The drill is the same during each and every week of preparation. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers highlights the Green Bay Packers’ upcoming opponent’s biggest playmaker and tells his guys, simply, We need to stop this guy.
It is obvious, to be sure, and often easier said than done. But with the exception of their failure against San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Anquan Boldin in the Sept. 8 regular-season opener, one thing the Packers have done this season is contain opposing No. 1 receivers.
Now, their quest may have gotten a big medical assist on Oct. 6 when Detroit Lions all-pro wide receiver Calvin Johnson – you know, that Megatron guy who put up 329 receiving yards last week against Dallas – sat out with a knee injury, but even Chicago Bears No. 1 wide receiver Brandon Marshall is aware of what the Packers are doing against high-profile pass-catchers this year.
“Green Bay does a good job of taking out the No. 1 guy,” Marshall said during a conference call with Wisconsin reporters on Thursday afternoon. “After the first game getting torched by Anquan, no other No. 1 has put up huge numbers, so you have to look at that and respect what they do on defense.”
Boldin caught 13 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown in the 49ers’ 34-28 victory in the opener, a heinous performance by the Packers defense in part because the 49ers were playing without their other top receivers, Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham, both sidelined by injury.
The next week, Washington’s Pierre Garcon caught eight passes for 144 yards and a touchdown, but his numbers were misleading in a game where the Packers led, 24-0, at halftime. Garcon had catches of 44 and 18 yards in the first half, then had six catches for 82 yards in what amounted to garbage time.
Since then, Cincinnati’s A.J. Green (four receptions, 46 yards, one TD), Baltimore’s Torrey Smith (one catch, 12 yards), Cleveland’s Josh Gordon (two catches, 21 yards) and Minnesota’s Greg Jennings (one catch, 9 yards) have been non-factors.
Now, it’s Marshall’s turn. Last year, in the teams’ first meeting, Marshall caught only two passes for 24 yards while quarterback Jay Cutler threw four interceptions in a 23-10 Packers victory. Marshall later said that Capers “did an amazing job of game-planning me,” a plan that included Tramon Williams matching up on Marshall with frequent over-the-top safety help. Before the rematch, he dared the Packers to try to cover him man-to-man, which of course they didn’t, and he caught six passes for 56 yards and a touchdown in the Packers’ 21-13 victory.
Marshall enters Monday night having caught a team-high 46 passes for 540 yards and five TDs. No. 2 receiver Alshon Jeffery has 33 receptions for 561 yards and two TDs, although the Bears will be without Cutler, who suffered a torn groin muscle against Washington before last week’s bye. Josh McCown is set to start in his place.
“For me, it never changes. I can watch a ton of film throughout the week and whatever team we’re facing they’re probably going to do something different to take me out of the game,” Marshall said Thursday. “I guess that comes with success. I’m expecting them to definitely do something to take me out of the game and if that’s the case, we have guys who can do some damage. Alshon Jeffrey, is actually leading us in receiving yards. That says a lot there. And (tight end) Martellus Bennett, he’s a beast. If they’re going to take me out, we definitely have guys that can beat them. It’s going to be tough, though.
“There’s always ways to get guys open who face a lot of roll coverage, different schemes, double coverages. But with us we’re not going to force it to me. I think it’s been working for us. Now, we have to get some wins with some of our success and progress.”
The Packers’ success and progress in the secondary has been interesting because they’ve done it without matching Williams on opponents’ top targets, as they did last year on an almost weekly basis. They did that in part because Williams was still their best cover man, and in part because Sam Shields missed six games with an ankle injury and youngsters Casey Hayward and Davon House still had some growing to do.
Now, the Packers have all kinds of options, with that foursome plus rookie fifth-round pick Micah Hyde. Last week against the Vikings, the Packers played with Shields, Williams and House in the nickel (with Williams moving inside to the slot position) while giving Hayward 22 snaps in his season debut after a nagging hamstring injury. Then, in the dime unit, they used House and Shields outside and Williams and Hyde inside on the slot receivers. This week, Hayward could see more time but the Packers like all five of them.
Their approach to top receivers has been diverse, too. For instance, cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said against Baltimore on Oct. 13, the Packers started the game with Shields matching Smith, while House manned the other outside position and Williams worked in the slot. But when House wore down because of his special-teams work and Hyde replaced him, Hyde moved inside, Williams moved back outside and Whitt simply let whoever was on Smith’s side cover him.
“Each game is a little bit different,” Whitt said. “The last game, they just covered them well. Davon is starting to come into his own. He is challenging people. Sam is just playing outstanding. He’s playing really good and Tramon has been solid. It’s just a combination of, we have matched Sam on some of those guys, but when Tramon goes back outside, we let them play left and right, and they’ve done a nice job with it.”
Marshall has put up big numbers against the Packers before. Before he joined the Bears last year, the Packers watched him catch 10 passes for 127 yards for the Miami Dolphins in a 23-20 overtime victory at Lambeau Field. In that game, Marshall caught passes of 13, 23 and 19 yards on the Dolphins’ first possession – a drive which ended in a Miami touchdown – before Capers decided to match Williams on Marshall on the second drive. While that drive began with a pair of 5-yard catches by Marshall, it ended with Williams intercepting Chad Henne on a pass intended for Marshall. On the next play, Aaron Rodgers hit Greg Jennings for an 86-yard touchdown.
“As you go through your game plan, you evaluate how much they’re going to somebody and obviously you want to try to make people beat you left-handed,” Capers said. “Every team’s a little bit different. We’ve probably done it a little bit more (this year) with scheme and double-schemes as opposed to matching a specific guy up.
“There’s been two or three games (where) we’ve matched Sam up. We’ve been playing Tramon inside, that’s a little bit different; now that Casey’s back, I think it gives us a good combination of people. Micah Hyde continues to gain more experience at the dime position. We like what he’s doing there. So I think it gives us more flexibility.”
Williams said he’s not only OK with not being the matchup guy anymore but that it actually helps with that defensive flexibility.
“There’s just a chemistry about the defense,” Williams said. “Just as a whole, we’ve been playing well. Everyone’s been doing their job, and it’s the little things.
“We felt it was good that we had good enough players that we can all handle what’s going on out there, and at the end of the day, I just feel like it makes the defense better. Because now, you don’t know who’s going to be where. The opponent doesn’t know who’s going to be covering or where they’re going to be at.”
Williams went so far as to say this is the best and deepest cornerback group the Packers have had during his time in Green Bay, which goes back to 2007, when he was the third corner behind Pro Bowlers Al Harris and Charles Woodson.
“In this league, you can never have too many good DBs in the back end,” Williams said. “We have some younger guys, (but) everybody’s good. Back then, you could state the first three (were good) and then after that, you may say there’s a dropoff. Now, there ain’t much of that.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.