Injuries Mean Scheme, Personnel Changes

Coming off a big win at Houston, the Packers are facing changes — perhaps major changes — on defense. Where do the Packers turn, for instance, at inside linebacker, where coverage-impaired A.J. Hawk might have to play a lot more in passing situations?

In 2010, when the Green Bay Packers lost Nick Barnett and, later, Brandon Chillar, at least they had Desmond Bishop to carry the load alongside A.J. Hawk.

This season, the Packers have lost Bishop and, now, his replacement, D.J. Smith, to season-ending injuries. This time, there is no rising prospect, no "Mr. August" waiting in the wings. The Packers will have to soldier on with some combination of Brad Jones, Robert Francois and Jamari Lattimore.

It's a disconcerting prospect that perhaps will force defensive coordinator Dom Capers to shuffle the cards just as his unit turned in a strong performance.

With Bishop and A.J. Hawk, Capers could lean on Bishop's coverage ability to keep Hawk out of bad matchups against tight ends or backs out of the backfield. During the offseason, in an effort to solve the worst pass defense in NFL history, Capers got away from his reliance on the five-defensive-back nickel package and put a greater emphasis on the six-defensive back dime package. In nickel, both inside linebackers stay in the game. In dime, Capers took Hawk off the field and stuck with Smith, who held his own in coverage despite his 5-foot-11 frame being a liability on bigger tight ends.

Now what?

Capers wouldn't show his cards on Monday when asked whether Hawk's role on pass defense would expand. For what it's worth, when the Packers went to dime after Smith's injury, Hawk stayed on the field and Jones went to the sideline.

"I think with all these guys, we discuss a lot in the offseason in terms of play numbers you'd like to have and that type of thing," Capers said. "There's some guys, a guy like Clay (Matthews), who plays every down until he can't go and you give him a break, but I think A.J. has performed extremely well under what we've asked him to do at this point in time. We'll have to take a very good look at what our options are. I think we do have some options. Part of that will be the evaluation on the practice field of what you want to ask of certain guys."

According to numbers from, Hawk has allowed a completion percentage of 83.3 — tied for 32nd out of 39 inside/middle linebackers. Hawk's role changed inexorably in the opener last season, when Capers had Hawk matched up on the Saints' Darren Sproles and Sproles beat him for 32 yards. On Sunday, Hawk lost Owen Daniels on a crossing route that turned into a 27-yard gain. According to PFF, Hawk allowed 4-of-5 completions for 72 yards on the night.

Francois made two outstanding interceptions in the three games he received a lot of playing time last season, picking off Matthew Stafford and Carson Palmer while playing outstanding zone coverage on tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Kevin Boss, respectively.

"I think it helps," Capers said last season of Francois' height (6-foot-2) and length. "Quarterbacks have to throw the ball in tight windows in this league and you see guys that have that length — a guy who comes to mind in this division is Urlacher. He's got such a height advantage and many times with his big wingspan, he can go get the ball. The quarterback, many times, will look and think he has the window open. Their size helps them."

Jones, a converted outside linebacker, hasn't had a ton of experience in coverage. Ditto for Lattimore, whose regular-season experience on defense includes 18 snaps at outside linebacker in a late-season rout of Oakland.

Another option would be increased use of the "dollar" package. In that, there are seven defensive backs and no inside linebackers. Charles Woodson, with his run-stopping ability, could play inside linebacker. In dollar, the Packers use Woodson and Casey Hayward as the slot cornerbacks, Tramon Williams and Sam Shields as the outside cornerbacks and Morgan Burnett, M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian as the safeties. The Packers could stick with that look, or use Woodson as a hybrid linebacker/safety. That would mean replacing him in the slot; that role would fall on Jarrett Bush or Davon House. The Packers also could turn to McMillian in the linebacker/safety role.

Capers isn't the only coach who will need to shuffle personnel. The trickle-down effect of injuries usually hits special teams the hardest. Backup running back Brandon Saine, a core member of the special teams, is out for the season. Running back Johnny White, who was signed on Monday, played special teams with the Bills and recorded 16 tackles on special teams as a junior at North Carolina.

The shuffle at inside linebacker might not mean sweeping changes on special teams.

"Well, it depends on what we do there exactly, but we are capable of playing a starter on special teams," coordinator Shawn Slocum said. "We do it some, and we'll look at total play time. Our punt team is very important and if Brad Jones, for example, were to start defensively, I would imagine he's still going to be involved in special teams to a certain level."

The one inside linebacker who's not in the mix to play on defense is rookie Terrell Manning. Manning, however, figures to see an expanded role on special teams. He hasn't played since Week 1.

"He can really run," Slocum said, "and he's got great range. I think he's got very good instinct in terms of coverage, and he's tough. I think he can be a good special teams player."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at

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