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Packers live with defensive mistakes early

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By Tyler Dunne
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
September 17, 2013

GREEN BAY—If January, not September, consumes Mike McCarthy and Dom Capers, they'll need to live with plays like this.

Midway through the third quarter of Sunday's 38-20 win over the Washington Redskins, Green Bay Packers safety Chris Banjo stepped in the path of running back Alfred Morris. One undrafted player from Southern Methodist vs. one 1,600-yard rusher. Banjo dived, whiffed and a 6-yard gain swelled into a 32-yarder.

That whole “transition” period Capers talked about in the off-season? This is it.

Many playmakers from the 2010 Super Bowl defense are gone. Hamstring injuries have plagued the secondary. Two games in, the state of the Packers defense is, well, a state of flux. There are positives—the read option didn't hurt Green Bay, there's a palpable bite to the unit. Yet there's concern, too—the injuries, missed tackles, shoddy fourth quarters.

In short, the transition continues. Capers is taking the steady-as-she-goes, marathon approach to a young, undermanned defense.

“We're still in that transition mode,” the defensive coordinator said Monday. “Obviously we would have liked to have all of our guys—Casey (Hayward) and Morgan (Burnett) and J.B. (Jarrett Bush) this last week. But what it does do is it forces guys into a more significant role than what they would have had. And I think those guys improve. It gets them more battle-tested as you move through the season.”

Translation: The defense you've seen these first two games is not the defense the Packers hope to trot out in a playoff game.

Arguably the most valuable player this side of Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews—Burnett—has missed two games. Hayward has, too. Don't expect the Packers to rush either player back. They're too valuable. If the Packers can survive with youth for now, they'll take it. Along the way, Capers is counting on new playmakers emerging the ol' Ted Thompson way.

Draft, develop, coach, cross your fingers.

As Capers said, who would have thought a player named Chris Banjo would play this much?

On Sunday, a player once abandoned by the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars started in Green Bay's dime package. The missed tackle should fool no one. The Packers see a player ready for more.

“You could see more and more of Chris Banjo,” Capers said. “I thought he did well. He had one missed tackle on one of those long runs, but other than that, I thought he did a nice job. He's been a physical guy for us there through the preseason….

“We're going to have to work all those combinations this week, because I'm not sure what the status of our three injured guys is going to be.”

On Monday, Banjo brought up the missed tackle unsolicited. Tackling is “something I take pride in,” he said. So face-planting was Banjo's lowest low Sunday, a play that drew groans in the Lambeau Field bowl. But he executed all his assignments. He felt like he belonged.

The Packers are willing to accept any nasty side effects. And they're nasty. If the Packers took this current defense into January, they probably wouldn't last long. From high above, Thompson watched as San Francisco receiver Anquan Boldin obliterated the Packers for 208 yards on 13 receptions in the opener.

Through September, youth is being forced to fit in.

“I think that it definitely helps us and the fact that later on in the season, whoever's in there,” Banjo said, “you're comfortable that they've all had real game experience and they're capable of handling their jobs out there.”

Green Bay's defense is no finished product. Coaches must grit their teeth through times like the struggles of safeties M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian at San Francisco. At slot corner, they'll take Micah Hyde's limitations in coverage because they see a physical player with potential.

For 2013 first-round pick Datone Jones, Capers says “it's still a process” because of the time the lineman has missed with a high ankle sprain. The 2012 first-rounder, outside linebacker Nick Perry, batted a pass Sunday. While Capers affirmed Perry “had some physical plays,” Green Bay will be counting on more from him.

Against two playoff teams, there are good signs.

Neither Colin Kaepernick nor Robert Griffin III victimized Green Bay out of the option. After the 49ers converted 10 of 19 third and fourth downs, Green Bay rattled Griffin at home. Washington didn't convert a third down until the Packers held a 31-0 lead.

Meanwhile, the Packers have missed too many tackles. For the defense to “be the defense we want,” Banjo said, tackling must improve. He believes it will.

“There's a lot of things we still need to grow upon and fix,” Banjo said. “We're definitely nowhere from where we could be and should be. That's why we practice. It's a long season.”

McCarthy wouldn't minimize the Redskins' fourth-quarter surge, either. Prevent defense or not, 220 yards and 20 points on three drives was too much. With the game in hand, the Packers let up. McCarthy called it “unnecessary production.”

“To play at the level we performed at for a large part of the game and then to give that up,” McCarthy said, “it's something that probably looks worse on the stat sheet than the reality of the football game. You have to look at that. It's still tape, and you've got to compete and that's why you play four quarters, and that's why you finish.”

Always stressing “the process,” McCarthy hopes this all leads to a complete defense two, three months from now.

Jennings, McMillian and Banjo are bandaging the safety position. Defensive lineman turned linebacker Mike Neal is playing a new position. The learning curve for Perry and Jones is sharp.

This is a defense still in “transition.”

“It's a long season,” Banjo said. “We'll continue to grow each week.”



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