The Green Bay Packers’ secondary went from “all hands on deck” to a depleted unit needing a creative shuffling of bodies in a flash. Over the past eight days, four key players — three true starters and one who may as well be one — either have come down with injuries or were shipped off the team’s roster, leaving the coaching staff in a bit of a bind as they prepare to play the Miami Dolphins on Sunday in week ten.
Much has been written and discussed about the trade of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and the surprising release of Jermaine Whitehead, which leave permanent holes at free safety and the hybrid safety/slot/linebacker role, but the injuries may have an even more pressing impact in the short term. Cornerback Kevin King came down with a hamstring injury in the first half of last Sunday’s game in New England, while safety Kentrell Brice also left the game with a knee injury. Combined with Whitehead’s ejection, that left the Packers in quite a bind at halftime.
Adjusting on the fly, the Packers elected to keep Tramon Williams at free safety, pairing him with Josh Jones on the back end and rolling with a cornerback group of Bashaud Breeland, Jaire Alexander, and Josh Jackson. Ultimately, those five players are going to be the key contributors in this secondary moving forward, with the two injured players fitting back into the lineup when they return. (Tony Brown and Will Redmond are both on the roster as well, but neither has any significant experience on defense, and are likely to see the field only in case of emergency.)
The question now becomes how best to utilize those five players, particularly in week ten but also moving forward if King’s and Brice’s injuries keep them out for an extended length of time. The good news for the Packers is that they face a Dolphins offense that appears to be thoroughly depleted of many major weapons in the passing game.
Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill has a shoulder injury and is not expected to play, particularly with the Dolphins having a bye in week 11. That puts Brock Osweiler in the starting lineup. The team’s most dynamic receiving threat this season has been Albert Wilson, but he landed on injured reserve recently and is unavailable. In two games without Wilson, Osweiler has averaged a miserable six yards per pass attempt and has not thrown a touchdown pass.
The rest of the Dolphins’ receiving corps should fail to strike any fear into Mike Pettine. Danny Amendola is still a useful slot player, but he cannot carry a passing game alone. The same can be said for Jakeem Grant, a very quick, very small player who played about half the team’s snaps a week ago. DeVante Parker followed up a big six-catch, 134-yard day in week eight with just one reception for eight yards last Sunday. Kenny Stills is probably the team’s most dangerous weapon remaining, but he had just one catch last week as well as he is working his way back from a groin injury. Rookie tight end Mike Gesicki oozes athleticism and ability, but has a long way to go in terms of his development.
All told, Miami is likely to establish the run behind Kenyan Drake rather than spreading the field with a lot of receivers. Therefore, the Packers probably can stick to using just those five defensive backs in most situations on Sunday. With this advantageous matchup facing the Packers — at least on paper — this could be an opportunity for the team to try a handful of different solutions and configurations in the secondary.
Mike McCarthy praised Williams’ adjustment to safety on Wednesday, but perhaps he’s a better matchup on Amendola, at least in some situations, rather than playing the deep middle. Breeland has been mentioned as a possible safety, and McCarthy likes his ability to play multiple cornerback spots, so why not a little safety as well? Jackson has an excellent safety build and skill set; plus, Cris Collinsworth mentioned on Sunday night’s broadcast that “the Packers think he might be a safety,” so this game could be an excuse to get him some reps there to see how he looks.
Then there’s Jones, who has seemingly been in the coaches’ doghouse until a few days ago. If Brice can’t play, that leaves Jones likely as a full-time player at strong safety. But if Brice can suit up and play, even on a limited snap count, Jones could get some reps at the dime linebacker spot, a place where he had tremendous success in a few games a year ago.
The point here is that the Packers have options for how to deploy their personnel, even if circumstances dictate exactly who makes up that personnel group. And this shapes up to be a great game to try out some new wrinkles and see what sticks.