GREEN BAY — Dom Capers is no stranger to playing rookies in a pinch during his six-plus seasons as Packers defensive coordinator.
However, the group he deployed at Lambeau Field last Sunday could easily go down as one of his youngest in his 30 years in the NFL.
Besieged by injury at every level of the defense, thirteen of the 20 defensive players the Packers utilized in their 34-27 win over Detroit were either rookies or second-year players.
Only one player – 15-year vet Julius Peppers – was older than 27 years old.
“I’d have to go back a long ways,” said Capers when asked earlier this week if he’d ever utilized a defense as young as Sunday’s version.
“I don’t think so, but we knew going in. All you had to do was look at the inactive list. There were five defensive starters on there.”
Clay Matthews (ankle/hamstring), Sam Shields (concussion), Morgan Burnett (groin), Letroy Guion (knee) and Datone Jones (knee) all sat out against the Lions, creating a domino effect through the defense.
If that wasn’t enough, starting cornerback Damarious Randall (illness) and linebacker Blake Martinez (stitches) spent time in the locker room during the course of the game.
That led to seven former undrafted players, including boundary cornerback LaDarius Gunter and linebacker Joe Thomas, combining to play 160 defensive snaps against Detroit.
Several members of the defense lamented about giving up too much production to Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford in the second half, but the defense’s ability to contain the Lions at the start enabled the Packers to get out to a 31-3 lead in the second quarter.
“When you’re playing as many young guys as we’re playing right now, I think you’ll see us get better,” Capers said. “I think we’ll improve as we go along. Some of those guys are seeing things for the first time.
“We had an awful lot of guys on that field (Sunday). You’re going against a veteran quarterback with a lot of skill and our guys will improve from their experience.”
One area that has come together early has been the Packers’ top-ranked run defense, which is allowing a mere 42.7 yards per game. The 151 rushing yards in the first three contests is the fewest Green Bay has allowed through three games since 1933, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
The Packers held the Lions to only 50 rushing yards on 23 attempts Sunday despite having only one available defensive lineman (Mike Daniels) with more than two games of NFL experience.
Rookie first-round pick Kenny Clark (four tackles) and fourth-round pick Dean Lowry (two tackles, one for loss) played significant snaps in place of Guion and Jones, while Christian Ringo and Brian Price rotated behind them.
Ringo, who spent all of last season on the practice squad, was on the roster bubble before he was informed he’d made the 53-man roster while attending the Wisconsin-LSU game at Lambeau Field earlier this month.
Price, who began the season on the practice squad, was informed last Tuesday that he’d be promoted to the active roster. He ended up playing 10 defensive snaps against the Lions.
Daniels has been the primary cog in the run defense’s success, but the attitude and aggression of the young linemen around him has the unit off to a record-setting pace.
“We’re playing tough, guys are flying around to the ball and we’re just getting physical with the other team – it’s just that freaking simple,” Daniels said. “I’m an older guy, so I’m out there telling everybody to get mean and physical, and young guys are listening and doing it.”
While Sunday’s game left plenty to learn from, Head Coach Mike McCarthy praised the defense’s performance in the face of injury when he addressed the team after the Lions game.
Those 13 players accounted for 482 of the 748 total snaps played against the Lions. Based on that workload, McCarthy was vocal about how the team was better at the end of the day.
“Coach McCarthy said it – 13 rookies or first-year players played and that’s huge that we were able to get the win and guys were able to get experience,” said rookie linebacker Kyler Fackrell, who had two tackles and a sack against the Lions.
“I think it speaks a lot to the guys that they bring in here as well as the coaching for us to be able to step in and play those roles. Health is one of the biggest things in this league, so when guys do go down – which is inevitable – you have to have guys who can step up and fill the role.”
The Packers were initially reluctant about the Week 4 bye, but they stand in agreement that it came with good timing. The defense hopes that it will bring some relief when the team returns next week.
An NFL season is a war of attrition and Sunday’s performance proved the defense can succeed when it needs to dig deep into its chart.
If it needs to again at some point this season, the Packers have no question about whether the experience will benefit them.
“We handled it well,” Peppers said. “Injuries are a part of the game. We had a lot of young guys step in there and do their jobs. I think that’s going to pay dividends for us when we may have more injuries later in the year and we’re going to need some guys to play.”