To open the season, the Green Bay Packers limited the roles of their top draft picks. That changed in Week 3 when the team finally took the training wheels off cornerback Kevin King and hybrid safety-linebacker Josh Jones.
Due in roughly equal parts to injuries and speed deficiencies exposed in their Week 2 defeat at the hands of the Atlanta Falcons, the Packers defense had to make significant personnel adjustments in advance of their matchup with the Cincinnati Bengals. Julio Jones tore the secondary apart seemingly whenever Matt Ryan looked in his direction, finishing the game with five catches for 108 yards. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman did for even more damage, combining for 145 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns. Overall, the Falcons' bevy of offensive weapons revealed what Green Bay lacked: speed and athleticism in the back of the defense.
Facing similarly difficult matchups with A.J. Green and the Bengals' three-headed backfield rotation without defensive stalwart Mike Daniels, edge rusher Nick Perry, and top cover man Davon House, the Packers had little choice but to increase the workload of King and Jones.
King largely shadowed Green during the game, allowing most of Green's 111-yard, one-touchdown performance. However, he did force Dalton to look off Green in several key situations, something the secondary proved unable to do much over the past calendar year. As he learns to better utilize his length and quickness, the Packers will ensure fewer issues with true No. 1 wideouts.
Meanwhile, Jones played like the Packers' defensive MVP. The rookie made the most of his career-high 61 snaps, including a third-down sack (one of two on the day) and multiple drive-killing tackles that helped the defense make enough stops to help win the game. In large part due to Jones, the Packers defense looked faster than the opposing offense for the first time in several years.
Moving forward, the Packers must use both extensively regardless of matchup and live with the positive and negative consequences. The defense will perform better by the end of the season if King and Jones can gain experience in the early parts of the schedule.
Injuries pushing Packers to limits in the trenches
For the third straight week, protecting Aaron Rodgers proved a Herculean task for the Packers. The absence of David Bakhtiari aided the Bengals pass rush, which sacked Rodgers on six occasions and knocked him down 11 times in total. Kyle Murphy struggled again with speed rushers as Bakhtiari's replacement, looking out of place and overmatched for much of the afternoon. Murphy entered the offseason hoping to compete for a start job at right guard. Yet instead, he has started on the blindside each of the last two weeks due to injury. Accordingly, attempts to grade his performance require a generous curve considering the assignment.
The Packers also found themselves without starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga for the final stretch of the game. Bulaga never left the sideline, suggesting he might not have re-aggravated his ankle too significantly, but the short week before the team's NFC North tilt with the Chicago Bears raises doubts about his availability.
On defense, the Packers face a similar predicament. With Perry sidelined with a hand injury and rookie Vince Biegel on the PUP list, the defense gave most of the work at outside linebacker to Clay Matthews (49 snaps), Kyler Fackrell (41), and Ahmad Brooks (32). A lack of depth has forced Green Bay to lean extensively on Matthews all year, a potentially troublesome trend given the linebacker's long injury history.
As for Brooks, the 33-year-old veteran already looks like a core piece of the pass rush. Brooks finished Sunday's game with multiple pressures, highlighted by a third-down sack of Andy Dalton that forced a Cincinnati punt. If the Packers hope to keep him healthy and active late into the season, they need to watch his snaps now, even if that forces them to use the less-explosive Fackrell in the short run.
Certainly, the Packers need Perry back to reach their defensive zenith. However, they will probably require more capable bodies as the season wears on. Accordingly, rookie Vince Biegel remains likely to return from the PUP list so long as his foot heals as expected. Green Bay can activate him as early as Week 7.