Ryan’s in­jury may al­ter de­fen­sive set

Packer Plus - - News - Tom Sil­ver­stein

Green Bay — The sails aren’t even up on the Green Bay Pack­ers’ de­fense, so pre­dict­ing the ex­act di­rec­tion it will travel un­der new co­or­di­na­tor Mike Pet­tine re­mains a bit of a mys­tery.

How­ever, the pos­si­bil­ity of him us­ing his lineback­ers in a tra­di­tional 3-4 man­ner be­came less likely Mon­day when in­side line­backer Jake Ryan suf­fered what ap­peared to be a se­ri­ous right knee in­jury.

Ryan went down in an 11-on-11 drill in which he was pur­su­ing rookie wide re­ceiver Equanimeous St. Brown af­ter a short catch in the flat. Af­ter Ryan grabbed at his knee in ob­vi­ous pain, some team­mates bowed their heads and took a knee as the train­ers at­tended to him.

“He was just dev­as­tated,” said in­side line­backer Blake Martinez, who spoke with Ryan af­ter he was carted to the locker room. “Ob­vi­ously, he was su­perex­cited about the sea­son. He’s been putting a tremen­dous amount of work in.”

The Pack­ers did not re­lease any de­tails on the in­jury and Ryan wasn’t sched­uled to un­dergo an MRI un­til Tues­day, but if it is a torn ACL, Ryan would be lost for the sea­son. Ryan is in the fi­nal year of his orig­i­nal four-year deal and was sched­uled to make $1.907 mil­lion in base salary this sea­son.

Of all the Pack­ers’ in­side lineback­ers, Ryan most fit the mold of the old 3-4 de­fenses, a run-stop­per able to bat­tle of­fen­sive line­men and shoot gaps.

Ryan was start­ing in the base de­fense, but Pet­tine has used nu­mer­ous com­bi­na­tions with Martinez, re­plac­ing Ryan with cor­ner­back Quentin Rollins, safeties Josh Jones and Jer­maine White­head, and rookie line­backer Oren Burks in the dime pack­age.

Burks was drafted in the third round be­cause the Pack­ers thought his size (6-3, 233), wing­span (79 inches) and speed (4.59 sec­onds in the 40-yard dash) made him a per­fect fit for the hy­brid safety/line­backer po­si­tion that has evolved in re­sponse to the many ath­letic tight ends that have en­tered the league.

The Pack­ers de­cided not to ad­dress the in­side line­backer po­si­tion with a tra­di­tional run-stop­ping line­backer at all, choos­ing in­stead to take some fly­ers on young play­ers who had played other po­si­tions in col­lege.

First-year free agent Ah­mad Thomas was a safety at Ok­la­homa. Un­drafted rookie Greer Mar­tini was an out­side rusher as a ju­nior at Notre Dame be­fore mov­ing in­side last year. Un­drafted rookie Naashon Hughes was a de­fen­sive end at Texas be­fore mov­ing into a hy­brid po­si­tion his se­nior year. Mar­cus Porter is un­der­sized and played at Fair­mont State.

All have been see­ing snaps at in­side line­backer with the No. 2 or 3 de­fenses dur­ing the first four days of train­ing camp.

The most im­por­tant ques­tion the Pack­ers must ask them­selves should Ryan be lost for the sea­son is whether they can play with just one tra­di­tional in­side line­backer.

An op­tion they could ex­plore if they fig­ure they can’t is mov­ing Clay Matthews in­side on early downs. Pet­tine has played four-man fronts with three de­fen­sive line­men and an “ele­phant” line­backer at other stops in his ca­reer and line­backer Nick Perry would be a bet­ter op­tion for that fourth spot than Matthews.

Mov­ing Matthews in­side would be one way to get both Perry and Matthews on the field in a 4-3 look.

If Gutekunst is any­thing like his pre­de­ces­sor, Ted Thomp­son, he’ll let things play out for a while rather than pur­sue a street free agent such as NaVorro Bow­man, Lawrence Tim­mons or Brian Cush­ing. He added Burks and the oth­ers for a rea­son and needs to find out whether one of them can han­dle the re­spon­si­bil­ity of re­plac­ing Ryan.

Martinez gath­ered the three rook­ies and Thomas over to the side­line af­ter prac­tice and told them the onus is on them to fill Ryan’s ab­sence.

“It just comes down to ‘What are we go­ing to do now?’ ” Martinez said. “Are we go­ing to sit back and be, ‘OK, well I’m just go­ing to play now be­cause Jake’s out.’ What are you go­ing to do to get bet­ter ev­ery day?”

First in line in the short term is Burks, who has played both in the base de­fense and the nickel and dime pack­ages dur­ing the first four prac­tices. Ath­let­i­cally, there’s lit­tle doubt that he can drop into zone, run with tight ends and cover backs in the flat.

Burks had to play cov­er­age as a safety in Van­der­bilt’s de­fense and rushed as an out­side line­backer, so he’s done it all.

“The ath­leti­cism and hav­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence at safety helps me out play­ing dime and ‘Will’ (base) when needed,” Burks said of play­ing in­side line­backer.

Tak­ing on 320-pound guards in the run game will be part of his role if he starts in the base de­fense and that’s go­ing to be much harder to han­dle, es­pe­cially in a 3-4 look. Pet­tine’s strength is sup­posed to be craft­ing his de­fense around his per­son­nel, so he may have to make some ad­just­ments for Burks.

At 6-3, 232 pounds, Mar­tini is thin for the in­side po­si­tion, but he started in Notre Dame’s base de­fense last year be­fore tear­ing car­ti­lage in his knee. Though he re­turned in eight days, he was not the same player and scouts didn’t grade him very highly.

Hughes was a team cap­tain for the Longhorns and served as a men­tor to many younger play­ers last sea­son for a new coach­ing staff. At 6-3, 259 pounds, he has the size to play a run-stop­ping role, but he moved around a lot in col­lege and has a lot to learn about play­ing in­side full-time.

“It just makes you that much bet­ter as a player if you can play mul­ti­ple po­si­tions just be­cause you never know what hap­pens,” Hughes said. “You just al­ways want to be ready and step in where you can.”

And that’s ex­actly what the Pack­ers need some­one to do. Right now.

ADAM WES­LEY / USA TO­DAY-WIS­CON­SIN

Pack­ers in­side line­backer Jake Ryan could be lost for a sig­nif­i­cant pe­riod of time af­ter in­jur­ing his knee on Mon­day dur­ing train­ing camp. That may change 3-4 schemes in Mike Pet­tine’s de­fense.

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