De­fense ready to fly in re­match.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - SPORTS - PETE DOUGHERTY

Some Green Bay Pack­ers play­ers, such as Clay Matthews, watched the video­tape the day af­ter.

Others, such as Joe Thomas, waited un­til they re­ported back for off-sea­son work­outs a cou­ple months later.

Ei­ther way, the video­tape of the At­lanta Fal­cons scorch­ing co­or­di­na­tor Dom Capers’ de­fense for 493 yards and 44 points in the NFC Cham­pi­onship game last Jan­uary had to be hor­ri­fy­ing view­ing for any­one who had a hand in the col­lapse.

“I hated (watch­ing) it,” Thomas said. “It was dev­as­tat­ing.”

It’s not like gen­eral man­ager Ted Thomp­son, coach Mike McCarthy and the rest of the foot­ball staff didn’t know be­fore that day that they had to get faster and more ex­plo­sive on de­fense. By half­way through the sea­son, it was clear the team’s great­est needs were pass rush­ing and cov­er­age.

But the con­fer­ence cham­pi­onship melt­down was a fry­ing pan to the face.

Even with the NFL’s 31stranked pass­ing de­fense, the Pack­ers were good enough to beat most teams. But to win a Su­per Bowl, you have to beat an of­fense or two in the At­lanta and New Eng­land class. That is, elite quar­ter­backs who, es­pe­cially in At­lanta’s case, are sur­rounded by some first-rate weapons.

The de­feat laid plain the Pack­ers’ des­per­a­tion to get faster, as the Fal­cons had in 2016.

It di­rectly led to Thomp­son draft­ing de­fen­sive play­ers with his four picks, in­clud­ing cover men with ex­cel­lent 40 times, Kevin King (4.43 sec­onds) and Josh Jones (4.41), with his first two se­lec­tions.

It also trig­gered a fun­da­men­tal change in Capers’ scheme: Safety Mor­gan Bur­nett’s move from safety to in­side line­backer.

We got a first ex­tended look at that “ni­tro” scheme last Sun­day in the Pack­ers’ 17-9 win over Seat­tle. Capers played it for but a hand­ful of the 49 de­fen­sive snaps. And a com­par­i­son with the video of the NFC ti­tle game shows that this isn’t just a tweak in Capers’ de­fen­sive ap­proach. It’s an evo­lu­tion in phi­los­o­phy.

In that game last Jan­uary, the Pack­ers’ pri­mary de­fense was their normal nickel, with two tra­di­tional in­side lineback­ers, usu­ally Thomas and Jake Ryan.

Of the Pack­ers’ 73 de­fen­sive snaps that day, 53 were in nickel. That might work well enough against a lot of teams, but not against a Matt Ryan or Tom Brady.

Jake Ryan (4.65 40) and Thomas (4.70) were ripe pick­ings, down af­ter down, against run­ning backs Devonta Free­man (five catches for 42 yards) and Tevin Cole­man (three for 35), and in zone matchups with re­ceivers and tight ends cross­ing the mid­dle of the field.

The most telling stat of the day, other than the score­board, was At­lanta’s 10-for-13 con­ver­sion rate on third downs. And re­ally, it was 10-for-12, be­cause the fi­nal fail­ure came in the last three min­utes of a game the Fal­cons led by 23 points.

Matt Ryan’s passer rat­ing on third downs was 144.9, and he con­verted first downs on nine of his 11 third-down at­tempts. That was the game. He made the play al­most every time he needed to keep the drive alive. The Pack­ers’ de­fense couldn’t get off the field.

“(Ryan) was red hot,” said one scout for an AFC team, “and he took what they gave them, dink and dunk and the tight end. … They just kept Green Bay off bal­ance.”

With Bur­nett (4.51 40) re­plac­ing one of the in­side lineback­ers, the Pack­ers now are faster in two places: The mid­dle of the field with Bur­nett at line­backer, and on the back end, with the more ex­plo­sive Ken­trell Brice (4.44, 42-inch ver­ti­cal) re­plac­ing the 28-yearold Bur­nett at safety.

“(The Fal­cons) will spread you out,” said a de­fen­sive as­sis­tant coach for an NFC team. “Get­ting faster and more ath­letic, that’s good. Limit the yards af­ter the catch.”

But line­backer wasn’t the only is­sue. Matt Ryan scorched the Pack­ers’ corner­backs, too. Only per­son­nel changes could solve that, though whether the cor­ner­back play has im­proved a lit­tle or a lot is very much an open ques­tion in only Week 2 of the 2017 sea­son.

The most telling change is that the No. 1 cor­ner­back last sea­son, LaDar­ius Gunter, couldn’t stick on the ros­ter this year. The Pack­ers cut him this week.

Gunter has de­cent size (6-1, 202) and com­pet­i­tive fire, but his ath­letic lim­i­ta­tions (4.69, 33

1⁄2-inch ver­ti­cal) were never go­ing away. He fol­lowed Jones all over the field in the cham­pi­onship game, but even with con­stant help over the top Gunter was no match for the All-Pro (180 yards and two touch­downs).

Jones has torched plenty of corner­backs, but his 73-yard catch and run for a touch­down early in the third quar­ter was the eye opener in the tal­ent gap. Gunter even got caught hold­ing on Jones’ cross­ing route, but Jones shrugged him off, made the catch, ditched Gunter’s tackle, stiff-armed Da­mar­i­ous Ran­dall to the ground, and scored.

On Sun­day, if Capers matches one cor­ner­back with Jones, it prob­a­bly will be Davon House. If not, House, Ran­dall and Quin­ten Rollins will share the re­spon­si­bil­ity. And you have to won­der if Capers might even give the 6-3 rookie King a shot at the game’s best re­ceiver, who him­self is 6-3.

It’s also safe to as­sume there will be plenty of help from the safeties, just like last Jan­uary.

“Last year is last year,” Ran­dall said. “We have a dif­fer­ent swag­ger, we have a cou­ple new faces. I feel like we’re a to­tally dif­fer­ent de­fense.”

Along those lines, I asked sev­eral play­ers how much the de­fen­sive melt­down at At­lanta stuck with them in the off­sea­son. Thomas ex­pressed the strong­est feel­ings.

“Think­ing about my play in that game, I get sick my­self,” he said.

But no one of­fered up car­ry­ing a sense of em­bar­rass­ment, hu­mil­i­a­tion or anger into this game.

“I don’t think we have any re­sent­ment in the way we lost, or added mo­ti­va­tion,” Matthews said. “I’d say Seat­tle (in the cham­pi­onship game in the 2014 sea­son) was a more dev­as­tat­ing loss than last year, not to say losses have dif­fer­ent sever­i­ties of de­pres­sion or what­ever neg­a­tive word you want to put with that. But to be com­pletely hon­est that (At­lanta) game hasn’t been talked about. It’s been used as film to watch.”

That’s hard to take that at face value. Play­ers rarely cop to their feel­ings about such a hum­bling big-game per­for­mance in the lead up to the re­match. That’s hu­man na­ture and NFL coach­ing cul­ture.

But I sus­pect plenty of Pack­ers play­ers and staff re­main mor­ti­fied at what hap­pened in the Ge­or­gia Dome eight months ago. And I’ll bet at least some coaches have brought it up this week to keep the fires burn­ing.

That game cer­tainly re­moved any doubt about the Pack­ers’ ur­gent need for speed on de­fense. Now we’ll see just what kind of a dif­fer­ence ni­tro re­ally makes.

GETTY IMAGES

Draft­ing Julio Jones in 2011 was one of the rea­sons the Fal­cons were NFC cham­pi­ons last sea­son.

BENNY SIEU / USA TODAY SPORTS

Pack­ers safety Mor­gan Bur­nett tries bring­ing down Ea­gles re­ceiver Tor­rey Smith af­ter Smith’s catch in their pre­sea­son game Aug. 10. Bur­nett is adding in­side line­backer to his re­spon­si­bil­i­ties in the team’s ‘Ni­tro’ pack­age.

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