Packers secondary has answered the call to improve defense
From the great Bob McGinn, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
~Green Bay — The awakening of the Green Bay Packers’ defense can be traced almost exclusively to the clear-cut improvement of the secondary.
It’s certainly not scheme. The so-called “quad” base defense, or 4-3, basically lasted two games.
It’s not the defensive line. The Packers still can’t stop the run, and the pass rush from the lighter, more athletic unit hasn’t made up the difference.
The inside linebacker position remains an albatross around the neck of coordinator Dom Capers.
All things considered, the rotation system at outside linebacker has brought little more than comparable results from previous seasons.
It’s the cornerbacks and safeties. As a whole, they’ve played outstanding football.
True, the secondary hasn’t tackled well. The unit has 29 misses, 13 more than after six games last season.
But when it comes to coverage, few teams, if any, can do it any better.
The Packers rank second in interceptions with nine, six more than at this stage in 2013. Those nine picks have set up 45 points, 35 more than at the six-game mark a year ago.
Considering that three of the secondary’s six interceptions were the result of marvelous individual plays, and that one of the three picks by the linebackers was deflected beautifully by Tramon Williams, it’s a significant haul for a defense coming off a season in which its interception total of 12 was the fewest since 2005.
Taking away the ball remains the most critical component of a winning defense. Capers and his veteran assistants, five of whom have been with him since 2009, were more interested this season in reducing the numbers of big plays that have wrecked the defense for too long.
“You remember me talking at the beginning of the year,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said last week. “It was less about interceptions and more about limiting explosives.
“People are going to throw us the ball, and we’re going to catch ’em. We just can’t allow them to catch that big one.”
His colleague in the secondary, safeties coach Darren Perry, was just as emphatic that minimizing long gains was the paramount emphasis for the defense this season.
“It’s the biggest thing…the biggest thing,” said Perry. “We’ve got to make teams drive the ball on us.”
The Packers have yielded one pass of 35 yards or more, compared with six in six games last year. The six-game average in the first five years under Capers was 4.2.
They’ve also allowed seven touchdown passes, a significant drop from 12 after six games of 2013 and from the six-game average of 11.6 from 2009-’13.
According to STATS, the Packers are tied for seventh in completions of 20 yards or more with 15, a big drop from their six-game yield of 23 a year ago.
Neither Perry nor Whitt was suggesting the Packers have arrived. Their opening opponents rank 31st, 32nd, 14th, ninth, 30th and tied for 25th in passing yards.
Beginning with Carolina’s Cam Newton Sunday at Lambeau Field, six of the next seven teams on the schedule have quarterbacks that could turn a strength into an issue.
The vulnerability of inside linebackers A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore against the pass might limit just how effective the pass defense can be.
Still, it should be obvious that the Packers have the hardest part of the coverage game under control. As a group, the four cornerbacks can cover with anybody, and the safety play is getting better almost by the week.
The events late last Sunday at Miami spoke volumes about the seven leading defensive backs (nine, if you count Sean Richardson and Jarrett Bush) and their ability to shut people down.
Remember, Williams and Sam Shields were sitting on the bench injured when the Dolphins began their four-minute push from the 20. It didn’t deter Capers, who waved out his 3-4 base to stop the run, flooded the box and told Davon House to cover Mike Wallace man-to-man and Casey Hayward to cover Brian Hartline man-to-man.
On the Dolphins’ first three snaps, free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was in the middle of the field as Capers rushed six, five and six players.
On their final four snaps, Clinton-Dix was in man coverage against Jarvis Landry or with strong safety Morgan Burnett near the line as Capers came with seven, seven, six and eight men.
Like Capers, other coordinators might have felt just as compelled to stop the run at all costs and been equally as daring in coverage.
Odds are, however, coordinators with both starting cornerbacks sidelined wouldn’t have been successful.
Those final four plays saw the Packers in so-called “zero” coverage. It means the cornerbacks are responsible for a wide receiver wherever he goes without having any safety help.
Despite the fact that Hawk and Jones were responsible for giving up first downs on pass plays, the strategy ultimately enabled the offense to get the ball and drive for victory.
Those seven plays illustrated so much of what this ascending secondary does well.
House stayed in Wallace’s back pocket. House was something of a tease in the first three seasons, but now some teams might kill to have him starting for them.
Hayward managed to hold up against the clever Hartline. Hayward’s better in zones and inside, but with his ball skills and cunning many teams would very much like him, at least as their nickel back.
Clinton-Dix brought down Lamar Miller on third down, forcing Miami to punt. In the first half, he stopped Miller cold in the classic confrontation between juking, breaking-away running back and single safety coming up to tackle. Miller’s gain was 14, not a possible 55.
“If we miss, it’s an explosive and demoralizes the defense,” Perry said. “When a back gets through there, that’s a tough tackle.”
Certainly, Burnett is more comfortable playing off the edge shifting in against the run and covering short-to-intermediate routes. He helped muck up all three of coach Joe Philbin’s running plays.
When Capers switched to his dime on third and 9 and run-blitzed with eight, versatile Micah Hyde alertly shot a gap to insure that Miller had no chance to get out of the gate.
Has anyone expressed more than mild misgivings about facing Cam Newton without Williams and Shields?
It’s mute testimony to just how deep the Packers are at cornerback. House hasn’t allowed a play for 20 yards or more in 176 snaps, and the one that Hayward allowed in 150 plays stemmed from a missed tackle.
Extremely dangerous in off coverage, Williams has been playing aggressively and well. He’s allowed just one-half of a 20-plus play, also the result of a missed tackle.
The team-leading total of four 20-plus plays charged to Shields reflects his inconsistent eye discipline and less-than-physical approach. The only pass for more than 35 yards was the 52-yard bomb in Detroit when Shields got beat deep by Corey Fuller.
At this point last season, the coaches and players were trying to dig out from a deluge of six 35-plus passes.
Safety Jerron McMillian stopped his feet, came up from the deep middle, fell and watched the Ravens’ No. 4 wideout race by him for 63 yards. It had been fourth and 21.
Williams tried to tackle another Ravens receiver high, took a stiff-arm to the chops and watched him go for 59 yards.
In the same game, McMillian didn’t attack a crossing route, was knocked off and, when House loafed in pursuit, ancient tight end Dallas Clark legged it for 45. Clark’s longest reception in the previous 10 games was 17.
Clay Matthews was out of position on a 44-yard bubble screen. Nick Perry and Hawk were at fault on a pass for 43. M.D. Jennings was mauled by the 49ers’ Vernon Davis for 37.
The dysfunction didn’t end at six games. Seven wideouts surpassed 100 yards in the final 10 games (none this year). The yield of 30 touchdown passes was third most in club annals. Nary a pass was picked by a safety.
After re-signing Shields, general manager Ted Thompson drafted Clinton-Dix in the first round after just missing out on every-down inside linebackers Ryan Shazier and C.J. Mosley.
Clinton-Dix was rather passive in August. Not only wasn’t he making any plays on the ball, his run fits were inconsistent.
After a poor opener in Seattle (he was at fault on two 33-yard receptions), the Alabama rookie hasn’t allowed a 20-plus gain since. The passivity of two months ago has become a disciplined aggressive approach no doubt drilled into him by Nick Saban.
In the second quarter at Miami, Wallace ran an over route in what appeared to be three-deep zone coverage. Williams had the most difficult assignment, carrying Wallace to the limits of his third and turning him over to the center third occupied by Clinton-Dix.
The rookie reacted instantly, broke forward and smashed Wallace just as the on-target pass was falling incomplete.
“That’s not (difficult) when we get our communication like we had there,” said Perry. “Ha Ha’s got some natural ability for feeling routes.”
Although House argued that Jennings was in complete command of the defense, he was too slight and lacked the confidence to make such a play. He also played at Arkansas State; McMillian played for Maine.
Already, Clinton-Dix and Burnett, freed from having his modest level of quickness exposed by a steady diet of deep middle, are playing like a top-10 pair of safeties.
“We’ve done a better job of communicating between the nickel (back), the dime (back) and the ‘backer,” said Whitt. “Everyone has done a good job talking. It’s a reason our coverages have been tighter and better.”
Using the same criteria that I’ve maintained for two decades, the pass rush in six games this season (13 sacks, 28 knockdowns, 37 hurries, four bats) is just slightly better than last year at this time (20 sacks, 13 knockdowns, 38 hurries, three bats).
It’s not the rush, and it’s certainly not the inside linebackers.
As usually happens, the rise of the secondary is due to more and better athletes becoming better football players.
Now we’ll see if the group can sustain, if not build upon, its fast start in denying those debilitating explosive plays.