As the Green Bay Packers head into the final game of the regular season, I want to wish everyone a happy holiday season as I hope for a much more positive 2019 football season in Titletown.
But before the Packers host the Detroit Lions on Sunday, we take a look back at some observations from last week’s win over the New York Jets. While one younger defensive player took another step forward in New York, another was rarely seen. And as the defense figures to see quite a bit of re-tooling in the offseason, there is one position the Packers could target to improve their pass rush that has been missing for some time.
Here are some weekend Packer musings to ponder over your favorite holiday foods and beverages.
Tony Brown looks to have more promise than any other Packer undrafted cornerback since Sam Shields.
My, how times change. In early-to-mid October, I had had enough of the undisciplined penalties Brown had picked up on defense and special teams. Since that time, Brown has cut down those mental errors and logged meaningful defensive snaps for the Packers. The results have been promising and his performance against the Jets may have been the cherry on top for the former undrafted free agent.
Brown was easily the most physical and passionate player on the defensive side of the field for Green Bay last Sunday. While his inconsistency in coverage still shows, his aggressiveness as a cover man and in pursuit is a breath of fresh air. Though he was not necessarily a diamond in the rough after starting for Alabama as a former five-star recruit, he was a player that the Packers signed to the practice squad with relative ease early in the season. While the Packers have searched the undrafted market in recent seasons only to never see players like Josh Hawkins, Lenzy Pipkins, and LaDarius Gunter fully blossom, Brown has stepped right into first-team reps as a rookie without major blemishes.
The Packers drafted Josh Jackson in the second round last April, hoping he would play an instrumental role in the secondary. So far, Brown has looked every bit as athletic and aware as Jackson, if not more so.
Mike Pettine’s defense was able to generate pressure from many positions and should add interior line talent
The external pass rush struggles were obvious this season, but sometimes missed is how much more other positions stepped up despite that flaw. Even without a healthy Mike Daniels for a lengthy part of the season, Kenny Clark (six sacks) and Dean Lowry (three) added an interior pass rush to go along with Daniels’ two sacks. Blake Martinez added five sacks from the inside linebacker position and the Packers’ secondary combined for 5.5 sacks of their own. Although the Packers’ outside linebackers only recorded 17 sacks, the defense totaled 43 as a whole. Rarely in the years of the 3-4 defense have the Packers had to overcome such a wide gap.
To me, that means the Packer defense is getting closer to where it needs to be to eventually become a superior defense. As I pointed out in this article yesterday, Green Bay’s Super Bowl defense was not amazing at applying edge pressure in 2010. But it got help from defensive linemen like Cullen Jenkins and B.J. Raji, who tallied seven and 6.5 sacks respectively. The pass rush improvement from budding star Kenny Clark was not necessarily likely this season, but perhaps not surprising either. Muhammad Wilkerson may have helped this season in filling a Jenkins-like role at end but a major injury got in the way.
Adding a five-technique player who could provide 5-6 sacks next season would be yet another help for the Packer defense. Jeffery Simmons of Mississippi State, who plays in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day, is one such player who could immediately give the Packers versatility and pass rushing prowess if available in the first round. Either way, young talent like Clark and Martinez coming back next season means Green Bay will have talent surrounding any new pass rushing weapons.
What happened to Oren Burks?
There was a moment during Sunday’s game where I thought I had missed Burks on the injury report with inside linebacker snaps going to a combination of Blake Martinez, Josh Jones, and Eddie Pleasant depending on the scheme. But later on, the Packers’ third-round pick was found running down the field on special teams.
That Green Bay has not been willing to use Burks on defense, even in the Packers’ last two mostly meaningless games is not a vote of confidence for the young player. The Packers drafted him to fill the role at inside linebacker that safeties have heavily employed the last two seasons — a fastier, rangier, better-covering linebacker. After a preseason that showed promise for Burks in getting sideline to sideline as a tackler, the former Vanderbilt standout has been almost non-existent after a shoulder injury in late August. And while Burks certainly is a raw talent that still needs to learn how to overcome large offensive linemen, he has many athletic tools at his disposal.
Theoretically, this would be the best time to throw Burks into the fire for regular season game reps when wins and losses do not quite mean what they did earlier in the year. Instead, Green Bay has not done so, a very concerning development.