Ha Ha Clinton-Dix tackles 2nd-year challenges
Five months later, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix still sees the football suspended in midair, flying from one side of Seattle's CenturyLink Field to the other.
He's in the end zone, breaking on a 2-point conversion pass intended for Seahawks tight end Luke Willson. It's the fourth quarter of the NFC championship game, during the collapse that kept the Green Bay Packers from reaching Super Bowl XLIX.
Over and over this offseason, replays showed Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson's Hail Mary heave, a pass Clinton-Dix knows never should've been completed. Just when he had a chance to knock down the football, he froze. In the past five months, the second-year safety has thought about what he'd do differently.
"I should have played the man, not the ball," Clinton-Dix said. "I misjudged the ball. He completed the catch. It is what it is.
"One thing about it, they don't remember what you did good. They remember the bad plays. That's what you have to get over."
For Clinton-Dix, plenty of good happened during the NFC title game. With two interceptions and three defended passes, the biggest game of his rookie season became his best. Until the final 5 minutes, those plays were supposed to make his January trip to Seattle unforgettable.
It didn't work out that way, but Clinton-Dix isn't dwelling on the past. Even if he can't wipe the 2-point conversion from his memory, safeties coach Darren Perry believes Clinton-Dix has moved on.
"Plays like that," Perry said, "you wish you could have back. You wish they didn't happen, but they do. You move on and you learn from it, and you go from there. That's all we can do. As far as we're concerned, we've moved on. I don't even think it's come up. He doesn't talk about it, we don't talk about it."
Consistency, Perry tells his players, is the key for a successful NFL safety. There are highs and lows over the course of a season. The best safeties are able to constantly perform at a high level without letting mistakes affect the next play.
"I think it's more the nature of our business back there," Perry said. "When you play on the back end, you can play 65 great plays. If you play bad on the 66th play, it could be big in terms of the outcome of the ballgame. We understand that. That's the nature of our position. It's the nature of anybody on the back end.
"That's why you have to have a short memory and realize that things are going to happen, and you move forward. You're not going to be perfect, but we strive to be."
Perry said he was pleased with how Clinton-Dix transitioned into the NFL as a rookie. After platooning with Micah Hyde at free safety early last season, Clinton-Dix became the Packers' full-time starter in Week 7.
His 960 snaps last season ranked third among Packers defenders, according to Pro Football Focus. It was one fewer snap than defensive captain and starting strong safety Morgan Burnett played.
Since 2007, no rookie defender has played more snaps for the Packers. That includes Clay Matthews, whose 858 snaps as a rookie are second-most.
"Not too many young players come in this league, particularly on the back end, and have success right away," Perry said. "Nothing was handed to him. He earned it. When he became a starter, he had earned that. That's a credit to him. He did some good things that sometimes you don't expect rookies to come in and perform, but we asked him to come in and be a big-time player for us, and he did that. We just need it now more on a consistent basis, and I think we'll get that."
While the veteran Burnett excelled defending the run last season, Clinton-Dix had more success in coverage. As a rookie, his 42.4 coverage snaps per completion ranked third among safeties who played at least half of their defense's snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.
His 13 receptions allowed tied Seahawks All-Pro safety Earl Thomas for sixth-fewest among safeties, while his 147 receiving yards allowed were just six more than Thomas.
But Clinton-Dix isn't satisfied with last season's success. To be a complete safety, he'll have to improve defending the run. Clinton-Dix had nine missed tackles last season, according to Pro Football Focus, which was tied for 10th most among safeties.
Entering the NFL out of Alabama, run support wasn't expected to be a weakness for Clinton-Dix. His struggles tackling last season are likely a sign of growing pains, a young safety trying to adjust to the NFL's speed.
Already, Clinton-Dix said, the game has become easier.
"Things have slowed down for me a lot," he said. "I feel a lot more comfortable back there with Morgan, most definitely."
Perry agreed Clinton-Dix's knowledge of the Packers' system is "light years ahead" of where it was as a rookie.
In practice, Perry said, he sees Clinton-Dix growing more confident. He's communicating more freely, showing more command of the defense. But there's still room for him to grow.
Before his second season starts, Perry said, Clinton-Dix faces a critical next step in his development.
"Trusting what he sees," Perry said. "I think sometimes as a young player, you see things and you sometimes don't quite believe what you're seeing, and as a result you can be a little hesitant to break on it. I think that's the difference between making a play and not making a play — trusting. The great players, they're going to see some things that aren't going to be quite what they thought they were, and they're going to give up some plays. I just want him to trust what he sees and believe it.
"He's got all the tools, and he could certainly be a tremendous player. We think he will be. I know he wants to be. We all want him to be. We need him to be in order to get to where we want to get to go."
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