GREEN BAY — Mike McCarthy’s words indicate he’s moved on from the Green Bay Packers’ NFC Championship Game loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
“Last year’s last year,” the Packers coach said Wednesday. “We’re more focused on what they did in the preseason and what they did against Chicago (in the 2017 opener).”
But while McCarthy’s words say one thing, his actions say another. They indicate he’s learned from that 44-21 blowout loss to the Falcons in the since-demolished Georgia Dome and has taken measures to ensure his defense never again has to face such a physical mismatch.
How serious is McCarthy about fixing a defense that was embarrassed by MVP quarterback Matt Ryan, wide receiver Julio Jones and the Atlanta offense? After the Packers cornerbacks and inside linebackers were scorched repeatedly by faster players on the artificial turf, he spent the offseason trying to infuse speed into Green Bay’s defense. More tellingly, he’s still taking steps toward that end less than a week away from the Packers-Falcons rematch, which will take place Sunday night at brand-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
In a surprise move Tuesday, the Packers cut cornerback LaDarius Gunter. So thin were the Packers at the end of last season that Gunter, an undrafted rookie at the time, was their No. 1 cornerback in all three playoff games. But after being no better than the No. 5 cornerback in Green Bay’s season-opening victory over Seattle on Sunday, Gunter was deemed expendable.
“I think our roster moves reflect what we need to do just moving forward with what we felt was best for the team,” McCarthy said.
That would be the need for speed, especially on a defense that had grown stale and slow even before injuries decimated the cornerback position in 2016. Although Gunter is physical and has good ball skills, he is woefully short on speed. Some thought he had a future as a slot cornerback, which is why his release revealed a fundamental change in the Packers’ approach on defense.
Since Dom Capers became defensive coordinator in 2009, the Packers have valued experience above all else. Not any more. McCarthy showed his commitment to speed by cutting Gunter, who played more than 800 snaps last season, and keeping several less experienced but faster players at the position. Now two starters from the Falcons’ loss — Gunter and nickel corner Micah Hyde — are gone, not because they weren’t good players but because they lacked speed.
After watching the Packers fly around on defense against Seattle, there is no doubt they are playing faster than they have in recent years. The question is whether they have increased their speed enough to stay with an Atlanta offense that led the NFL in scoring last season.
The Packers’ increased speed comes from several sources. Cornerback Davon House, who was signed in free agency, and rookie Kevin King, a second-round draft pick, are the kind of rangy, fast cornerbacks who are needed in the speed-based NFL these days. Disappointing holdovers Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, slowed by groin injuries last season, are healthy again and playing faster.
Capers has also developed a new scheme — Nitro — in which safety Morgan Burnett moves up to take the place of an inside linebacker and safety Kentrell Brice comes in, thereby adding another coverage player even on run downs. Capers used the scheme on 42 of 49 plays against Seattle.
“Just in the personnel on the field alone, we have more speed,” McCarthy said. “I think our defense got off to an excellent start and it’s a game that we want to build off of. ... I thought our pursuit and finish as a unit was outstanding and that’s what I’m looking for moving forward. That’s the expectation. At the end of the day too, it’s about being healthy. Our defensive guys were healthy and I think you saw the result of it.”
If there’s a worry, it is the defense looked good because of Seattle’s offense, which is far from explosive. Atlanta is on the other end of the spectrum. Ryan dropped 392 yards and four touchdown passes on the Packers last year and Jones caught nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns.
Ryan was never sacked, but the lasting memory from the game is of Falcons receivers running wide open through the defense, then piling up yardage after the catch. Often, the Packers were so far out of position and had so little catch-up speed they couldn’t get into position to make tackles.
McCarthy said the Packers “ran out of gas” in that game. Randall said their improved health is their best hope after they played the Falcons last season with since-retired Sam Shields on the bench and himself and Rollins slowed by injury.
“Guys are healthy,” Randall said. “You can take any three top starters out of any secondary and everybody’s going to notice a difference. That’s like taking Julio and their other receivers out and saying, ‘All right, now score.’ Everything’s going to be quite a bit different. I really don’t look at last year because everybody knows how hurt that we were.”
Green Bay’s defense clearly has more speed to throw at the Falcons this time. We’ll have to wait until Sunday night to see if the Packers are fast enough.