Packers' young secondary seeks consistency

Michael Cohen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Chargers defensive back Casey Hayward returns an interception thrown by Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles (not pictured). Hayward, who used to play for the Packers, has more interceptions in his first three games with the Chargers (three) than the Packers have as a team (two).

GREEN BAY — His first batch of congratulatory texts arrived late in the afternoon on Sept. 18, a few hours before the Green Bay Packers kicked off against the Minnesota Vikings.

The messages, which were sent by his former teammates, praised cornerback Casey Hayward for his first interception with the San Diego Chargers. Hayward tipped a pass from Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles and, after falling, caught the ball while sitting on his backside.

“Everybody hit me up like, ‘Yo, you got one!’ ” Hayward said this week.

His inbox bulged again when Hayward intercepted Bortles a second time, peeling off his receiver to snag an overthrown pass. One week later, the adulation flooded his phone once more as Hayward undercut a route to intercept Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck.

“Then I got my second and third and everybody was like, ‘You got you another one!’ ” Hayward said. “Everybody is just genuinely happy for each other, so I be telling them, ‘Hey, you better go and get you one.’ We definitely keep in touch with each other probably every week, every other week type of thing.”

As fans obsess over the status of No. 1 cornerback Sam Shields, whose concussion recovery has entered its fourth week, the impressive start for Hayward serves as interesting subtext for a team that let him walk as an unrestricted free agent last March. With Shields down and Hayward departed, the Packers lost their two most experienced corners and are reliant on a trio of second-year players, all of whom have been exposed at times this season. Hayward, meanwhile, has more interceptions in his first three games with the Chargers (three) than the Packers have as a team (two).

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“I’m pleased with the start I’ve gotten off to,” Hayward said. “Hopefully it’s not just a start. Hopefully, I can just be consistent and play pretty good all year and just continue to have a strong season. If I do that, I can definitely help this team win.”

The free-agent departures of cornerbacks Davon House and Tramon Williams after the 2014 season forced general manager Ted Thompson to retool his secondary in the subsequent draft. But by using his first- and second-round picks on corners — Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, respectively — he typecast Hayward, a 2012 second-round pick, as something of a lame duck.

Hayward began last season as a starter in the base defense, though Randall soon would usurp that role. Hayward moved to the slot when the Packers played nickel, their most popular defensive alignment, and finished with 88.1% of snaps on his résumé.

The downside: zero interceptions, nine pass breakups in 1,048 snaps, concerns about his speed and tackling. He led the Packers with 14 missed tackles.

“Last year I didn’t get targeted as much, and then some of the plays got called back on me,” Hayward said. “Sometimes I just wasn’t getting targeted. I made a lot of plays and I played well, but the ball just didn’t come to me as much last year.”

In San Diego, where the Chargers (1-3) have lost three games by a combined 11 points, Hayward is used almost exclusively as a perimeter corner, an opportunity he no longer had in Green Bay. His three interceptions are tied for second in the league, trailing Marcus Peters of the Kansas City Chiefs by one. His nine passes defended are also tied for second. They represent 56% of what the Packers have managed as a team.

What seems like an early season weakness for the Packers — they rank tied for 24th in interceptions and tied for 28th in passes defended — runs against the preceding four months of practice. Beginning in May, when the Packers held their first organized team activities, the cornerbacks and safeties were stars, evidenced by the four undrafted free agents retained by Thompson on his 53-man roster: corners Josh Hawkins and Makinton Dorleant; safeties Kentrell Brice and Marwin Evans. For them and others, pass breakups and interceptions felt like daily occurrences.

“Compared to prior seasons you could see really in training camp the ability to compete at the breaking point of a receiver’s route and challenge routes is definitely something I feel like we’ve improved on,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “Now with that, our younger guys need to get back at it. It’s something that we’re obviously focused on, and a lot of that comes with confidence, familiarity and how they’re being utilized.”

Across the locker room, members of the Packers’ secondary placed different levels of importance on pass breakups (PBUs), a category in which Hayward and the Chargers have more than doubled his former team — and lead the league.

Rollins, who is the No. 2 corner with Shields out, said PBUs are crucial for a secondary because of the strain it places on the offense. “It puts them in the same distance they were (on the previous snap), and obviously we gained a down,” Rollins said.

LaDarius Gunter, another second-year player, believes breakups are third in importance behind interceptions and forced fumbles. He admitted, however, that the corners have not matched their ball-hawking exploits from training camp.

Meanwhile, safety Chris Banjo downplayed the importance of breakups as a worthwhile statistic. “I know sometimes you look at guys with a lot of pass breakups and say, 'Well, he’s getting thrown at a lot,' " he said. "They must be throwing at him for a reason. You can make stats say whatever they want to say. … To me personally, it doesn’t register because I know what we’re capable of doing. Whether that’s intercepting balls or breaking them up, I know what our secondary is capable of doing.”

Preferences aside, there are two unmalleable stat lines the Packers would like to erase: Stefon Diggs of the Minnesota Vikings — nine catches, 182 yards, one touchdown; Marvin Jones Jr. of the Detroit Lions — six catches, 205 yards, two touchdowns.

A good chunk of that production was ascribed to Randall, who spent the majority of each game covering Diggs and Jones, and whose stint atop the depth chart has been rocky at best. His position coach, Joe Whitt Jr., said Thursday that Randall was at fault on certain plays but absolved on others.

Either way, Shields’ absence has become glaring.

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“He’s one of the best corners in the league, not just on the team,” Hayward said. “When you’ve got somebody that can go out there and match somebody’s No. 1 and shut them down and limit them to not a lot of catches, any time you lose a veteran guy like that you’ll take a little dent in your defense. Somebody has to step up. The coaches have to scheme a little different, call a little different because you don’t have that No. 1 guy there.

“But those guys are striving to be that guy. Damarious wants to be that guy, and he definitely has potential to be that guy. I hope he can bounce back this week and just have a dominant game versus the Giants.”

Hayward connected with a number of his former teammates during the Packers' bye last week. He spoke to safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, whom he describes as one of his best friends. He spoke to Gunter, who he believes is “playing at a high level” in the first significant action of his career. And perhaps most importantly he spoke to Randall, who is among the players Hayward views as little brothers.

“Damarious, he’s one of the top corners,” Hayward said. “And I told him just to play like it. Play with good technique and everything will come out well for him.”

Hayward has the text messages to prove it.

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