28

March

2012 Packers Position Group Analysis: Defensive Backs

Green Bay Packers defensive backs, Charles Woodson, Nick Collins, Charlie Peprah

Defensive Backs Charles Woodson, Nick Collins, Charlie Peprah

Packers Defensive Backs: We’re back with the third of this series where we examine each Packers position group as it currently exists. Today we finish the defensive side of the ball by examining the Packers’ secondary. As before, this article will examine three main points from the Packers’ perspective: where we are, where we want to go and what we need to do to get there.

Previous installments can be found here:

Packers Defensive Line:

Packers Linebackers:

 

Where are we now:

Here are the current suspects:

Charles Woodson (1st round)
Tramon Williams (undrafted)
Sam Shields (undrafted)
Jarrett Bush (undrafted)
Davon House (4th  round)
Brandian Ross (undrafted)

Nick Collins (2nd round)
Morgan Burnett (3rd round)
Charlie Peprah (5th round)
M.D. Jennings (undrafted)
Anthony Levine (undrafted)

While this position group has six undrafted players, only three are regulars and overall there is better representation near the top of the draft than in the defensive line and linebacker groups. That’s especially true if you count Pat Lee, a second round choice the Packers recently allowed to leave via free agency.

The Packers’ secondary had a tough time in 2011. As a group, they gave up 71 plays of 20 yards or more, and a lot of those were significantly more than 20 yards. The Giants alone had four plays over 40 yards in two games against the Packers. Yes, it was not pleasant.

So let’s start with Charles Woodson: In 2011, Woodson was a bit of a paradox. On one hand, he was what we have come to expect from Charles Woodson; the guy who makes the big play. Woodson had 3 sacks, 7 interceptions and a total of nine turnover plays on the year. On the other hand, his tackling, which used to be a strength, almost became a liability.  Woodson finally started showing signs of age, as he lost some of that quickness he previously counted on to avoid blockers and track down ball carriers in open space. Woodson was charged with 18 missed tackles on the season and nine penalties (more than twice as many penalties as any other Packer player). He also gave up five touchdowns, leading the team in that category as well.

Tramon Williams came quickly tumbling down from the peak he had reached in 2010, when he played as well as any corner in the league. Hampered by a shoulder injury, Williams was not able to use the arm-heavy pressing style that served him so well in 2010. I seem to remember Bob McGinn quoting an NFL scout as saying teams were targeting Williams in 2011 as the weak spot in the Packers’ secondary.

When it comes to Sam Shields, I really had a hard time believing he played as well as he did as a rookie with only 2 years’ experience at the position. I was sure he would get picked apart as the 2010 season progressed, but it never happened. Unfortunately, things did seem to catch up with him in 2011. Opposing coaches had plenty of tape to figure out it was better to run at or throw in front of Shields and force him to make a tackle instead of trying to attack him deep downfield. This resulted in a full frontal display of Shield’s inexperience and seeming unwillingness to bring ball carriers down. Besides all of that, he also managed to give up 9 passes of 20 yards or more and 4 1/2 touchdowns. Shields ended on a very down note, as he was replaced by Jarrett Bush for much of the playoff game against the Giants.

The recently re-signed Jarrett Bush has become the quintessential “coach’s player.” He’s a solid citizen, does whatever he’s asked and gives his full effort all the time. Over the last year or two, he has gotten rid of his propensity for drawing penalty flags and has improved as a cornerback. This despite the Packers bouncing him back and forth between corner and safety, something Mike McCarthy admitted last month probably “screwed him up.” To my eyes, Bush has always been good with the ball in front of him and close to the line of scrimmage. He’s best playing a similar game to Charles Woodson’s, but is obviously less talented.

Pat Lee was his usual invisible self…  oh wait, he’s gone, isn’t he?

Davon House struggled with injuries, especially early on, and never made really made his way into the CB rotation. The Packers’ coaches are excited about his size and athletic ability, it’s just a matter of how well he takes to technique coaching and if he can become assignment sure on the field.

Brandian Ross made an early splash in last year’s Family Night Scrimmage by intercepting an Aaron Rodgers pass. Two weeks later, he intercepted a pass in the end zone to help preserve the Packers’ win over the Cardinals. The Packers’ coaches saw enough to offer the Youngstown State product a spot on the practice squad, where he happily spent the season.

Nick Collins. What can one say about Collins. In our heart of hearts, we know he shouldn’t come back. He has a young family and a long life in front of him. He surely has enough money to be comfortable and he has that coveted Super Bowl ring. His life seems pretty complete, why risk it all for some more glory or money? On the other hand, as maniacal Packers fans, we so want him back. We saw what happened to the secondary without their quarterback. The preponderance of big plays was tough to watch.

Morgan Burnett slid over to Collins’ “quarterback” spot, and all that did was expose his weaknesses. Left to his own decision-making, Burnett made some assignment mistakes that resulted in some wide open wide receivers down the field. Burnett can also be a bit inconsistent at times, looking great on one play and totally lost on the next. Still, he’s a talented player that could develop into a top-10 safety if he can give consistent effort and masters the mental part of playing the position.

Charlie Peprah: Did the Packers really win a Super Bowl with Charlie Peprah at safety? Yes they did, when they had Nick Collins back there to make sure he was set up properly. Left to his own devices, Peprah got caught out of position and just doesn’t have the speed to recover. On the positive side, Peprah had five interceptions, zero penalties and was his usual solid performer as a tackler.

M.D. Jennings came into preseason as an unknown and undrafted rookie from Arkansas State. Jennings won an outright roster spot as the fourth safety and moved up to #3 safety when Collins went down. Despite that status, Jennings only saw the field for 10 snaps in week 10 against the Vikings. After the season, Mike McCarthy praised Jennings as “really coming on.” Since he didn’t really play, we have to take that to mean McCarthy saw definite improvement in practice as the year progressed.

Anthony Levine is the current king of the Packers’ practice squad, having spent the better part of the last two seasons there. Levine was originally signed after being invited on a tryout basis to the 2010 rookie orientation camp. He spent all of 2010 on the practice squad, was cut in camp in 2011 and then signed back to the practice squad in October. There isn’t much I can say about Levine without really having seen him play.

So that’s where we are. Next let’s look at…

Where we want to be:

There’s plenty of room and need for improvement in this group. The dark cloud hanging over their heads, of course, is the Nick Collins situation. After Mike McCarthy’s recent comments about not letting Collins play if he were his son, one has to feel the Packers are preparing for a Collins-less future.

The secondary as it was constituted last season just did not work. There are many excuses you can employ; lack of a pass rush, Tramon’s injury, Woodson slowing down, etc. But these or similar situations could all exist again this season. Looking within, individual and collective improvements are a must.

First and foremost, tackling in the secondary HAS to improve. This was a bone of contention all season and one that Mike McCarthy has admitted must get better.

Secondly, the Packers’ secondary MUST eliminate the preponderance of big plays. They are often game changers, as the Giants’ Hail Mary TD pass in the playoffs loss will certainly attest to.

Thirdly, quality depth must be developed. If Collins doesn’t return, another year of Charlie Peprah at safety full-time is a gift to wide receivers everywhere. Hopefully with another year of coaching, Burnett can get more comfortable with setting the coverages, but there isn’t much after that. Help has to be found.  At corner, a replacement for Charles Woodson needs to be developed and more options are needed in case Davon House doesn’t develop and Shields’ struggles continue.

So that’s where we want to be. Next let’s look at…

How do we get there?

Many have said that the slowing-down Charles Woodson should be moved to safety to, in effect, kill two birds with one stone. A move to safety would solidify that position and “hide” his diminishing man-to-man coverage skills as a corner. The main problem with that is that it takes Woodson away from where he has been most effective; near the line of scrimmage. Despite the down year last season, he is still an impact player there that creates turnovers on a regular basis. Woodson, of course, has been moved around and played some safety when needed, so it’s not foreign to him. But according to recent comments from Mike McCarthy, it’s not a move the Packers are considering on any type of regular basis.

Some have also said that Jarrett Bush should be moved to safety, but as described previously, McCarthy regrets trying that in the past.

So, assuming Nick Collins does not return, the Packers have a serious and immediate need at safety. Unfortunately, there is not a lot on the free agent front that can help (Derrick Martin or Anthony Smith, anyone?), and it’s considered a weak year for safeties in the draft after the first handful. So what to do?

Weak year or not, the Packers MUST draft a safety. While highly unlikely they use a first round pick on a safety (OLB first, Ted), there is one player that could help them right away that should be available in the early second round; Harrison Smith from Notre Dame. He would be an immediate improvement over Charlie Peprah and have an actual first-year impact on the field.

To get Smith, the Packers would probably need to trade up into the early second round. Let’s estimate that he would go somewhere around pick 42 and the Dolphins. The Packers could get there by trading their second (59), third(90) and fourth(123) for the Dolphins’ second (42) and their sixth (196). It may seem like a lot at first, but if the Packers get a potential starter at a position of great need, it makes sense. In addition, the value is approximately equal according to the standard trade value chart, and it should appeal to the Dolphins, who need to get their rebuilding process off to a fast start, but only have 8 picks in this draft (and no Matt Flynn).

Based on media reports, the Packers have been actively seeking out free agent defensive linemen and linebackers, but have not been actively looking at free agent safeties. Of the names that I see are still available, a few have potential as veteran guys that could come in as a short-term solution and solidify the position. The most attractive names to me are Jon McGraw of the Chiefs, Sean Jones of Tampa Bay and Chris Hope of the Titans. All are seasoned veterans who would be steadying influences at SS for the Packers.  The hope would be that this veteran experience would mean fewer mistakes in the secondary resulting in fewer long plays. That’s my hypothesis, anyway.

As far as cornerback goes, the Packers have to assume that Tramon Williams, once fully healthy, will be closer to his 2010 form than how he played last season. Sam Shields is an area of concern and you could sense Mike McCarthy’s disappointment in Shields’ play by his terse “he has to be better” assessment of his play. Whether Shields can return to form is the major question at cornerback. The Packers are somewhat prepared with House and Ross waiting in the wings, but whether any of these three become dependable NFL cornerbacks is still to be seen.

Add to that the Woodson age issue and it’s quite apparent that the quality of the depth at cornerback has to be improved. This isn’t as urgent and immediate a need as safety, so drafting another 4th-round cornerback and bringing in some UDFAs  should be sufficient.

Now, about that tackling problem… The unfortunate part of this situation is the new rules put into place in the new CBA limiting the amount of off-season workouts and full-contact practices. In another time, these guys would have been out there practicing tackling for hours. Now, all the coaches can do is try to verbally drill into their thick heads that your arms are there to be used when you make a tackle. McCarthy has vowed they will tackle better this year. We’ll see.

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Jersey Al Bracco is the founder and editor of AllGreenBayPackers.com, and the co-founder of Packers Talk Radio Network. He is a PFWA member who can be heard as one of the Co-Hosts on Cheesehead Radio and is the Green Bay Packers Draft Analyst for Drafttek.com.

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28 Responses to “2012 Packers Position Group Analysis: Defensive Backs”

  1. BTF says:

    Great analysis which I broadly agree with.

    A tweet from Rob Demovsky had MM as saying “we we weren’t a very good tackling team last year” followed by “that WILL improve” (my emphasis). That’s a very definitive statement of intent which is good to see.

    On Burnett-agree the mental side of the game is where he has to work but it’s worth remembering both that last year was an effective rookie season for him and it took Nick Collins a few seasons to become the player we missed so badly last year. Burnett certainly has the range to be a very good FS hopefully he kicks on as most of the realistic safety draft prospects seem to be more suited to SS as far as I can tell…

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  2. Ron LC says:

    Great analysis Al. You’ve put the DB’s under the microscope and pointed to the issues that must be resolved by Capers and MM before taking the field for the first game in 2012.

    YAC was a real killer last year. Many times with 3rd and long the D couldn’t get off the field. Coverage was soft. Too often they relied on LB’s to cover the other teams’ possession recievers with poor results. And then, it was the tackling. 2011′s display of tackling was maybe the worst since the 80′s.

    MM and Capers have a lot of work to do. So far the FA market is showing some indication of a strategy that should help make some improvements.

    Collins is at the Doc this week and a big part of the improvement will be determined after that appointment.

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  3. JimR_in_DC says:

    If Collins isn’t able to return to football, I think we’re going to really struggle until we find or groom a player to QB the DBs. Is Burnett are realistic candidate to do this?

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  4. Tarynfor 12 says:

    If Collins cannot play and Burnett isn’t ready then which is the greater loss or gain for the defense.Woodson staying at CB and with a secondary lost or Woodson at S and limiting the big plays.
    The defense is better served with command at S as with Collins than having a blitzing CB that leaves the rest in chaos.
    If Burnett isn’t ready and if Woodson won’t or can’t,then I guess Bush has become much more valuable????

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  5. Jason J says:

    I would add that the fact that the young players will be able to participate in an offseason program this year will be a big help. The lock out really put Burnett and Shields in a difficult position last year and they were not able to make that big improvement between their 1st and 2nd years. Also, Burnett was prepared to spend the season next to Collins, so that was asking a lot of a young player who was essentially playing his first full year. Give him the offseason to prepare as the “qb” of the secondary and we should see a difference.

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  6. Lucas says:

    Many of Woodson’s “poor tackling” was the result of him trying to overplay in a poor defense. When a player tries to do too much, mistakes happen. Count the number of shoelace tackles and sprawling attempts behind the line. C-Wood’s tackling skills are fine.
    Get a pass rush and go back to letting our DBs play closer to the line. Tackling will improve when a WR isn’t allowed space to put a move. Capers was forced to play the secondary off the ball more, putting a lot of pressure on the secondary to tackle in space. Also, much of the secondary was being asked to play more zone than in the past. The lack of an off season exposed that coverage as a weakness.

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  7. Mojo says:

    There has been a lot of talk about moving CWood to safety, but I get the feeling it wouldn’t work. I noticed after a number of years of watching Charles, his willingness to attack and take on bigger and stronger offensive players. I just didn’t see from him much of it at all this past season. He usually just tried to go around the player in front of him and ended up out of position.

    Safeties are generally among the team leaders in tackles. It requires a willingness, at times, to sell out your body. And then get up and do it again. I don’t know if CWood has that in him anymore.

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  8. PackersRS says:

    Smith wouldn’t be an upgrade. He plays well near the LOS but he doesn’t tackle well in space and doesn’t have great ball skills, he had 7 ints in 10′ but that was the only year he had ANY int, and several were overthrown balls. I watched almost every ND game last year, believe me. Don’t let the combine numbers fool you, he doesn’t have elite athleticism for the position.

    I actually believe the best position for him is MLB in a 4-3 scheme, he recognizes holes well in the running game, he’s smart, and he has a knack for causing fumbles.

    But as a FS or a SS, I don’t think he’s starting material in the NFL.

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    • Jersey Al Jersey Al says:

      Well, you’ve seen him more than I, but I would still have to disagree. Also, I wouldn’t consider him as a FS, only a SS. I think he’s a definite starter with upper level potential down the road.

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      • ted, of bill and ted says:

        jersey al i’m curious to hear your take on brandon taylor from lsu, his combine numbers were fair, he seems like he would be a solid ss,and he’s a highly respected player in the lsu locker room from what i’ve read. he’s projected to go in the 4th or 5th round i think, which would leave us open to draft for other needs earlier on…has he been on your radar at all?

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        • ted, of bill and ted says:

          actually after watching film he seems fair in coverage, he may be able to play either safety position

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      • PackersRS says:

        FWIW, NFP agrees with you, Al.

        Maybe my view is tainted by the struggles of the team and the past overvalorization of ND players…

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  9. JimR_in_DC says:

    Is Burnett is more of a SS, too?

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  10. darby1355 says:

    There is no way you give up that many or those picks to move up to draft Smith at that position. Most Mocks i’ve followed have Smith as a 3rd round pick at best. I would love to add him to the roster but not before the 3rd. We have too many “needs” to give up a 2nd, 3rd, and 4th to move up 15 spots in the 2nd. Are you for real????

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    • Jersey Al Jersey Al says:

      As I stated, if you go by the trade value chart, it’s an even trade. That’s reality.

      With the scarcity of good safeties in this draft, I don’t think there’s any chance Smith would last to the Packers’ second round pick. I think he goes in the early-mid second round as the second safety off the board.

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  11. Lou says:

    Woodson will continue to play (whatever position)at a high caliber, few players can turn a game around, he like Ted Hendricks can turn a season around. You have to expect Williams to be better, his 2010 season was as good as anyone (including Revis). Thompson has to plan for Collin’s retirement, Burnett will get better, Peprah is just a backup and needs to be replaced. Bush is tough but has no ball awareness, House is as immature as Finley was/is, and Jennings is awfully small for the position. Help has to come from the draft but the real help will be a pass rush, something totally lacking last year.

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  12. Silent says:

    Hmmm I wonder if anyone feels the same way I do the tackling was not very good but without pass rush the secondary looked even worse……. at times it seemed the defensive backs had pretty good coverage but when the QB has like all day to sit in pocket because no pass rush makes for a long tiring day for the DBs … I mean heck Eli “the overrated” Manning could have sat down had a drink of gatorade and probably a hot dog while standing in the pocket on a bunch of plays during the playoff game….. it happened often to lot of QBs last year.

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  13. Jersey Al Jersey Al says:

    To everyone mentioning the pass rush: Yes, of course it affected the secondary play, but this is a position group analysis. I’ve covered the pass rush issues in the previous installments. As I stated in the article, this is a look within, regardless of outside factors. Hope that makes sense.

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  14. Pete Kliman says:

    I don’t think it’s as bleak as it seems. They will have an off season to adjust to life without Collins,tackling will improve because it’s about will and after the Giants embarrassed them that will change, and finally the youth will at least help even if only slightly. Normally we could just isolate the DB’s,but not this past season .It’s not only the sacks it was the absence of pressures and knockdowns.Silent is right, many times I felt that the pass would be completed even before it left the QB’s hand because the O had so much time.I at my age could get open on our D.

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  15. Mike F. says:

    It seems that all the talk is about the players and if memory serves me the db’s had a new coach last year as well. How does that fit into the equation?

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    • Jersey Al Jersey Al says:

      No, actually they’ve had the same coaches since the 2009 season. Whitt for cornerbacks, Perry for safeties.

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