Another in a periodic series examining the roles of NFC North newcomers:
In the four months since "579," the Green Bay Packers have done some serious schematic soul-searching. Coach Mike McCarthy went so far as to send his defensive coaching staff to a private clinic at Texas A&M, where he hoped they would learn how to better defend the read-option and other outside running plays that contributed to their 2012 playoff demise.
From a personnel perspective, however, not much has changed. The Packers haven't acquired a linebacker of note, and their defensive line has taken on a modest total of two significant additions. One is Johnny Jolly, who was recently reinstated from a three-year NFL suspension. The other is first-round draft pick Datone Jones, a longish defensive end who caused all kinds of backfield disruption last season at UCLA.
It's difficult to expect much from Jolly after such a long layoff. So what about Jones? How much can we reasonably project him to improve the Packers' outside run defense?
From the top, Jones is the kind of physical specimen the Packers haven't had on their defensive line in a while. He is 6-foot-4, 283 pounds, has a background in basketball and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.8 seconds at the NFL scouting combine. Those dimensions presumably make him difficult to block, and Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers told reporters: "If you're drawing up a defensive end, you'd like to have a guy with his kind of height and length. It was one of the things that was appealing to us."
Of course, speed and athleticism alone don't necessarily translate into success at the line of scrimmage. We saw that with the Packers' 2012 first-round draft pick, USC defensive end Nick Perry. Although Perry ran his 40-yard dash in 4.58 seconds, he seemed bogged down by the transition to linebacker and made a minimal impact before suffering season-ending knee and wrist injuries.
Jones, however, had an eye-opening year at UCLA, not only as a pass-rusher (6.5 sacks) but also as a run defender. As the chart shows, Jones had 17 run stuffs, the highest total among well-regarded defensive prospects. (ESPN Stats & Information defines a run stuff as a tackle on a running play that resulted in negative or zero yardage.)
So in Jones, the Packers have a well-sized and speedy defensive end who appeared difficult to block on the college level. When you look back at last season's struggles against both the read-option and Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson, you recall that the trouble usually began when the Packers were spread out and runners got to the second level.
Theoretically, getting to the second level should be harder when you have bigger and faster players up front. Former Packers defensive back Charles Woodson implied as much after the team's 45-31 divisional playoff defeat against the San Francisco 49ers, who rushed for 323 yards and had a total of 579 offensive yards.
"You'd like to have as much speed as you can," Capers said. "I think the way the offenses are heading ... you're going to be spread out. It's become more of a space game. Any time you're spread out and you’ve got to cover space, the quicker and faster you are, the better you’re going to be probably."
I'm not sure whether it's fair to attach the Packers' read-option fortunes to Jones or any other draft pick. Their difficulties against the read-option and Peterson revealed problems in covering space as well as tackling in the open field.
As the charts show, the Packers allowed 6.0 yards per rush on runs outside the tackles last season. Peterson averaged 13.7 yards per carry on such runs, and overall the Packers allowed more yards after contact per outside rush than any team in the NFL.
At the very least, drafting Jones was an important step in the direction the Packers knew they needed to take. Said general manager Ted Thompson: "Trying to add a little more speed to the defense, we think, is a good idea."
Earlier: The Packers have a nifty runner in UCLA's Johnathan Franklin. The Detroit Lions could follow a template for easing in young, inexperienced pass-rushers. The Minnesota Vikings know they need to have a plan for receiver Cordarrelle Patterson's rookie season.