Time for the rook­ies to get their op­por­tu­ni­ties on de­fense

Packer Plus - - News - PETE DOUGHERTY

Dif­fer­ent sta­dium. Same teams. Same re­sult.

Eight months later, the Green Bay Pack­ers still can’t keep up with the At­lanta Fal­cons. The Pack­ers’ 34-23 loss at the newly chris­tened Mercedes-Benz Sta­dium in so many ways looked like the Pack­ers’ blowout loss to these same Fal­cons in the Ge­or­gia Dome last Jan­uary in the NFC cham­pi­onship.

The Pack­ers’ de­fense, which this time fea­tured a heavy dose of their ni­tro pack­age, couldn’t get any stops when they needed them. And the of­fense failed to put any pres­sure on the Fal­cons, be­cause it failed to match At­lanta, or at least keep the game close, in the first half.

The score didn’t look quite as bad this time — it was 44-21 in the cham­pi­onship game — but for the bulk of the game it was sim­i­lar enough.

Of course, there are some caveats for this one. It’s tough to win in the NFL when both start­ing tack­les (David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bu­laga) are out with in­juries. But with the de­fense get­ting gashed against both the pass and run, it prob­a­bly didn’t mat­ter any­way.

At­lanta scored when it needed points and got first downs when it needed to kill the clock. There’s lit­tle rea­son to think the Fal­cons wouldn’t have scored as many points as they needed to win this one.

The big­gest les­son com­ing out of this game is that the move of Mor­gan Bur­nett to line­backer made at best a mar­ginal dif­fer­ence this time around. The Fal­cons still are too com­plete and ex­plo­sive for the Pack­ers. Co­or­di­na­tor Dom Capers’ de­fense had no an­swers for re­ceivers Julio Jones (five catches, 108 yards) and Mo­hamed Sanu (five catches, 85 yards) in the first half, and run­ning back Devonta Free- man (19 car­ries, 84 yards) in the sec­ond half.

It’s time the Pack­ers quit slow-play­ing the de­vel­op­ment of their top two draft picks, cor­ner­back Kevin King and safety-line­backer Josh Jones. They drafted them specif­i­cally to get faster and more ex­plo­sive on de­fense, so they’d have a bet­ter chance against the Fal­cons and their ilk.

Both ac­tu­ally played a de­cent amount Sun­day night. Capers went to King af­ter Da­mar­i­ous Ran­dall and Quin­ten Rollins took their lumps in the first quar­ter or so, and King showed why he was the No. 33 pick in the draft. His length at 6-3 makes a dif­fer- ence, and he had the ath­leti­cism to make a tackle or two in the open field that no­body else was mak­ing.

You have to think this game was enough for Capers to put King in the start­ing lineup and keep him there. Let the other guys (Davon House, Ran­dall, Rollins and Josh Hawkins) bat­tle it out for the other two cor­ner­backs spots in nickel and ni­tro. King is the most tal­ented of the group and is go­ing to im­prove the most be­tween now and Jan­uary.

As for Jones, he played at safety af­ter Ken­trell Brice left the game be­cause of a groin in­jury. But safety isn’t where Jones will make a dif­fer­ence. He’s got to get some snaps at line­backer. There has to be a way to get him on the field, ei­ther in the dime or in some other spe­cial pack­age.

The game also re­vealed what an in­dis­pens­able player Mike Daniels has be­come. The de­fen­sive line­man left the game in the first quar­ter be­cause of a ham­string in­jury — he’d been on the in­jury re­port all week be­cause of a hip is­sue — and never re­turned. With­out him blow­ing up the oc­ca­sional play and pro­vid­ing an in­side rush, or at min­i­mum com­mand­ing a Fal­cons dou­ble team, the de­fense floun­dered.

If his in­jury is a long-term or lin­ger­ing prob­lem, the Pack- ers will be in trou­ble.

The odds were against the Pack­ers from the start be­cause Bakhtiari (ham­string) and Bu­laga (an­kle, ill­ness) were pregame scratches. So was backup left tackle Ja­son Spriggs (ham­string), though his dis­ap­point­ing train­ing camp meant that the is­sues Sun­day night might have been the same even if he’d played. That left Kyle Mur­phy, a right tackle by trade since en­ter­ing the NFL last year, as the left tackle, and Justin McCray, a guard-cen­ter, as the right tackle.

It’s tough to win in the NFL play­ing back­ups at both tack­les. And when re­ceiver Jordy Nel­son left the game for good in the first quar­ter, the Pack­ers were with­out their best re­ceiver.

Those losses aren’t im­pos­si­ble to over­come, but it makes for a much tougher road, and the Pack­ers couldn’t put up the points early to keep con­tact. Quar­ter­back Aaron Rodgers was sacked three times and hit seven times. One of those hits turned into a fum­ble that At­lanta re­turned for a touch­down. In two games this sea­son, he’s taken too many shots.

Af­ter a touch­down drive on the Pack­ers’ first pos­ses­sion, Rodgers was shut out the rest of the first half. He closed the game with two TD passes in the fourth quar­ter, but that was mostly win­dow dress­ing.

For now, the Fal­cons re­main the clearly su­pe­rior team. It’s a long sea­son, and much can change be­tween now and the start of the play­offs. But the Pack­ers can’t match the Fal­cons’ weapons in a shootout, so they have to find a way to close the tal­ent gap with their de­fense.

They don’t have a lot of op­tions. A healthy Daniels is a must. As is get­ting more help from this year’s rookie class. King and Jones have to play.

RICK WOOD / MIL­WAU­KEE JOUR­NAL SEN­TINEL

Fal­cons run­ning back Tevin Cole­man is pulled down for no gain by Pack­ers cor­ner­back Kevin King. If the Pack­ers are go­ing to make a splash on de­fense, the rook­ies may have to play more.

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