The Green Bay Packers' defensive backs aren't sure exactly what the statistics say. Frankly, they don’t care.
This season never was about hitting a certain statistical target or proving the secondary can be one of the NFL's truly elite units. Really, it has been more about survival.
A revamped and reloaded unit that faced a lot of change in the offseason was greeted by even more adversity as the season wore on. Yet, the Packers managed to jump this season from 10th to sixth in passing defense, their highest finish since winning the Super Bowl in 2010.
Improvement came despite the departure of two cornerbacks in free agency (Tramon Williams and Davon House) and two rookie draft picks (Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins) playing critical snaps with undisputed No. 1 cornerback Sam Shields missing four regular-season games because of injury.
The Packers could be without Shields in Sunday’s wild-card playoff game at Washington. The Pro Bowl cornerback has missed the last three games with a concussion he sustained against Dallas on Dec. 13. He returned to practice on a limited basis last week, but hasn’t been seen this week.
The secondary has had its ups-and-downs without Shields. It was torched against Carolina and Arizona, and thrived versus Oakland and Minnesota. Slowly, the young secondary has gained more confidence and comfort without its shutdown corner.
“A lot of the young guys have stepped in and played a huge role on this team,” defensive back Micah Hyde said. “You have to give credit to them. It’s tough not having Sam. We wish Sam could be back playing with us today, but that’s football. That’s what happens. We always stress next man in.”
Randall inserted his name into defensive rookie of the year conversation with 58 tackles, 14 passes defensed and three interceptions this season. One of those came against the Raiders when he returned a Derek Carr interception for a 43-yard touchdown.
Rollins, the former Miami-Ohio point guard, has 31 tackles, six passes defensed and two interceptions in 14 games. He has proven to be a capable outside and inside cornerback this season, starting the last three games on the perimeter in place of Shields.
While the Packers struggled against Carson Palmer and the Cardinals' fast receivers, their secondary rallied to hold Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to only 99 passing yards in the regular-season finale. Now, Green Bay hopes for similar results against another young quarterback equipped with an array of weapons.
Kirk Cousins’ game has skyrocketed since receiver DeSean Jackson returned from shoulder and hamstring injuries after the team's bye week. Jackson, veteran Pierre Garcon and tight end Jordan Reed aren't perennial Pro Bowlers, but their speed and experience is what fuels Washington’s offense.
Jackson has been taking the top off opposing defenses with his speed, which helps Garcon, Reed and slot receiver Jamison Crowder gain separation underneath. His presence also can be seen in Cousins' recent improvement.
The fourth-year quarterback has completed 183 of 260 passes for 2,253 yards, 17 touchdowns and three interceptions in the eight games Jackson played after the bye week (113.8 passer rating). Conversely, he completed 196 of 283 passes for 1,913 yards, 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions in the other eight games (90.3 passer rating).
“He’s a fast guy man. He’s a top receiver in this league,” Packers safety Morgan Burnett said of Jackson. “He’s one of those guys you’re not going to stop with just one person. You need all guys to hop in and try to find ways to stop him.”
Reed's maturation has made Washington’s offense even more explosive. At 6-foot-2, 237 pounds, the former third-round pick isn’t as physically imposing as some of the tight ends Green Bay has faced this season, but he’s fast, smart and can be flexed outside in a pinch. He also has developed a connection with Cousins.
His 87 catches were the 12th-most in the NFL this season and second among tight ends. Reed doubled his receiving yards from 465 to 952 and finished with 11 touchdown receptions, which tied for seventh-most in the league and ranked third among tight ends.
The Packers had issues earlier this season with tight ends, giving up 12 catches for 130 yards and a touchdown to San Diego’s Antonio Gates and LaDarius Green in Week 6 and then six receptions for 105 yards to Denver’s Owen Daniels and Virgil Green in Week 8.
Things have settled down since the Packers gave up their only 100-yard performance by a tight end against Minnesota’s Kyle Rudolph on Nov. 22. Over its last six games, Green Bay has allowed tight ends only 17 catches for 101 yards and two touchdowns.
"I feel like other than a few plays here and there, we’ve done a pretty good job,” said Hyde, who typically gets matched against opposing tight ends in the slot. “We take pride in going against these guys. Obviously, they’re bigger than us. Most of the time stronger than us. If we can go up there and stop them from getting the ball, we like to accept that challenge.”
Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt is widely respected for what he has done in Green Bay over the last eight years. He oversaw Charles Woodson’s resurgence in 2009, Shields' and Williams’ rise from undrafted free agents to Pro Bowlers and the development of countless other young players.
Still, you could argue that 2015 may have been his best coaching job considering how Randall and Rollins stepped in without skipping a beat after Williams (three years, $21 million) and House (four years, $25 million) left for big paydays. Fourth-year cornerback Casey Hayward also appears primed to cash in this offseason.
The Packers will welcome Shields back whenever he’s cleared. The 28-year-old cornerback has been a prime-time player in the postseason with 29 tackles, 10 passes defensed and five interceptions (one touchdown) in 10 playoff games.
Until then, the secondary endures. It’s up to everyone to lean on the lessons they’ve learned without Shields, whether it's defensive backs being precise in their assignments or pass rushers getting pressure on the quarterback.
The next test comes Sunday against Washington's quick and dangerous receiving corps, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.
“Fortunately, we've had to ask our young guys to a lot this year, and now's the time of the season where they're really starting to get in their own,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “Damarious Randall, other guys playing different positions. Micah, Casey, they've all been really excelling. Not sure the status on Sam this week, but you know if he's not out there with us then there's going to be a big game especially against some big-play receivers."
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