By: Matt Bove
After their opening season loss to San Francisco Dom Capers had a lot to fix with his defense. He didn't have a lot of time to make them, but Capers made the decisions he should have made to begin the season.
First, Capers Sam Shields inserted for Jarett Bush and Casey Heyward took over the dime corner, which meant Bush was back on the bench. Also, Jerron McMillian wast at safety in the nickel and dime for M.D. Jennings. It took a lot of faith for Capers to make these changes on such a short week. Then again, the defense really could not get much worse than it was with Bush and Jennings playing major time.
Shields finally got the message about being more physical and tackling, so he earned his starting job back. Shields' huge tackle on Frank Gore on 3rd and 2 gave the Packers new life in week one, in which Aaron Rodgers gave right back with his interception to Navarro Bowman. However, it also gave Shields great confidence in himself and the coaches great confidence in him.
Shields is much better than Bush in coverage, which is still the most important thing for the defense. Shields shut out Bears wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey and was only targeted once in 60 plays. Jeffrey is 6'4", so one would think a physical guy like him would be a bad matchup for Shields, but he excelled. He was also only targeted once in the San Francisco game. This means his coverage has been very solid so quarterbacks have not thrown his way. Meanwhile, against San Francisco Bush was targeted seven times for four catches and 63 yards.
McMillian and Hayward also received much expanded roles vs. Chicago and excelled. Pro Football Focus rated McMillian as the Packers' second best defensive player vs. Chicago after Clay Matthews. His grade of + 3.7 was the second highest grade Pro Football Focus had given out to a safety through the first 17 NFL games. McMillian had his fist career interception and dropped another. We have seen before how physical he is at the line and against the run. If he keeps improving in the back end in coverage like he did on Thursday, he can be a very good player. Hayward had three tackles, was used a blitzer, and was solid in coverage as well.
Rookie Mike Daniels and Dezman Moses also saw big increases in playing time. Daniels recorded his first career sack and showed inside pressure. He should see more playing time in Seattle. Jerel Worthy also improved in this game, as he recorded his first career sack, albeit a coverage one. He was the lone lineman in the "Psycho" and seemed more active this game.
The Packers had a great pass rush Thursday that netted seven sacks. Even though Clay Matthews was an unstoppable force, some of the sacks were coverage sacks. Tramon Williams had as many interceptions as Brandon Marshall had catches and Morgan Burnett did a great job of helping Williams. However, the main difference in the secondary that helped the coverage get so much better so fast was the increased roles of Shields, McMillian, and Hayward.
In just one week, McMillian went from playing 15 snaps to 44; Hayward from 0 to 23; Moses from 4 to 18; and Daniels from 0 to 18. Davon House is talking like he is ready to return soon, which will make things very interesting in the secondary. He may not be able to get much playing time if Shields and Hayward keep their solid play up. It will be interesting to see in a very tough environment in Seattle, if these young players will continue to take steps forward.