Clinton-Dix searching for splash plays
GREEN BAY – His stats don’t sparkle. Seven games in, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has no interceptions. He hasn’t forced a turnover. Just 32 tackles.
This isn’t what the Green Bay Packers' third-year safety envisioned. Splash plays separate NFL safeties. Clinton-Dix? He’s still waiting to make a splash.
One stat reveals his importance to the Packers' defense. The number is 100. It’s the percentage of snaps Clinton-Dix has played this fall: 429 out of 429.
In a defense riddled with injuries, Clinton-Dix is the stabilizer. Each week, defensive coordinator Dom Capers said, two depth charts are mapped out to factor injuries before devising a game plan. There is a "worst-case scenario" depth chart, and a best-case scenario.
Capers never has to worry about his starting free safety.
“I don’t think Dom is going to be able to pull me off the field,” Clinton-Dix said, “unless I’m injured. Knock on wood that never happens. I’m a player who wants to be on the field every play and compete.”
Nobody on the Packers' defense has come close to matching Clinton-Dix’s reliability. He is one of five starters to play each game this season. Among that group, he’s the only one to play at least 75 percent of the team’s snaps each game.
But stats matter.
The Packers are tied for 20th in the NFL with eight takeaways. It has been the most significant flaw on a defense that usually plays well. Their leader in the secondary, the safety who has played every snap, hasn’t helped.
Clinton-Dix’s lack of interceptions fits a secondary that has fewer picks (two) than the Packers' linebackers (three). Collectively, the secondary has half as many interceptions as Casey Hayward, whom the Packers allowed to sign with San Diego during the offseason.
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It isn’t just turnovers. Clinton-Dix is on pace to finish with what would be a career-low 73 tackles, one fewer than his rookie season. That year, he only started 10 games.
Some of it has been bad luck. In the opener at Jacksonville, Clinton-Dix had a game-sealing, fourth-quarter interception wiped out because of fellow safety Morgan Burnett’s holding penalty. Earlier in the game, he forced a fumble the Jaguars recovered.
Whatever the reasons, Clinton-Dix said, the lack of big plays has been frustrating.
“Oh, most definitely,” he said. “As a competitor, as a player, you want to be the best. It kind of hurts when those plays get taken away from you, like the one in Jacksonville. I just want to be involved in this defense as much as possible, and help post some wins.”
Steady isn’t sexy for NFL safeties. Across the league, elite status is judged by big plays.
In Seattle, Earl Thomas has two interceptions and recovered one fumble for a touchdown. In Oakland, Reggie Nelson has two interceptions and two fumble recoveries. In Minnesota, Harrison Smith has two fumble recoveries and a sack.
Clinton-Dix was expected to join them this season. The former first-round pick has Pro Bowl talent. Nearing the season’s midway mark, Pro Bowl stats are missing.
Safeties coach Darren Perry sees Clinton-Dix pressing. He wants the big hit, the game-changing pick, the scoop and score.
“Sometimes when you don’t get the recognition,” Perry said, “sometimes you can feel underappreciated or not realize that you’re doing your job. Ha Ha has done some good things. Probably hasn’t made those splash plays people are probably looking for, but it’s still early in the season, and Ha Ha has done everything we’ve asked him to do.”
Clinton-Dix’s contributions have been subtle. He is assignment sound, rarely out of position. First and foremost, Perry teaches safeties, never let a receiver or tight end beat you deep.
Clinton-Dix hasn’t through seven games.
With Clinton-Dix lurking, top receivers haven’t feasted on a secondary missing its top three cornerbacks. Odell Beckham Jr. caught five passes for 56 yards against the Packers. Alshon Jeffery caught three for 33. Julio Jones caught three for 29.
LaDarius Gunter, undrafted a year ago, deserves credit for how he handled himself against some of the league’s elite playmakers, but he also had help. Quietly, Clinton-Dix played an important role. The Packers played almost exclusively in a two-shell defense – something they can do because of their run defense – with both safeties dropping to prevent the deep ball.
He hasn't been perfect. In Atlanta, Clinton-Dix could have sealed a Packers win, but failed to intercept a pass in the middle of the field that Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan intended for Jones. One play aside, Clinton-Dix was used in several double teams against Jones.
It isn’t the type of thing that’ll get you elected to the Pro Bowl, but blown assignments lose games. The Packers were 2-1 against the Beckham-Jeffery-Jones trio, with only a one-point loss at Atlanta.
“The big plays will come,” Perry said, “and they come in bunches. The one thing, we can’t press and take liberties and jeopardize the defense. That’s a big part of being disciplined, understanding your role, not being selfish. We’re playing those guys a little bit differently because of our corner situation, and we’re just trying to do whatever we feel is best for our defense, not just one individual.”
There are nine games left this season. Still time for Clinton-Dix to make a splash. It could start Sunday when the Packers host Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck.
Though he’s one of the league’s most talented players, Luck can be prone to turnovers. He has eight this season: five interceptions and three lost fumbles. Chances are the football will be on the ground Sunday, or perhaps up for grabs.
Clinton-Dix will be ready.
“I’ve just got to continue to be patient,” he said. “My time will come. When it’s time to come, and plays come my way, I’ve got to make those plays. But right now, I’ve been doing a good job of helping those guys play on the outside. That’s my job, and I’m going to continue doing it."
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