Defense Would Love Impact Linebacker

Imagine Green Bay’s toothless defense with a linebacker with some real three-down ability. Actually, there's no need to imagine after what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' linebackers did on Sunday.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – In the first round of the NFL Draft, Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst traded up in the first round to select quarterback Jordan Love.

Grabbing Love could solidify the Packers’ long-term status as championship contenders but he was of no help on Sunday as the Packers were crushed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The player who might have made a difference wasn’t a receiver as much as it was linebacker Patrick Queen.

Gutekunst moved from No. 30 to No. 26 to grab Love. Queen was taken at No. 28 by the Baltimore Ravens.

The lightning-fast linebacker from LSU had only two tackles in Sunday’s victory over Philadelphia but added two quarterback hits and one pass defensed. The week before against Cincinnati, he had nine tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and two recoveries.

Imagine Green Bay’s toothless defense with a linebacker with some real speed and three-down ability. Imagine a linebacker that opposing offenses would take note of while watching the film. Imagine the type of linebacker necessary to stop today’s modern offenses.

Actually, imagining it’s not that difficult. On Sunday, the Tampa Bay tandem of Lavonte David and Devin White dominated. They were too fast and too aggressive for Green Bay’s high-powered offense to handle. They were arguably the best players on the field as the Packers managed a pitiful 68 yards, four first downs and no points in their final 10 possessions.

White had 10 tackles, one sack, three tackles for losses and two quarterback hits. He set the tone on the first play of the game when he sliced into the backfield and dropped Aaron Jones at the line of scrimmage. David had a similar stat line with eight tackles, 1.5 sacks, two tackles for losses and two quarterback hits. His five tackles in the first three quarters resulted in losses of 20 yards.

“Those guys are so fast,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said after the game. “They’re so good sideline to sideline. We just had a hard time getting on them in some of our zone blocking schemes, just kind of outrunning some of the angles. It’s a credit to them – not necessarily us not doing our job – [but] you just don’t see two inside backers that can run like that a lot. You’ve got to give both those credit. I think they were disruptive, for sure.”

While Green Bay popped two big runs, its other 19 carries mustered 49 yards. With the running game going nowhere fast, the Bucs’ pass rush got to tee off on Rodgers. A rattled Rodgers looked nothing like the player who had thrust himself into the conversation for a third NFL MVP award.

In six games, White (50 tackles) and David (47) have combined for 2.5 sacks, 10 tackles for losses, six quarterback hits, five passes defensed, one interception, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries.

Also in six games, Queen has a team-high 44 tackles and added two sacks, four tackles for losses, five quarterback hits, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

Green Bay has received almost no impact from its inside linebackers. Undrafted rookie Krys Barnes (35 tackles), injured free agent Christian Kirksey (27 tackles), former seventh-round pick Ty Summers (21 tackles) and former third-round pick Oren Burks (three tackles) have combined for zero sacks, two tackles for losses (both by Barnes), zero quarterback hits, zero interceptions, zero forced fumbles and zero fumble recoveries.

That lack of big-play production isn’t anything unusual.

Since the start of the 2018 season, every Packers inside linebacker combined has amassed 17 tackles for losses, one interception, five passes defensed, two forced fumbles and zero fumble recoveries. That’s exactly three turnover plays (interception, forced fumble, fumble recovery) in 37 games compared to four by Queen, three by David and one by White in six games this season.

The Packers have ignored the inside linebacker position for too long. In 2016, general manager Ted Thompson took offensive tackle Jason Spriggs four picks before the Falcons selected Deion Jones. In 2018, sandwiched between botched picks for second-round cornerback Josh Jackson and Burks, the 49ers grabbed Fred Warner.

Heck, if you want to hop into the Way Back Machine, Thompson took defensive tackle Jerel Worthy seven picks before the Bucs grabbed David in the second round in 2012.

Over the last 14 drafts, the Packers have used only one top-120 pick on a linebacker. That was Burks, who has flopped as the 88th selection in 2018. As a byproduct, over the last decade, the Packers’ defense is 17th and 23rd in yards.

Without a legit, multi-tool inside linebacker – that was supposed to be Burks – defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has been forced to use the likes of safeties Raven Green or Ibraheim Campbell as a quasi-linebacker. It’s a half-measure that, not surprisingly, has hindered the run defense.

Maybe the return of Kamal Martin, a fifth-round pick who opened the season on injured reserve but practiced last week, will be the answer. Maybe Kirksey, who was off to a disappointing start before going on injured reserve, will turn back the clock whenever he’s back in the lineup. As it stands, though, Green Bay’s continual ignoring of an impact position looks like it will sink the defense – and perhaps the team – once again.