Hyde, Clinton-Dix share in safeties' resurgence
The day may come when a single safety continually lines up next to starter Morgan Burnett, but that's not the world the Green Bay Packers are living in at the moment.
What the Packers' coaching staff knows is that this year's first-round draft pick, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, is making progress. The utility man, Micah Hyde, has responded to every situation he's thrown into. Both players have made cases for extended playing time.
Those extras reps could come as soon as this Sunday against New Orleans if Morgan Burnett isn't able to play through the calf injury that sidelined him for Thursday's padded practice. Packers coach Mike McCarthy said afterward his "concern for Morgan is higher than it was" on Wednesday.
If that's the case, the coaches have confidence Hyde, Clinton-Dix and third-year reserve Sean Richardson could get the job done against the NFL's second-ranked offense.
"I think they'll be fine," safeties coach Darren Perry said. "It's still early. Morgan is a veteran guy. If he misses a practice or two, he'll still be fine. Every situation is a little different, but we're preparing that if we don't, we have two guys and Sean Richardson.
"Someone's misfortune is another man's opportunity is how it works in this league."
Clinton-Dix and Hyde have grown accustomed to the rotation that's been in place since the summer. The rookie has the edge in defensive playing time (358 snaps to 286), but it's the converted-cornerback who has started six of the seven games next to Burnett this season.
Clinton-Dix received his most playing time in Sunday's 38-17 win over Carolina, playing all 69 defensive snaps at safety. He finished with a season-high nine tackles. Hyde still received plenty of work as the slot cornerback of the nickel and dime subpackages, with Sam Shields out with a knee injury.
The Packers split safeties next to Burnett last season, but for opposite reasoning. They cycled through M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian for more than three months in hopes a safety would distinguish himself, but neither did.
Outside linebacker Clay Matthews could tell during the offseason program that wasn't going to be the case this season. Hyde was a solid replacement for cornerback Casey Hayward and everyone knew Clinton-Dix's credentials as the 21st overall pick in May's draft.
His one sack, three pass deflections and an interception have been a pleasant surprise to a back end that lacked big plays in 2013. He's also won over teammates with his aggressiveness and sure tackling.
While Rex Ryan talks about how the New York Jets expected more from Calvin Pryor, the Packers seem pretty content with what their first-round safety has been serving up.
"We definitely saw that in training camp with what he provides: his athleticism and ability to make those big hits," said Matthews of Clinton-Dix. "He definitely seems to be coming into his own as of late. That's a position that we've been needing for quite some time and he seems to be kind of fitting in that position perfectly and doing a great job."
Solid play at safety has had a residual effect on the pass defense, which currently ranks sixth in the NFL in allowing 214.9 yards per game. After finishing 24th in the category last season, you'd have to go back to Week 3 of the 2012 season for the last time the Packers' secondary rated that high.
Still, it's been difficult to garner respect. This week, the storyline has been how the Packers and Saints' offense are going to light up the scoreboard at will. Hyde disagrees with that narrative.
The second-year defensive back has a point. The Packers' secondary is deeper and younger than when the Saints and quarterback Drew Brees torched them for 419 yards in 2011, the same year Green Bay finished last in total defense.
This year's group has a bit more swagger and seems better configured to hold up against pass-heavy offenses like the Saints, whose All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham can be a match-up nightmare for defenses when he's healthy.
"I think as a defense when you hear it's going to be a shootout, it's kind of disrespectful," said Hyde, whose 34 tackles are fifth on the Packers' defense. "But it is what it is. They're going to say what they want to say and the media is going to say what they want to say, but we know we have a job to do to go there and do what we're capable of doing and play tough defense. We know what we're capable of doing it."
Since the start of camp, Clinton-Dix and Hyde knew they both were going to be part of the game plan in some form or fashion. During the times he's been on the sideline, Hyde has seen a lot growth from the rookie.
The question is posed whether the crafty do-everything defensive back complements Clinton-Dix's hard-hitting style. Hyde says he'll leave those assessments to his superiors to decide. Personally, he believes both he and Clinton-Dix provide smarts and upside.
Based on how evenly snaps have been distributed this year, it seems his coaches agree.
"I know as a player, they all want to play," Perry said. "You like to get one guy to be that guy and play whatever 60, 65, 70 plays, and know that you got somebody if something were to happen you have a very capable guy coming in and taking the load. We feel strongly about that. We feel good about our depth and that's a good thing to have."
Will the Packers eventually settle on one safety? "At some point, we'll go one way," Perry said recently.
Right now, both players are concentrated on showing the improvements the Packers made to the safety position aren't an aberration.
The battle for respect continues Sunday. If Burnett plays, all the better for a safety position that's gone from an eyesore to eyeful.
"We like that there's not a lot of talking about us and giving us respect because that just means you've got to go out there and you've got to earn it," Hyde said. "It's going to be a big night on Sunday. We know they're going to be ready to go, and maybe it's our opportunity to go out there and play tough defense in front of a huge crowd."
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