. When House left the Falcons game in Week 2 with an injury, Randall became the outside corner leaving Rollins in the slot where the Atlanta exposed his lack of speed. For the next two weeks, Rollins rarely saw the field on defense.

The adjustment against the Bengals was to insert rookie Josh Jones in the lineup for Burnett in the Packers nickel package (Nitro) and move Burnett into the slot as the nickel corner.

Capers never got the credit he deserved for that change as Burnett shined inside, keeping the too-slow Rollins off the field and allowing Green Bay to save House and King for outside duty only.

But against a Cowboys offense that was second in the league in rushing DVOA coming in, Green Bay clearly had concerns about its size matching up with the athletic and powerful Dallas line. Would they stay small and fast or beef up their personnel? I wrote about it before Sunday’s game.

On the first play of the game we found out: Green Bay came out with three down linemen, Nick Perry on the line but standing up, and three linebackers — Jake Ryan, Blake Martinez, and Clay Matthews — playing off the ball.

It was a de facto 4-3 alignment.

Green Bay ran it about a dozen times in an attempt to stop the run and played some version of its base defense with three linemen and four traditional linebackers about 40% of defensive snaps against the Cowboys after playing just a handful of base snaps since Week 1 against the Seahawks.

To run this against such a talented offensive line means Capers believed Nick Perry could win 1-on-1 vs. Tyron Smith, something he did a number of times in this game. And they trust Ahmad Brooks to do his job on the other side, something that wasn’t consistently the case with Datone Jones and even Julius Peppers last season for the Packers.

This allowed Blake Martinez, the league leader in run stops according to Pro Football Focus, to play with more strength around him and flow more freely to the ball. He led the team with 12 tackles and made plays behind the line of scrimmage all day.

And for the first half, it worked as Ezekiell Elliott had just 31 yards on his first 16 carries.

Martinez’s strong play even led the Packers to run some traditional nickel, with two linemen, two rush linebackers, and two traditional inside linebackers, for nearly all of the fourth quarter.

The speed of Martinez to cover ground in space and be a factor in zone coverage means being able to play him more often without giving up much in the passing game, particularly with a tight end like Jason Witten who couldn’t beat Mike McCarthy in a foot race.

But this base personnel meant Josh Jones saw much less playing time after playing every snap against the Bengals and nearly all of them in the Bears game.

Morgan Burnett played almost exclusively in his old safety position, though he often covered tight ends and backs out of the slot, something in which he continues to show impressive alacrity.

And Capers even listened to complaints from Packer nation about taking Jones off the field in certain sub situations.

On the final drive, his version of “nickel” (but not Nitro ... Look, I know it’s confusing) featured played two linemen, two rush linebackers, two inside linebackers, two corners, and three safeties with Jones on the field.

And if you consider Jones a linebacker, as he often is, that’s really just a modified 4-3 alignment.

Against teams who run more traditional offenses, this could become a go-to formation to stop the run while keeping the flexibility of having Jones and Burnett on the field at the same time while also keeping some size with the linebackers.

Hidden in all of this is what the Packers must truly think of Damarious Randall as a talent. Despite getting kicked off the field last week, throwing a temper tantrum and lighting up social media over the incident, Randall was the starting nickel corner against Dallas until Davon House went out with cramps.

Josh Hawkins came in on the outside, but when it became clear House was going to be limited for more than just a play or two, Capers moved Randall back to the boundary. After the game Ha Ha Clinton-Dix called Randall the most talented defensive back they have.

Randall will be this team’s nickel corner moving forward and could develop into a pretty good one — given his instincts and playmaking ability — much the way Casey Hayward did early in his career with the Packers.

Packers fans will be happy to know that Randall may be 65th in passer rating when targeted this season, but Hayward is only 58th.

The second secret is this team believes in Josh Jones as the Nitro linebacker. When they went to sub-packages early, it was Jones next to Martinez with Burnett back in his original safety position.

If your head hurts trying to keep this all straight, you’re not alone. It’s hard to imagine Capers gets much sleep trying to fit all these pieces together, especially as injuries muddle the picture even further.

Given how well Burnett has played this season and the game Randall had Sunday — easily his best as a Packer since his rookie season — Green Bay may be one step closer to being able to play their best players together in a lineup that makes sense.

We hadn’t seen it to this point, with Kentrell Brice playing safety in Nitro with Burnett in the slot.

But as outstanding as Burnett was, part of the reason was neither the Bengals nor the Bears have a slot receiver who scares defenses. Cole Beasley does, which is why they went back to a more traditional lineup against the Cowboys.

Capers wanted Randall — the team’s most athletic corner — to cover him, but the injuries to House and then King forced Randall the play outside, moving Rollins to the slot.

When healthy, Capers wants House and King starting on the outside with Randall in the slot. At this point, there’s no argument against those being the three most talented corners on the roster. Hawkins, the fourth-best corner on the roster, will be CB4.

See how easy this is?

That means Burnett can resume his role as strong safety next to Clinton-Dix with Jones playing Nitro linebacker in sub.

The Packers actually played better than the final numbers represent on Sunday. Dak Prescott was out of this world good, winning the game nearly by himself thanks to half a dozen escapes, scrambles, and incredible throws.

The six best defensive backs for the Packers will be on the field in roles that suit them, and the emergence of Blake Martinez, along with the strong play of Ahmad Brooks and Nick Perry, could allow Green Bay to be even more flexible playing heavier personnel groups, using Clay Matthews off the ball more often.

No, Green Bay’s defense hasn’t been outstanding through five weeks, but they’re starting to create an identity and coalesce as Dom Capers is starting to find pieces that work together.