Against the Steelers, a strange thing happened: the Packers played a traditional nickel defense.
Four players on the line (though two standing), two linebackers, two safeties, and three corners.
“But Peter,” you’re saying, “Green Bay’s sub-package is basically their base defense at this point. Do you even watch the games?”
And that’s true,
I don’t watch the games, Dom Capers loves to play with the extra defensive back. But this season, Capers took it a step further and created Nitro, which replaced Jake Ryan with Morgan Burnett to make Nitro a de facto dime defense and that became the base.
For some reason, the Nitro all but disappeared against the Steelers, for reasons that aren’t altogether clear.
That can’t happen this week against Tampa Bay.
The Buccaneers do have two dangerous pass-catching tight ends in Cameron Brate and rookie O.J. Howard. Expect the Bucs to use a lot of two tight end sets and Dom Capers can’t be afraid to use the Nitro package against what is traditionally a run formation for offenses.
Dirk Koetter’s run offense has been anemic all season and without Doug Martin likely will be even worse Sunday.
Josh Jones wasn’t on the field nearly enough against Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and Co. and that’s a mistake Capers cannot make against Jameis Winston, Mike Evans, and DeSean Jackson, especially with the quality of the aforementioned tight ends.
When Jake Ryan went down early in the season with the secondary already beset by injury, Dom Capers inserted his rookie chess piece into the lineup against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Josh Jones produced his best game of the season in his first start, flying around the field, making 12 tackles with a pair of sacks.
He looked like the versatile playmaker we’d heard about in camp, a player capable of playing at the line of scrimmage, in slot, off the edge or deep as a safety.
Coincidentally, that was also Morgan Burnett’s best game, playing mostly in the slot as a corner.
So why then, against a Steelers team in base personnel, would Green Bay rather have Randall on the field than their rookie hybrid linebacker/safety.
Put another way, why would Dom Capers pick the Ryan/Randall combo over either Jones/Randall or Ryan/Jones?
Isn’t that why they drafted Jones in the first place?
Did they really need Randall to cover Jesse James or Xavier Grimble?
This example underscores the trouble Capers has had, at times, deploying his playmaking rookie in the way he’s best utilized.
Part of that blame belongs to Burnett who hasn’t been on the field enough to allow Capers to move him or Jones around.
But the other part is simply Capers’ inability to find a suitable role for Jones on an every down basis.
Since that Bengals game, Burnett has played just four times, leaving twice with injuries and preventing he and Jones from developing roles in this defense.
As a result, Jones has played nearly 66% of snaps this season, behind only Haha Clinton-Dix and Damarious Randall, though his play has often been dictated by personnel around him.
With Morgan Burnett out of the lineup, Jones basically never comes off the field, but outside of that Week 3 game where each played every snap for the Packers, Burnett has been the driving factor in keeping Jones on the bench.
But correlated position is the non-Blake Martinez linebacker spot. Ryan’s injury forced Jones into the game, deploying Green Bay’s Nitro package.
Since Ryan has gotten healthy, they’re playing less Nitro, not more, a move primarily driven by Burnett’s struggles to stay on the field.
But last week against the Steelers with Burnett playing every snap, Jones received just 35% of defensive snaps while Ryan played double that.
Isn’t a game against a dynamic offense with a weapon like Le’Veon Bell exactly why they wanted Jones to play dime linebacker in the first place?
If they’re not going to play Nitro against the Steelers then why play it at all?
Bell wound up with 12 catches on Sunday, if for no other reason than Green Bay too often pushed their safeties deep and had no underneath coverage. What little they had was left to Martinez and Ryan, both significantly less explosive in the open field than Jones.
For most of the year when both Burnett and Ryan have been healthy, the allocation of snaps has made sense. Against the Bears and Cowboys Ryan played more than normal, though still less than Jones.
Against the Lions, Burnett once again left with injury and Jones played every snap while Ryan played barely a quarter of them.
This follows a pattern: they want to use Ryan to stop the run and Jones against teams who want to pass and that makes sense.
Except in the case of the Steelers.
They’re an offense tailor-made for the Nitro package and so is Tampa Bay. The Packers shouldn’t be scared of stopping their run game. In fact, if anything, they should be daring the Bucs to dial up the ground game and run into the teeth of what has been an excellent run defense this season.
Capers needs Jones, Burnett, and Martinez working together to defend the middle of the field against the Buccaneers’ stable of pass catchers and Jake Ryan simply isn’t suited for that kind of work.
I don’t care what fun name Capers comes up with, he has to make sure Jones is on the field and getting a chance to make plays.