Most of Dom Capers’ more inspired coaching moves come when his back is against the proverbial wall.
If all the corners are either hurt or bad, try Morgan Burnett.
That gamble last year paid off this year as Burnett slid into the slot in Week 3 against the Bengals in a big spot. He’s re-assumed that role with Kevin King out and even played some on the outside against the Browns on Sunday.
With Davon House dealing with a transverse fracture in his back, he’ll be out at least this week and possibly Week 16.
Given the way Damarious Randall played against the Browns, with physicality, tenacity, and effort, he’s taken up the mantle as the best corner on this team. In fact, he’s been that for most of the season now coming off the bizarre situation earlier in the year with his benching and the apparent walk out.
Regardless of any “disadvantages,” Randall held Gordon to one catch for 13 yards on Sunday when Capers decided to play what ex-Packer Gary Ellerson calls the ‘cat’ defense — as in “You’ve got that cat.”
I’ve long espoused this team’s move to man coverage, if for no other reason than they’re young and athletic and that’s just the easiest type of scheme for young, physically gifted defensive backs to play. This isn’t 2016 when Randall was a shell of himself. He’s playing at a high level and should be able to take on the challenge of taking on a team’s best receiver.
Against Carolina, a team with only one receiver, the loss of Davon House shouldn’t be crippling. After all, they just beat the Vikings in an impressive fashion despite fewer than 150 yards through the air from Cam Newton.
Josh Hawkins as a starting boundary corner isn’t anyone’s version of a best-case scenario, but against a Panthers roster where Russell Shepard, Kaelin Clay, and Brenton Bursin are a thing it shouldn’t be a killer. (I promise those are all real names, though I could have just used the Madden name generator and I suspect you wouldn’t have known the difference).
Green Bay would love to have House for the Vikings game where Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs form an impressive duo, but Thielen plays a little over half his snaps from the slot where the Packers can feel okay about matching him up with Burnett. Certainly, they should feel better about that than if he had to face Lenzy Pipkins or Donatello Brown.
Given the disparity in how the Panthers and Vikings play, divining any sort of cohesive model of attack would be difficult.
For Carolina, a game we’re certain House will miss, expect the Packers to load the box, play heavy base personnel, and much as they did against the Browns, only play two true corners at a given time.
In fact, the Packers played some snaps with just one true corner on the field after House got hurt. When Carolina goes to heavy personnel, Randall could conceivably be the only real corner on the field and perhaps the Packers feel comfortable sticking Burnett out there at corner on base downs.
If they are, Capers could choose to play with seven traditional players in the box (four linemen and three off-ball linebackers) plus three safeties on the field with Josh Jones playing in the box to stop the run and Randall the only real corner as a sort of “heavy” defense.
It would be a throwback, but given the Packers’ personnel and the limitations of the Panthers offense, going that direction could pay dividends.
Carolina will feature Christian McCaffrey heavily out of the backfield and split out wide, which will likely draw the assignment of Josh Jones with Burnett having to play more traditional corner.
That suits Jones, coming off his best game since September, just fine given his athletic ability and man cover skills.
Green Bay drafted the North Carolina State star for assignments just like this.
This defense was built for versatility and their willingness to experiment with personnel belies how poorly this unit has been schemed at times by Capers. That said, Burnett could once again become the Swiss Army knife that allows the Packers to fill gaps they otherwise wouldn’t be able to fill, both literally on the field, and metaphorically on the roster.
Thanks to the drafting of Ted Thompson and the development from this defensive coaching staff, the Packers face a crisis at cornerback much more prepared than they were a season ago.