GREEN BAY – Clay Matthews doesn’t want to hear how close the defense was.
It took a replay review to overturn, by barely half the length of the football, a fourth-and-1 stop the Packers thought they had with just over two minutes left last Sunday in Dallas.
But close or not, it bothered Matthews the defense didn’t get the job done, allowing the Cowboys to score three plays after the fourth-down conversion.
“That’s tough, especially when you think you’ve made that stop, mentally and emotionally. But you have to go back out there and make the stop,” Matthews said following practice on Thursday.
“The bottom line is we didn’t do enough on that final drive to get off the field.”
The challenge of stopping the Cowboys with the game in the balance was heightened by the absence of veteran safety Morgan Burnett, who had exited on Dallas’ previous drive with a hamstring injury.
The Packers could have to adjust without Burnett again, as the eighth-year pro and defensive leader hasn’t practiced at all this week.
Green Bay could be without rookie cornerback Kevin King, too, as King remains sidelined with a concussion sustained in the first half in Dallas.
As promising as King’s early development has been, Burnett’s absence might be harder to compensate for due to a number of factors.
For one, Burnett has lined up in a number of spots and sub-packages for the Packers’ defense – traditional safety, inside linebacker, slot cornerback. His versatility is second-to-none on the unit.
On top of that, Burnett has worn the speaker helmet to receive the calls from defensive coordinator Dom Capers to relay to the rest of the defense, and while others have done it before – linebacker Blake Martinez, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and Matthews among them – it’s still an adjustment to the additional responsibility.
“Whoever steps in for him has big shoes to fill,” Martinez said.
The Packers have options. Rookie Josh Jones has played inside linebacker in the nitro package plenty, and he could step in at slot corner, too, if needed. Kentrell Brice has played a lot of deep safety this year already, alongside Clinton-Dix, with Burnett so close to the line of scrimmage. Fellow second-year pro Marwin Evans could step in on the back end if called upon as well.
Regarding the communication, Matthews suggested it’ll be a collective effort no matter who’s wearing the speaker helmet. Clinton-Dix wore it in Dallas after Burnett left the game, but Matthews said he was drawing on his own prior experience in that role to help out and get calls relayed.
“One thing about it, we can’t replace Morgan,” Clinton-Dix said. “Morgan is one of our top leaders on this defense, man. He’s very vocal. He’s a guy you never have to worry about making a mistake or just being in the wrong spot. That just makes us have to tighten up a little more.”
Another wrinkle from Capers was unveiled in Dallas as well, with Matthews lined up off the ball like an outside linebacker in a traditional 4-3. He thought it caught the Cowboys off-guard a few times, as Matthews dropped into zone coverage and then broke quickly on the underneath throws.
He knocked one loose from tight end Jason Witten and was the first one to hit receiver Terrance Williams on the ball that deflected to Damarious Randall for a pick-six.
“We’re just trying to find mismatches and ways to improve the defense,” Matthews said. “I think we got exactly what we wanted out of that defense.”
Its success indicates the Packers could employ the look more to try taking away short, checkdown-type routes. The Vikings went to the underneath game in the second half Monday night in Chicago when Case Keenum stepped in at quarterback with big-play receiver Stefon Diggs slowed by a groin injury.
Minnesota tight end Kyle Rudolph and running back Jerick McKinnon became regular targets as the Vikings scored 17 second-half points in the victory.
How Minnesota attacks Green Bay could depend on the health of Diggs, who hasn’t practiced this week, and where the Vikings might perceive defensive vulnerabilities if both Burnett and King are out. Pass rusher Ahmad Brooks (back) also hasn’t practiced this week for the Packers.
“We’ll manage,” Matthews said. “We’ll proceed with the next-guy-up mentality, even though sometimes you wish it weren’t the case.
“For the most part we’ll be trying to weather the storm, as unfortunately this team has done this entire short year so far.”