Green Bay Packers safety Morgan Burnett (42) runs with the ball after making an interception during training camp practice at Ray Nitschke Field on Sunday, Aug. 1, 2010. / File/Press-Gazette
Position analysis series
Pete Dougherty breaks down the Packers by position heading into training camp:
Today: Defensive backs
Player Pos. Ht. Wt. Yr.
Atari Bigby* S 5-11 213 6
Anthony Bratton S 6-0 213 R
Morgan Burnett CB 6-1 209 2
Jarrett Bush CB/S 6-0 200 6
Josh Gordy CB 5-11 196 1
Michael Greco S 6-3 224 1
Davon House CB 6-0 195 R
M.D. Jennings S 6-0 187 R
Pat Lee CB 6-0 196 4
Anthony Levine S 5-11 199 1
Charlie Peprah S 5-11 203 6
Brandian Ross CB 6-0 191 R
Sam Shields CB 5-11 184 2
Brandon Underwood S-CB 6-1 191 3
Tramon Williams CB 5-11 191 5
Charles Woodson CB 6-1 202 14
*Unrestricted free agent
Charlie Peprah provided the Green Bay Packers’ run defense with some pop from the safety position and played just fine overall as a starter for 16 games after rookie Morgan Burnett blew out his knee in Week 4 last season.
But the Packers expect the post-surgical Burnett to be their starting safety opposite Pro Bowler Nick Collins again this year.
For one, they targeted Burnett for that job when General Manager Ted Thompson made a rare draft trade up in 2010, from pick No. 86 to No. 71 in the third round. The Packers also consider Burnett a more experienced player than his four-game rookie season might suggest, because he was the starter from the first day of his first minicamp. When his rookie season ended he’d accrued more than 1,500 snaps with the No. 1 defense in practices and games combined.
By the time the 2011 regular season starts, Burnett will be 10 months removed from knee-reconstruction surgery. Assuming he’s recovered sufficiently, he provides the defense with more speed and pass-coverage ability than Peprah, though in four games as a rookie Burnett wasn’t anything like Peprah’s physical presence in the run game.
“I think he’ll be plenty physical,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said of Burnett this week. “I like Morgan, I like his demeanor, I think he’ll (be) really steady. He’s very serious. You need a guy that can make all those calls because you see so much shifting and motions and all those kinds of things. I think he’ll be able to handle all that, and he’s certainly a good enough athlete, has really good ball skills. It’s just too bad he got hurt when he did. He would have been a guy, much like you saw with (cornerback) Sam Shields, you’d see him play his best football in the second half of the season.”
That leaves Peprah the fallback if Burnett’s recovery is incomplete, and a good insurance policy at that. Last season the fifth-year pro filled well in the run game, finished with 64 tackles, and had two interceptions. He had a rough moment or two in coverage, most notably at Washington in his first start, when quarterback Donovan McNabb completed passes behind him for 48 yards and 52 yards. But as the season went on Peprah proved assignment sure and was a strong tackler and excellent communicator. The Packers now know they can win with him in the lineup.
“I’ve always liked Charlie, because Charlie can make all the calls and adjustments,” Capers said. “He’s kind of Mr. Steady. You have to have a guy like that. I think Morgan can do those same things as far making the calls. But that’s one of Charlie’s strengths.
“If you want to be a really good defensive team, you have to have two or three real difference makers, and you have to have a lot of guys that are really good at playing their role, guys know that they can count on to be in the right place.”
The Packers return the rest of the main players in their secondary, including the cornerback trio of Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams and Shields that was critical to the team’s Super Bowl run last season. Capers played nickel on about two-thirds of the Packers’ defensive snaps, and their coverage abilities allowed Capers to use his entire playbook, which helped produce a defense that was one of the NFL’s best (second in fewest points allowed and fifth in fewest yards allowed).
Woodson’s high level of play has become a given, but the major developments were Williams’ ascent to becoming a top cover man, and Shields’ stunning rise as the No. 3 corner after the team signed him as an undrafted rookie.
Williams, 28, is the Packers’ best pure cover man and led them in interceptions (six) and passes defended (23). His game-turning 70-yard interception return for a touchdown in the divisional-round playoffs at Atlanta was as fine a read and break as a cornerback can make.
Early in the season Capers protected Shields some with his defensive calls, but as the year went on he grew more and more confident in the rookie in lone coverage. For any rough spots Shields endured, he played like a first-round draft pick, never cost the Packers a game, and had a player-of-the-game type performance in the NFC championship against Chicago with two interceptions and a forced fumble on a strip sack.
Shields, 24, would have benefited from a full offseason in the Packers’ workout program but has the experience of 800 game snaps and is looking at an incredibly bright future.
“There still will be some things, the rookie stuff, he still hasn’t seen enough things,” Capers said. “But he’s a serious kid, doesn’t say much, he just comes in and works hard, practices hard. Normally if he makes an error it bothers him and he corrects it.”
With Capers’ play-calling success last season so reliant on his cornerbacks’ coverage abilities, one of the Packers’ greatest concerns has to be if one of the three sustains a long-term injury.
Thompson didn’t address cornerback depth with any of his prime draft picks but selected New Mexico State’s Davon House in the fourth round. House will get every chance to win the job as the No. 4 cornerback ahead of Pat Lee and Jarrett Bush, both of whom played the second half of the Super Bowl after Woodson’s and Shields’ game-ending injuries late in the first half. Lee and Bush held up well enough to win, but Pittsburgh didn’t have the chance to game plan for them, either.
“I’m hoping we can see House make somewhat the same kind of strides as we saw Sam (Shields) make a year ago,” Capers said. “You look at him on tape and he’s got athletic ability, he’s got speed, he’s got pretty good size. We’ll have to see how much (of the playbook) he can handle.
“Normally a guy like that you try not to move around too much, you try to get him one spot and get him comfortable with what he has to do in that spot. That spot hopefully for him will be one of those outside cover corners. You can’t have too many of those guys, because they dictate how much you can do defensively (with blitzes and coverages).”
At safety, the Packers haven’t shown any indication they’re going to re-sign Atari Bigby, a starter who missed 22 games combined the last three seasons because of ankle and hamstring injuries.
Indications so far are that they’re bringing back third-year Brandon Underwood after his arrest this offseason for disorderly conduct. He moved from cornerback to safety late last season and probably will stay at the new position if he returns.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.