GREEN BAY — There is an internal debate every football coach goes through whenever a gifted young player comes on board.
Do you throw him into the fray right away and live with his mistakes hoping to accelerate his development? Or do you wait to play him until he has mastered the scheme so he doesn’t gum up the works and give up big plays?
Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers — especially Capers — generally have fallen on the conservative side of that debate. Like many of their coaching brethren, they would prefer to go with an established veteran over a more-talented rookie who might make mistakes that compromise their precious schemes or limit their play-calling flexibility. They usually make rookies earn their trust during snippets of playing time in hopes of having them ready for the really important games in December and January.
Historically, there is no one-size-fits-all answer in this debate, but in this instance there is. After experiencing still another defensive collapse at Atlanta in the second game of the season Sunday, the Packers can no longer afford to think conservatively when it comes to using their two second-round draft picks on defense.
Cornerback Kevin King and safety Josh Jones, two of the fastest players in the draft at their positions, were brought in for one reason — to add speed to the Packers defense after it melted down against the Falcons’ explosive offense in the NFC Championship Game at Atlanta in January. Yet, despite facing virtually the same offense Sunday, neither rookie was in the starting lineup or really even in the plan at the start of the game.
After dropping a 34-23 decision to the Falcons, the Packers can’t afford to make that mistake again. Injuries might force King and Jones into more prominent roles against Cincinnati on Sunday, but even if everyone is healthy, those two need to play more or even start, especially in the nitro package that has become the team’s defacto base defense. If the Packers hope to take advantage of the 4.42-second speed that King and Jones possess, that speed needs to be on the field for something more than special teams, even if it means living through a mistake or three.
The Packers opened the Atlanta game in nitro with Davon House, signed in free agency, and Damarious Randall at cornerback and Quinten Rollins at nickel back. They used safety Morgan Burnett at inside linebacker to get more speed on the field and brought in Kentrell Brice at deep safety alongside Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Clearly, they thought the addition of House and a return to good health by Randall and Rollins would alter the matchup and help them close the gap on the Falcons.
They thought wrong. As in the January game, Green Bay’s secondary matched up poorly against tall wide receivers Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu and the Packers paid the price on the scoreboard.
Randall, Rollins and Brice had problems covering and tackling against Atlanta, forcing a series of changes. King replaced an ineffective Randall on the outside. Randall replaced an ineffective Rollins in the slot. Then House injured his quadriceps and Randall had to slide back outside. Finally, Brice injured his groin and was replaced by Jones.
Along the way, we learned that House, while a shaky tackler, can still cover, that Randall and Rollins, the team’s top two draft picks in 2015, lack the size, speed and discipline to cover elite receivers one-on-one and that King and Jones simply must be on the field more than they have been.
The 6-foot-3 King played 46 defensive snaps after playing only six in the opener. He made two plays on the ball and was the only defender with the size and speed to match up with Julio Jones.
Josh Jones, who played only special teams in the opener, was in for 29 defensive snaps. At 6-2 and 220 pounds, he did his best work as a tackler even though he lined up deep a fair amount.
Given Green Bay’s changes in personnel and health, Capers devised a game plan using a lot of straight-up man-to-man coverage. It was a mistake, in part because the Packers’ fastest players weren’t on the field.
King would give the Packers height and speed on the outside and Jones would give them flexibility in the nitro package. Jones could move up to inside linebacker, where his size and closing speed would fit right in, and Burnett could return to deep safety next to Clinton-Dix. If Burnett lined up deep instead of Jones, any mistakes by Jones wouldn’t be nearly as costly for the Packers as they would be if he were the last line of defense.
McCarthy and Capers hinted Monday that both rookies could play more. House and Brice didn’t practice Wednesday, so King and Jones might be forced to play more.
Actually, they should start. In the NFL, experience is great but it is talent that tilts the field. Even if the Packers have to slim down the playbook, it would be worth it to get their speed into the mix.
Green Bay might not need that speed against struggling offenses such as Cincinnati’s and Chicago’s in their next two games, but it’ll need it against more explosive offenses later on. The Packers need to get their explosive rookies up to speed — and the sooner the better.