Packers Go All In On Youth
by Mike Conklin
September 16, 2012
Out with the old, in with the new.
The Packers wanted to infuse their defense with young talent, as evidenced by the fact that they spent their first six draft picks on defenders last April. Because the defense needed help, the hope was that some of those rookies would develop quickly and would be able to see the field and play meaningful minutes during the course of this season. That hope quickly became a reality against the Bears on Thursday night.
The Packers are a draft-and-develop team that likes to constantly build for the future, and the "develop" part of that equation means that it is often necessary to give young players some time to season before they are called upon to produce on the field. The Packers have preferred not to rely too heavily on rookies during the Thompson-McCarthy era, although there have been exceptions with high picks such as A.J. Hawk, B.J. Raji, Clay Matthews, and Bryan Bulaga. Randall Cobb may have played a key role on special teams last season, but his role in the offense was limited. There have been other notable exceptions who started as rookies that were pressed into service because the team was extremely weak at their particular positions, such as Daryn Colledge and Morgan Burnett. But for the most part, since the Packers have become a perennial contender the rookies have been relied upon less and less to make a splash right away.
That is why it made such an impression when this year's crop of rookies made a strong impact against the Bears. Six rookies played meaningful minutes, and played key roles on all three levels of the defense. Jerel Worthy (37 snaps) and Mike Daniels (14) each had sacks. Nick Perry (20) and Dezman Moses (19) were both among the team leaders in quarterback hurries. And Jerron McMillian (44) and Casey Hayward (24) both played well in coverage, ensuring that Jay Cutler didn't have any easy outlets when he was under pressure.
Using statistics compiled by Pro Football Focus, not only did each of the rookies play over 20% of the team's total defensive snaps, but they were effective in doing so.
Last week against the 49ers, Nick Perry tied for the team lead in total snaps played. His results were mixed at best. Dom Capers said Friday that Perry had injured his wrist against the 49ers, and it is unclear whether that may have had any effect on his play. This week the Packers drastically decreased his time on the field, and his production increased dramatically. Of his 20 snaps, he rushed the quarterback on 15 of them and netted three quarterback hurries, most of any player on the team (sacks are excluded). While Perry's performance didn't particularly jump out during the game, that fact that a rookie linebacker was able to apply some measure of pressure to the quarterback on 20% of his rushes can be interpreted as a promising statistic. In the play that resulted in Mike Daniels' first NFL sack, Perry walked his man back into the pocket, causing Cutler to vacate the area.
Not to be outdone, Dezman Moses hurried the quarterback twice, on only seven quarterback rushes. It was interesting to note that although Perry and Moses played almost the same number of snaps, Moses only ended up rushing the passer about half as many times as Perry. During the 19 snaps while Moses was on the field, the Bears ran the ball eight times. During the 11 pass plays Moses faced, he dropped into coverage four times. That is a bit of a contrast from Perry, who was only asked to drop into coverage once during the 16 passing plays that took place while he was on the field.
With starting defensive end C.J. Wilson out of the lineup, Jerel Worthy was asked to fill the void and did so admirably. While the expectation coming into the season was that Worthy's role would likely be that of an interior pass rusher in the nickel, he held up well against the run and may have actually looked better doing so than rushing the passer. Although he was able to notch the first sack of his career, Worthy's most impactful play might have come when the Bears were on a promising drive early in the fourth quarter. They had the ball on a 2nd-and-2 play, and were already in scoring position at the Packers' 25-yard line. Michael Bush took the handoff and tried to run off left tackle. A.J. Hawk burst into the backfield and blew up the play, but was unable to bring Bush down. Worthy appeared blocked on the play initially, but was able to make a 360-degree spin move to break free. He racked up the first tackle for loss in his young career, and the Bears eventually had to settle for a field goal on that drive.
After not making the active roster in Week 1, Mike Daniels made his NFL debut. He was active while he was on the field and used the wrestling technique we referenced earlier to good use. The leverage and hand usage he displayed resulted in 2 1/2 pressures, as tallied by Bob McGinn. He was used exclusively in passing situations, and was not on the field for a single running play.
Jerron McMillian was given the nod over M.D. Jennings as the nickel safety this week, and did not disappoint. Despite the fact he played at a small school and was not a premier draft prospect, he did not appear to be in over his head at all. In fact, Pro Football Focus gave him the best overall grade of any defensive player not named Clay Matthews. As demonstrated here, McMillian appeared to be in the proper position almost all of the time. He provided willing run support, didn't appear to blow any coverages, and drove on the ball nicely several times. He dropped a gift-wrapped interception, but then received a gift of his own when he was awarded an interception on a ball that appeared to hit the ground. What was most impressive about his interception, however, was the way he exploded into the passing lane. McMillian will undoubtedly have his share of growing pains, but if he can continue to "stack successes" (as McCarthy is fond of saying), he may even earn a more prominent role. He was sent on a blitz on a 3rd-and-6 play and rushed unblocked to the quarterback from the outside. Although Cutler was able to get rid of the ball quickly in that particular case, the play yielded a positive result (incomplete pass) and gave a glimpse of another way he could be used in Dom Capers' scheme.
After only three snaps against the 49ers, Casey Hayward played a much more prominent role in his 24 snaps. He only gave up two receptions for 21 yards. Both receptions were given up on third downs, but in each case it was a long down-and-distance situation and the receiver was stopped well short of the first down. Zach Kruse does a great job breaking down Hayward's perfect coverage on one of his plays, and also shares details on several other rookie highlights.
As Charles Woodson intimated after the 49ers loss, the defense is a work in progress and appears to be moving in the right direction. As astonishing as it may seem, there were times in the game when five out of the 11 defenders on the field were rookies. The unit played well during those snaps. On the play that resulted in Clay Matthews' final sack of the night, he was accompanied on the field by Jerel Worthy, Mike Daniels, Nick Perry, Casey Hayward, and Jerron McMillian.
It may have been only one game against an opponent that imploded, but it was a better overall defensive effort than anything that was seen last year. Although the Bears game shows nice progress for these rookies at this early point of the season, there is no doubt they will be regularly tested by opposing coaches. Two weeks from now, Drew Brees and the Saints will surely target McMillian and Hayward every chance they can get, plus Perry and Moses if they drop in coverage. They know they'll be challenged, but for their part the Packers believe they will be able to rise to the occasion.
"We've got some talent now," said Matthews. "Hopefully, that's here to stay."
Photo Credit: Jim Biever, Packers.com