GREEN BAY - In late October last season, as the Green Bay Packers returned from their bye week, cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. described a mistake that foretold his vision of an ideal secondary.
The mistake surfaced roughly 10 days before when quarterback Philip Rivers of the San Diego Chargers minced the defense for 503 passing yards, the second-highest total ever yielded by the Packers. He threw ceaselessly to wide receiver Keenan Allen, who made 14 catches for 157 yards, and sprinkled in at least four receptions to four other players.
Though the Packers prevailed with a dramatic goal-line stand — rookie cornerback Damarious Randall deflected a pass on fourth down — the veritable slashing by Rivers felt like a sucker punch for Whitt, who had wanted to pull the trigger on a bold lineup change. After studying the Chargers on film, Whitt believed undrafted rookie LaDarius Gunter might make the best foil.
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“I was scared to do it,” Whitt said at the time. “I knew he would probably match up well against those receivers, and I didn't do it. So that's on me, because I have to do what I think is right. I didn't do it. I get paid pretty good money to make those decisions, but I didn't get it done. I kick myself for that.”
Ten months later and with slightly different personnel, Whitt, who was hired in 2009, made the decision to employ a strategy he had wanted to use for years. The Packers, dripping with young, athletic corners, have the depth and variety of talent to play matchups on a week-to-week basis. Lineups, positions and playing time are all subject to variation depending on the skill sets of opposing receivers, and Whitt will make his decisions based on film study and practice evaluations.
“Different games, different people are going to be in different positions,” Whitt said earlier in training camp. “That’s just going to be our approach. That’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time and now we have the guys who have the skill set to do that.”
The incumbent atop the depth chart is Sam Shields, who in his seventh year enjoys alpha status in a room where no one else has accrued more than three seasons. Behind him are players whose legitimate playing time is best arranged in tiers: Randall and Quinten Rollins at the top; Demetri Goodson and LaDarius Gunter next; Robertson Daniel close behind; and then a quartet of undrafted rookies. (Defensive back Micah Hyde, who plays both corner and safety, is in a category of his own.)
Whitt’s blueprint has come to life in the form of rapid-fire substitutions during training camp. As early as spring, when the Packers went through organized team activities and minicamp, Randall was seen taking reps in the nickel or “star” position, something he didn’t do last season when Casey Hayward filled that role. Now, the majority of players flow through all four positions — both perimeter spots, nickel back and dime back — like pieces of equipment along an assembly line, and the ultimate goal is seamless interchangeability.
“It’s beneficial because it makes it harder for the offense,” said Daniel, who spent the majority of last season on the practice squad. “Therefore it makes it harder for you to pick your matchups as an offense. At that point, we’re kind of dictating what’s going to happen within that play. You don’t get to push us around and scheme us.”
Of particular interest has been the concerted effort to get physically stronger at the star position, better known as the slot corner in the nickel defense. It’s the former home of the recently retired Charles Woodson.
Hayward, who signed with the San Diego Chargers during free agency, held that job last season and played the most snaps of any corner. He was schematically steady and played with intelligence, but the explosive pop from his rookie season, when he made six interceptions, was gone. He led the Packers in missed tackles (14) and recorded just nine pass breakups in 1,048 snaps, the worst ratio on the team. He also failed to intercept a single throw.
“We need to have more production from our star position,” Whitt said. “More physicality. That position we want more of, and I hate to use this example, but more of what (Woodson) gave us to that position with the physicality and the being able to blitz and all that. That position has to increase.”
So Whitt began to funnel a number of players through the position, building the versatility he wants to exercise this season. Randall, who asked as early as last year if he could switch to the star, continued to take reps inside. So did Rollins, who is pushing Randall for a spot on the depth chart.
The newcomer at star was Gunter, who at 6 foot 1½ and 200 pounds has the size to provide run support in addition to his coverage responsibilities. He had never played the position prior to this season.
“Another safety-type body,” Gunter said. “That kind of helps.”
A year ago, Whitt regretted not using Gunter in a game where his attributes seemed to apply. The choice foretold a rotation plan, and it should prevent Whitt from kicking himself twice.