Packers counting on young and old to improve pass defense
GREEN BAY — For as much grief as the Green Bay Packers’ pass defense has gotten over the past two years, it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always such a troublesome spot for them.
Sure, the Packers finished 31st in the 32-team league in 2016 and 23rd last season. But they ranked in the top 10 in pass defense the previous two years — 10th in 2014 and sixth in 2015 — and were in the top 5 in then-defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ first two seasons (2009 and ’10).
Perhaps that’s why, while Capers was relieved of his duties after nine seasons following the Dec. 31 regular-season finale, cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt and safeties coach Darren Perry each were candidates to replace him. While Mike Pettine was ultimately hired as the new coordinator, Whitt received a promotion (to defensive pass-game coordinator) and Perry was offered the opportunity to return to the staff, which he declined.
That coach Mike McCarthy took that approach with the two position coaches overseeing that area — and given the investments the team has made over the past 18 months at cornerback and safety, both via the draft and free agency — would seem to indicate the Packers saw the problem as a personnel issue, not a coaching issue.
Clearly the Packers hope they’ve made the right moves with their staff (Pettine taking charge of the defense, Whitt ascending to a higher-profile role on staff, Jason Simmons getting a promotion from assistant special teams coach to secondary coach) and with their players.
“We’ll see. It really matters once we get to game day,” Whitt said. “We haven’t played very well the past two years, and it hasn’t necessarily been because of lack of talent. People have gotten hurt, or this or that or the third, but that’s in the past. What we’re focused on right now are these men trying to play championship-style football. And I like the way the room is gelling. Not just the corners, safeties — just the whole group together.
“I think we have a chance, but it’s too early to say what we are.”
Last offseason, the Packers devoted their top draft pick to cornerback Kevin King (No. 33 overall, the first selection of the second round) and their other second-round pick on safety Josh Jones (No. 61). They also brought veteran cornerback Davon House, a 2011 fourth-round pick, back as a free agent after he’d spent the prior two years in Jacksonville.
This offseason, they brought back another popular veteran — 35-year-old cornerback Tramon Williams, who like House had departed as a free agent after the 2014 season, the last time the Packers had been a top-10 pass defense. And they again spent their first two draft picks on the secondary, adding Louisville cornerback Jaire Alexander in the first round (No. 18) and Iowa’s Josh Jackson (No. 45) in the second.
Why? In today’s NFL, while stopping the run remains important, figuring out how to not get torched through the air is even more important.
“That’s what gets you beat the fastest. I think you still have to be sound against the run, but you lose a heck of a lot faster when you’re giving up chunks in the passing game,” Pettine said. “The run game’s important. You have to win on the early downs. It’s all about the third down and getting off the field.”
Here’s a closer look at the defensive backs as the Packers prepare for training camp, which kicks off with its first practice on Thursday:
38 Tramon Williams: 5-foot-11, 191 pounds, age 35, 12th year from Louisiana Tech.
20 Kevin King: 6-3, 200, 23, second year from Washington.
23 Jaire Alexander: 5-10, 196, 21, rookie from Louisville.
37 Josh Jackson: 6-0, 196, 22, rookie from Iowa.
31 Davon House: 6-0, 195, 29, eighth year from New Mexico State.
24 Quinten Rollins: 5-11, 195, 26, fourth year from Miami (Ohio).
39 Demetri Goodson: 5-11, 197, 29, fourth year from Baylor.
28 Josh Hawkins: 5-10, 189, 25, third year from East Carolina.
26 Herb Waters: 6-0, 188, 25, second year from Miami (Fla.).
44 Donatello Brown: 6-0, 190, 27, second year from Valdosta State.
41 Lenzy Pipkins: 6-0, 196, 24, second year from Oklahoma State.
27 Josh Jones: 6-2, 220, 23, second year from North Carolina State.
21 Ha Ha Clinton-Dix: 6-1, 208, 25, fifth year from Alabama.
29 Kentrell Brice: 5-11, 200, 23, third year from Louisiana Tech.
35 Jermaine Whitehead: 5-11, 195, 25, second year from Auburn.
25 Marwin Evans: 5-11, 211, 25, third year from Utah State.
36 Raven Greene: 5-11, 197, 23, rookie from James Madison.
Will Ha Ha Clinton-Dix bounce back?
No defensive player’s performance was more scrutinized after the season than Clinton-Dix’s, as he went from his first Pro Bowl selection to being largely a non-factor last year. To some degree, that was because Capers, concerned about the poor play from his cornerbacks, played Clinton-Dix in deep centerfield frequently. Meanwhile, although Clinton-Dix disputed some of the criticism, he himself admitted on several occasions that he wasn’t good enough, either. (“I didn’t meet the standards I set for myself personally.”) A 2014 first-round pick, Clinton-Dix is entering the fifth and final year of his rookie contract after the Packers picked up his fifth-year option for 2018, guaranteeing him $5.957 million this season. But in a contract year and in a new defense, he needs to deliver.
“I know my value to this defense, and it’s up to you all to see. I guess we’ll see when we play Chicago (in the Sept. 9 season opener) and on from there,” Clinton-Dix said. “I’m excited about this opportunity I have in front of me right now going into my fifth year. The sky’s the limit for me. Just watch, just watch.”
On the rise
A shoulder injury that dated back to his college days at Washington hampered King throughout his rookie season, at times forcing him to play essentially one-armed. The torn labrum eventually required season-ending surgery. Despite the rookie additions, the Packers would love nothing more than for King to show how good he can be when healthy. If he does, Alexander and Jackson will have to have monster camps to beat him out for playing time.
“He’s been really attentive. He’s worked his butt off,” Whitt said of King, who was limited throughout the offseason. “The guys in the (weight) room are just raving about the way his work ethic hasn’t necessarily changed, but from Year 1 to 2 you grow up, and he’s matured that way. … You’ll see the real Kevin King come training camp.”
Player to watch
Jones made quite the impression in helmets and shorts as a rookie, but when the pads came on and when the games started to count, he struggled more often than he thrived. That probably was in part due to the coaches trying to teach him multiple positions (safety, hybrid inside linebacker) and having to play more snaps (730) than they probably wanted him to as a rookie. The result? Too many mistakes, not enough big plays. Now, with longtime starter Morgan Burnett having departed for Pittsburgh in free agency, Jones will have a chance to play safety full-time alongside Clinton-Dix – if he makes the Year 2 jump coaches require.
“When I look at Josh Jones, I think we (misused him). In some ways, you want to get the young guy on the field. He has a unique set of skills and played a lot of different positions,” head coach Mike McCarthy said. “I think that was reflected in some of his performance. Really this year, (he’ll have) the ability to focus in on one or two positions, and I think with that you’ll see him more comfortable and flying around and not thinking as much. I think he’s definitely on pace for that.”
Who plays, who doesn’t at corner?
King, Alexander and Jackson will draw plenty of attention throughout the summer, and given their high draft positions, they should. When you invest that high of picks at one position, you need a return on said investment. At the same time, Whitt has long had a simple rule about playing time: The best guys will play, the others will watch. While Williams should man one of the outside spots, the other outside corner position and the slot spots are open for competition.
“We’re going to be fighting for jobs,” Whitt said. “That’s one thing I really credit Tramon and Davon House with. They’ve taken these young corners, (and) even though they’re competing for the same positions, they’re giving them everything that they have. ... Because at the end of the day, if everybody is better, that gives us a better chance to win.”