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