Time for Packers defensive backs to turn a corner
By Bob McGinn of the Journal Sentinel
~Green Bay — The Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl three years ago even though opponents sometimes took advantage of speed and athletic deficiencies evident in the play of cornerback Charles Woodson and safety Charlie Peprah.
By adding key players in 2010, ’11 and ’12, the Packers now have outstanding speed across their secondary. No longer must they fear matching up against spread formations.
But Woodson, an all-time great, and the resourceful Peprah also brought elements of toughness and moxie that their successors didn’t exhibit often enough last season.
Tramon Williams is the only top cornerback older than 25, and the three safeties atop the depth chart are 24.
This secondary ranks among the swiftest in the National Football League. Now it’s time for the young players to develop the esprit de corps that the finest groups possess.
“I think we’re talented,” said Darren Perry, the safeties coach since 2009. “With greatness comes consistency.
“We had our moments last year where we were pretty good. But the ultimate measure is doing it week in and week out.”
Questions abound in the back end for a defense that improved from 32nd to seventh in opponents’ passing average but also took the ball away just 23 times, the Packers’ lowest total since the 4-12 season of 2005.
At 30, does Williams have another solid year in him, let alone a superlative season like 2010?
Will Sam Shields improve, as he did last year, or fall back into his skittish ways of 2011?
Rock-solid Casey Hayward would seem immune to the sophomore jinx, but the Packers will be asking much more from the talented Davon House. Is he confident and tough enough to come through?
The Packers could have gone another year without paying safety Morgan Burnett, and perhaps used a portion of his $24.75 million in “new money” from last week on an unrestricted veteran such as Ed Reed, Michael Huff, Glover Quin, Patrick Chung or Kenny Phillips.
In March, those five players all left teams for starting jobs elsewhere with modest contracts averaging between $2 million and $5 million.
Instead, general manager Ted Thompson handed the mantle of leadership and responsibility to Burnett, who generally has been effective but seldom overwhelming as the successor to Nick Collins in center field.
In January, quarterback Aaron Rodgers urged management to bring back the 36-year-old Woodson, calling it a “top priority” for the organization in the off-season. Three weeks later, Woodson was released, the victim of declining speed and skills as well as a $10 million contract for 2013.
Oakland gave Woodson a job in May with a one-year, $1.8 million deal that included a $700,000 signing bonus.
Because Thompson added nary a veteran at safety, Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings will get another training camp and regular season to see who’s the better man.
One personnel director recently labeled strong safety as a “void” in Green Bay.
Another scout might have been reading Thompson’s lips when he said, “In my mind, they’ve already got people there they’ve been training. McMillian is a fourth-round pick.”
McMillian runs 40 yards in 4.51 seconds, just a tick ahead of Jennings’ 4.53 (Burnett also clocked 4.51). Having three safeties with good speed no longer means coordinator Dom Capers must try to hide people in coverage, as he did with Peprah and Woodson.
“That’s something a lot of people can’t say,” Perry said of having three fast safeties. “The ability to run is exciting to see. With our speed nothing should get out the gate on us.”
McMillian is thicker but didn’t tackle any better than Jennings, who might be thin but isn’t hesitant to hit. Both players missed six tackles a year ago, Jennings in 604 snaps and McMillian in 594.
“I think (Jennings) could be a starter in this league,” said Perry. “They’re very close. We don’t know who that guy will be right now.
“I think his height (5 feet 11 inches) is an advantage for Jerron. It gives him natural leverage. I’d say his (issue) was more focus.”
Since undergoing reconstructive knee surgery a month into his rookie season, Burnett has played all but 18 of 1,097 regular-season snaps in 2011 and every one last year.
Besides durability, Burnett has applied himself wonderfully in the critical component of preparation. Serious and committed, he has the physical gifts to make more plays even while staying within the framework of the scheme.
“I think he’ll become even better with experience,” Perry said. “He’s got command of the defense. I think the big plays will come because he has just as good ball skills as we have back there.”
Since taking the cornerbacks job in 2009, Joe Whitt says his unit’s best season was 2009 and that ’11 was the worst. He equates the performance of 2012 with ’10, when the Packers won it all.
“There’s so much competition in the room,” said Whitt. “I’m very pleased with what I have.”
It starts with speed. Shields has run a shade under 4.30, House clocked 4.41 and Hayward ran in the low 4.5s. Williams hasn’t run a 40 in eight years but his speed has never betrayed him.
Assuming Hayward plays the slot in nickel, the Packers must determine if he deserves to play outside in base as well. Hayward played 750 snaps compared to Williams’ 1,212 in their 18-game season a year ago, but it’s possible Hayward might become the No. 1 cornerback this year.
“Casey isn’t going to make mistakes,” Whitt said. “Very smart. He should be a guy that gets the ball in his hands and makes big plays.”
Williams bounced back somewhat from a disappointing season but still generated just two takeaways compared to 12 in his breakout campaign of 2010.
In his off-season studies, Whitt concluded that he should give each cornerback the freedom to play press or off coverage based on what they do best. Last year, the Packers often forced players into the bump zone.
“Tramon can press, but Tramon does not get the ball from press,” Whitt explained. “Sam can get the ball from press. Tramon and Casey, they get the ball better from being off.
“When Tramon is in press he can’t see the whole offense. He is so smart. He can get the ball and match guys.”
Shields, according to Whitt, is better in press coverage. On June 3, he signed his restricted tender of $2.023 million after the two sides didn’t come close to agreement on a multi-year extension.
“Sam is probably a better press player,” said Whitt. “He can match anybody if he wants to. He’s still improving his zone skills, but they have improved.
“He’s a true DB now. He’s not a receiver playing DB.”
As the tallest and heaviest player among the big four, House undoubtedly would be attractive to trade offers if he plays well in August. Given the uncertainty of Shields’ future and Williams’ age, House isn’t going anywhere unless one or two of the speedy “street” free agents makes a name for himself this summer.
“House can press,” Whitt said. “He’s working on his off game. He has very strong hands and wrists.
“Will he be a big intercept guy? That’s something we have to see, but he should be a guy that percentage-wise they shouldn’t necessarily be able to catch a lot of balls on. He has length and he has speed.”
Enthusiastic Jarrett Bush will try to squeeze out an eighth season as No. 5 cornerback and leader of the special teams. A challenge should come from rookie Micah Hyde, who isn’t nearly as fast as prospects James Nixon, Loyce Means and Brandon Smith but arrives from the fifth round.
“One thing I know about (Hyde) is he’s smart,” Whitt said. “He can play either the nickel or dime. He has enough ability to play outside.”
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