Fixing secondary key to Packers' playoff run
GREEN BAY - In the month since their longest losing streak in eight years, the Green Bay Packers have plugged most of their leaks.
Suddenly, a running game buoyed by converted receiver Ty Montgomery is showing a pulse. Behind Aaron Rodgers’ resurgence, their passing game has been one of the NFL’s finest for weeks.
Even their defense started to come around. Before Sunday’s fourth quarter in Chicago, the Packers allowed 46 points in their previous 11 quarters. That’s a point fewer than they coughed up in one afternoon at Tennessee.
The Packers threatened to throw away their month of momentum in the final 15 minutes Sunday. In squandering a 17-point lead, they revealed the ugly underbelly of a secondary still grappling with life after top cornerback Sam Shields was placed on injured reserve.
“We didn’t play great in the fourth quarter,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “I mean, you can’t hide from that. If we’re going to be a championship-type team, we can’t have those things happen. We’ve got to get them fixed.”
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An inconsistent secondary might be the one obstacle preventing the streaking Packers from being a sneaky Super Bowl contender.
When the Packers made their unexpected rise to a Super Bowl title as the sixth seed in 2010, their pass defense was tied for fourth in the NFL, allowing 194 yards per game. This season, the Packers' secondary is tied for 24th in the league, allowing 259 yards per game. It’s their lowest ranking since 2011, when the Packers' last-ranked pass defense became a major stumbling block in the playoffs.
The secondary was supposed to be a strength this season. Even now, talent isn’t the issue. They are more enigmatic than bad, a sign of their youth without Shields.
The same secondary that intercepted Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson five times, that held New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. to five catches for 56 yards, also allowed Chicago Bears fourth-string quarterback Matt Barkley to pass for 362 yards.
A secondary is only as good as its weakest link. The Packers have struggled to get their corners to play well in unison. Each has had a stretch of poor play this season, most recently 2015 first-rounder Damarious Randall.
Sloppy tackling undermined him Sunday. Bears receiver Joshua Bellamy used a stiff arm to run over Randall on a 10-yard touchdown catch late in the second quarter. Early in the third quarter, Randall whiffed when trying to tackle receiver Cameron Meredith.
Randall was benched in the fourth quarter. It hardly helped the Packers' pass defense. Bears receiver Alshon Jeffery didn’t have a catch through the first three quarters, but finished with six receptions for 89 yards.
Since his return, Randall’s tackling has been an issue. Randall said he’s learning to play through the injury.
“I probably won’t be back to my normal self until next year,” Randall said, “during the preseason or camp, once I actually get time to rest and give it time to finish healing. But that’s no excuse. I’m out there playing just like Aaron (Rodgers) is out there playing through injuries. That’s what we’re all doing. That’s just the nature of the game.
“Just looking forward to bouncing back this week.”
The Packers might need to be delicate with Randall after his benching. He is their most talented cornerback with Shields unavailable, something he has demonstrated at times this season. Randall’s return from groin surgery in Philadelphia instantly improved the Packers' pass defense. How well the secondary plays from here on out largely depends on what they get from him.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers threw his support behind Randall this week. There isn’t a defensive back in the NFL, Capers said, that doesn’t have a rough week now and then. He assured that Randall will be fine.
Whitt drew a harsher line.
“The best guys will go out there and play,” Whitt said. “The guys who are giving winning performances will go out there and play. I’ve said that since I’ve been here, and it doesn’t matter if I have to pull a guy out or insert a guy like Micah (Hyde), and he made a game-winning play. We’re all here to win the game.
“There’s no hard feelings. Everyone in that locker room is here for one reason: to win that football game.”
Randall wasn’t the only problem Sunday.
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Coach Mike McCarthy said the “cushion” his secondary allowed off coverage on the boundary needs to be fixed. Whitt said he must coach his young cornerbacks to be in better position. The Bears kept targeting the Packers' soft coverage, and there were no effective adjustments.
“Dink and dunk up the field,” cornerback Quinten Rollins said. “Coverage beaters that they had that we wasn’t giving up in the first half, as far as with the rush getting home and everything. Then (the Bears) see three quarters of the same thing, or not necessarily the same thing, but three quarters and you’re not getting no results. Then you obviously go to a different route. Plus, you have to throw the ball if you’re down 17 in the fourth quarter.
“So it’s just a part of the game. It happens.”
During the first three games of their current four-game winning streak, the Packers' secondary rectified its problems.
They allowed three touchdown passes to six interceptions combined against Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz, Houston’s Brock Osweiler and Wilson. None passed for more than 255 yards.
Perhaps it’s because of the 11 quarters preceding Sunday’s fourth quarter that the Packers moved on so quickly. They can’t hide from those final 15 minutes, but they’re easier to forget after a win. Backs pressed against the goal line, Hyde knocked away Barkley’s third-down pass to force a field goal and give the Packers a chance to win.
Internally, Rollins said, the Packers' secondary doesn’t believe it’s far from the group that held Wilson to a 43.7 passer rating. If it can play like that on a weekly basis, the Packers could go a long way.
“We’re basing this all off of one quarter,” Rollins said, “when we played the (previous) 11 quarters good. So you get one bad quarter, or supposedly bad quarter, and everybody is, ‘Oh, you need to change this. You need to change that. What can you do different?’ Off of one quarter.
“So just got to continue to stay true to ourselves like we have been. Even when we’re struggling, we stay true to ourselves. We don’t need to go in panic mode, ‘Change this. Change that.’”