When Davon House replaced Kevin King on Sunday, Packers fans collectively groaned. Those pained noises turned to agonizing screams when House gave up a 75-yard touchdown to Stefon Diggs, no thanks to safety non-help from Kentrell Brice. Mike McCarthy pointed specifically to the King injury as a turning point in the game, claiming the team didn’t respond well to the injury.
The easy rebuttal is neither did Mike Pettine by putting House on the boundary instead of rookie Josh Jackson. Shortly after the torching, Jackson returned to the field and House was nowhere to be seen. Making the decision even more curious, Jackson had been playing early in the game, when King was still healthy. Why not simply slide him to the boundary, or better yet, put Jaire Alexander out there and put Jackson in the slot where he has shown promise early in his career?
Oddly, this week could be perfectly fine to start House on the outside and let Jackson assume his role as tight-end stopper against a Washington offense with noticeably fewer playmakers at receiver.
In Week 1, Jackson held Trey Burton to just one catch for 15 yards as his primary defender. Pettine went to defensive-back-centric personnel looks, playing six or more defensive backs nearly two-thirds of the defensive snaps. With Jordan Reed and Chris Thompson the focal points of Jay Gruden’s offense, such an approach could once again prove the prudent strategy.
Allow Alexander to match Jamison Crowder, who plays mostly from the slot, and simply don’t worry too much about Tramon Williams and House on the outside. Paul Richardson and Josh Doctson simply haven’t proven they can beat anyone consistently. Perhaps more importantly, Alex Smith isn’t going to heave the ball down the field. Through two weeks, only three starting quarterbacks average fewer intended air yards per attempt. He’s even behind Mitch Trubisky.
As it turns out, one big year throwing deep with Andy Reid and Tyreek Hill didn’t stop Smith from being who he really is: Checkdown Charlie.
Against the Colts in Week 2, Thompson and Reed combined for 19 catches on 22 targets for 147 yards, nearly half of Smith’s total attempts and yardage output. Reed is Washington’s best receiver, while Thompson is the team’s leading receiver. Pettine can confidently target them with cornerbacks, much like he did with Burton and Tarik Cohen, make Washington try to run the ball, and dare Alex Smith to beat coverage over the top.
Smith still struggles to get through his progressions, preferring instead to see his first read and then look to his checkdown when it’s not available. Pettine expertly took away Trubisky’s first read in Week 1 and forced him to hold the ball longer than he wanted. Smith won’t hold it, but rather look for Thompson or even Adrian Peterson who caught three passes for 30 yards of his own against the Colts.
Last season, teams like the Saints destroyed the Packers with pass-catching running backs, en route to a 29th defensive ranking against running backs according to football outsiders. Green Bay will welcome a game plan that includes pounding Peterson 20 times or more, particularly with the Washington offensive line coming off a horrid week against a thoroughly mediocre Colts front. Shawn Lauvao, Chase Roullier, and Morgan Moses struggled mightily to win their matchups and even a solid guard like Brandon Scherff wasn’t without his faults.
Pettine can trust his up-the-middle defense to hang in there against this group, particularly if Oren Burks comes back, and once again play undersized.
The return of Burks and safety Josh Jones could also buoy the bid to slow down the non-receivers for Washington. Jones possesses better athletic ability to play in the box compared to a player like Jermaine Whitehead and we know Burks easily possesses better coverage ability than any of the linebackers who have had to play with him sidelined.
Jones said he expects to play against Washington, though we’ll have to wait and see his status later in the week. The same is true for Burks, but even if they can’t go, the Packers have already shown a formula for slowing down tight ends and running backs when they’re the focal point of the offense.
If the King injury lingers, there could be future questions about where to play a talented rookie corner like Jackson, though it might not matter in Week 4 against the Bills. McCarthy said Wednesday he hopes the King injury isn’t serious, but that’s not the same as saying it isn’t. This defense would be better with King on the field, but in a matchup with Washington, using House as his replacement, actually provides the ideal opportunity to eschew traditional substitution patterns (in this case, playing the better player at the position), in order to prioritize specific one-on-one matchups. In this case, Jackson versus Reed makes the Packers defense better than Jackson versus (Literally pick a Washington receiver).
In the NFL, matchups change every week and the rookie from Iowa is already proving his versatility by being able to play on the boundary, in the slot, and as a de facto safety. That versatility could pay off this week for Pettine and this defense. Playing House over Jackson in Week 2 was the wrong decision. In Week 3, it could be the ideal call.