From the start of the season, Joe Whitt was transparent about what his philosophy was going to be for handling the team’s cornerback contingent.
Coming off a season in which the Green Bay Packers ranked last in total defense, the fourth-year cornerbacks coach made it clear he wasn’t concerning himself with which players were on the field at any given time.
What mattered most to Whitt was how each member of the secondary played when given a opportunity.
If history was any indicator, the starting rotation would experience its own platonic shifts as the season progressed with injuries usually playing a factor.
Sure enough, they did. Three players – veteran Charles Woodson, third-year pro Sam Shields and Davon House – all missed significant stretches with injuries, but the secondary persevered.
While Woodson, Shields and House have missed a combined 20 games and counting, the Packers secondary has limited opposing quarterbacks still have established only a 74.5 quarterback rating, which is fourth-best in the NFL among pass defenses.
“Everybody has taken ownership of their play,” Whitt said. “We wanted to put a quality performance out there each week, so whoever had the opportunity to go out there and play, they knew this was their chance to become a starter or get extended play in packages, and they’ve done that. To every man, they should feel good about what they’ve done.”
In the process, veteran cornerback Tramon Williams put the nerve/shoulder injury that plagued him throughout last season in the rear view while Casey Hayward inserted his name in the defensive rookie of the year category one play after another.
While the Packers’ secondary has seen its interceptions drop from a league-leading 31 picks last year to 18 this season, it substantially lowered its pass yards allowed per game from 299.8 last season to 217.7.
In some ways, it reminds Whitt of the 2010 season when injuries had Patrick Lee and Jarrett Bush playing extended snaps as the season wore on, especially in the team’s Super Bowl XLV win over Pittsburgh.
“To me, it’s kind of what we’ve gone through really at every level of our defense,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “What I’ve hoped all along is, you work your way through it, it makes you stronger this time of the year because you’ve got guys that have had to play and play under game conditions so they’ve got more experience. We’ve gained experience along the way.”
Woodson has yet to return from the broken collarbone he sustained in October and House (shoulder/hip) is doubtful to play in today's regular-season finale against Minnesota, but the trio of Williams, Shields and Hayward has made the Packers’ nickel package as formidable as any trio in the league.
According to Pro Football Focus, Shields leads the NFL in coverage snaps per reception (18.4) while Hayward has fashioned a league-low quarterback rating against (27.7), along with six interceptions and no touchdowns allowed.
Although the Packers will need all three during their stretch run this season, the foundation of the secondary remains the 29-year-old Williams, who ranks among the league leaders in total defensive snaps played while earning a nod as a Pro Bowl alternate this past week.
“I thought he’s played a really good season,” Whitt said. “What Tramon’s done, he’s done everything we’ve asked him to do. He’s done it at a high level and he was deserving, but they only take three. So we’re not worried about that, we’re worried about going and getting us a second ring.”
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