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Prized pickup De’Vondre Campbell goes from being 'on the street' to stabilizing Packers' defense

GREEN BAY - De’Vondre Campbell surely ranks as one of the best bargain pickups of the NFL offseason.

The Green Bay Packers signed Campbell off the street in early June for $2 million, and he has been one of the biggest-impact players on their defense through five games this season.

Aaron Rodgers summed it up when he recounted his conversation with a teammate during the Packers’ 25-22 overtime win over Cincinnati on Sunday.

“We just said, ‘How in the hell was this guy on the street?’” Rodgers said after the game. “It was a great pickup by our personnel folks. He can run, he’s a great tackler, he’s around the ball all the time. He’s a great locker-room guy. I mean, it’s baffling to me.”

Baffling indeed. Campbell, 28, is built to play inside linebacker in today’s NFL based on what his rangy build (6-3, 232) and good speed (4.58-second 40 at the NFL scouting combine in 2016) offer in pass coverage. But he’s also proven to be an active, solid run defender who doesn’t shy from contact, and he has greatly improved the play in the middle of the Packers’ defense, which has been an issue going back more than a decade.

In fact, if you were picking a defensive MVP for the Packers so far, it might be a close call between Campbell and Kenny Clark.

Of course Campbell’s big plays through five weeks stand out, such as his interception of Joe Burrow on the first play of overtime Sunday. But as Rodgers said, Campbell has been around the ball often and tackled well, too. He’s not a blow-you-up run defender, but he shows awareness and willingness to perform that part of the job.

Back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter Sunday were emblematic of different ways he has helped the Packers’ defense.

On the first, with about 10:40 left in a game and the Packers protecting an eight-point lead, the Bengals on a first down threw a one-blocker screen to tight end Drew Sample in the flat. Campbell was in zone coverage on that side of the field, sidestepped left tackle Jonah Williams leading the play in the open field, and dropped Sample for a three-yard gain.

On the next play, the Bengals tried an inside zone run. Bengals right guard Jackson Caman tried to get out on the second level to block Campbell, but Campbell slipped around him and made the tackle for only a one-yard gain by Samaje Perine. Those two plays highlighted Campbell as both a space player and run defender.

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In overtime, Campbell made a huge play on his interception of Burrow, though the quarterback clearly didn’t see him while attempting to lead receiver Tyler Boyd over the middle. Boyd had stopped his route because he saw Campbell in his path.

But after Mason Crosby missed the 40-yard field goal that would have won the game, Campbell made another eye-catching play when he dropped Perine for a two-yard loss.  Campbell dipped underneath center Trey Hopkins, who had bounced out to the second level to block him, and then shot into the backfield to take down Perine.

The Packers’ signing of Campbell was under the radar because it came almost three months after the free-agent signing period had started. This wasn’t a first-, second- or third-wave signing, it was about the seventh wave. But so far he has been as important as any acquisition the Packers made in the offseason.

Down the line

If you looked at the stat line from the game, you would have thought the Bengals, not the Packers, were the team missing two Pro Bowlers and three starters total on their offensive line.

The Packers outgained Cincinnati 466 yards to 367, averaged 6.0 yards a rush to the Bengals’ 4.3, and Rodgers was sacked twice and hit five times to Burrow’s three and eight.

Either general manager Brian Gutekunst and his staff have provided great depth on the line, or line coaches Adam Stenavich and Luke Butkus are coaching this group up. Most likely both.

There were a few plays the Packers were overmatched on up front, and fill-in left tackle Yosh Nijman got himself in trouble a couple times lunging in pass protection. That’s what happened on both sacks Nijman allowed to Trey Hendrickson, one in the final 30 seconds of the first half, the other a couple plays before the game-winning field goal in overtime. The Packers also gave him his share of help with chip blocks and double teams. But overall Nijman held up OK for a third straight game.

And Lucas Patrick, who had finished a few games at center in his career but never started one, was solid enough at that position that Rodgers didn’t have problems with A-gap rushes all game. That’s the biggest concern when playing a backup center, that the gaps on either side of him are leaky and allow pressure in the quarterback’s face. That was not an issue Sunday.

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Patrick is OK at getting out to the linebacker level as a run blocker, too. The Packers’ main issues running the ball Sunday came when Vonn Bell came up from the safety spot late in the cadence as an extra run defender. Aaron Jones’ 57-yard run late in the fourth quarter was about as well blocked a play as you’re going to find up front. Bell came flying up from safety just before the snap to fill the gaping hole, but on this one Jones showed why the Packers are paying him $10 million a year. He juked Bell in the hole, and when Jones broke past him he had a lot of open field for the big run.

The Packers’ injury issues at least on the offensive line should resolve soon. David Bakhtiari (ACL recovery) is eligible to come off the PUP list after this Sunday’s game at Chicago, and if he’s healthy enough to return to the practice field right away he could be back playing in games as early as the end of the end of the month. Elgton Jenkins (ankle) returned to practice part time last week, so he might be ready to go this week against the Bears. Center Josh Myers’ finger injury is short-term as well.

But the Packers showed Sunday the depth to make-do, even down three starters.

Extra points

* No play illustrated the special chemistry between Rodgers and Davante Adams better than the five-yard touchdown pass they produced late in the second quarter. The play was a called zone run to the right, and off the snap the line blocked in unison that way. Watching the video there was no hand signal or other sign of acknowledgment between Adams and Rodgers that they would try a fade pattern on the other side of the field. But they must have known from making eye contact, because Rodgers threw the fade, and Adams made the leaping catch over cornerback Trae Waynes for the touchdown.

* AJ Dillon caught only 21 passes despite touching the ball 855 times in his three seasons at Boston College, so there were serious questions going into the 2020 draft about how well he’d function in NFL passing games. He has answered them, at least as far as catching the ball. He had four more receptions Sunday (for 49 yards and a touchdown), and by all appearances he’s catching the ball with ease.

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