LANDOVER, Md. – The Green Bay Packers’ secondary did something Saturday night it failed to do time and again last season: It got the defense off the field.
Of course, this was only a preseason game, so let’s keep things in perspective. Game planning isn’t nearly as in-depth for these games that don’t count as it is for the ones that do. Two different worlds in that sense.
But if you were looking for signs of something better this year from a pass defense that ranked No. 31 in the NFL last season, you got it from Josh Hawkins, Quinten Rollins and Kevin King in the Packers’ 21-17 win over Washington.
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All three showed better than the preseason opener last week against Philadelphia, and they did it against Washington’s starting offense. Quarterback Kirk Cousins — he of the $23.9 million franchise-tag contract this season — played the entire first half, and yet Dom Capers’ defense didn’t crack until the defensive coordinator had put in backups at almost every position in the final two minutes of the second quarter.
It’s also noteworthy that one starting cornerback, Davon House (hamstring), didn’t play. Same for the potential starting nickel corner, Damarious Randall (concussion). But second-year pro Hawkins had an outstanding night; 2016 second-rounder Rollins showed he’s still strongly in the running to open the season as a starter, either in the slot or outside; and the rookie King showed improvement from his preseason debut last week.
Cousins’ passer rating was only OK (93.4), and it was plays in the Packers’ defensive backfield that stood out most in what had to be a disappointing night for Washington. That included the Packers keeping Cousins out of the end zone early after a Trevor Davis muffed punt gave Washington the ball at the Packers’ 16.
“It was huge,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said of the play of the Packers’ young defensive backs. “They’ve been having some struggles at times in practice, but it was important for them. A lot of young guys out there playing on that second unit against their first team. We shut 'em down pretty good.”
Hawkins made the most plays on this night. He tackled running back Chris Thompson short of a first down on a third-and-12 to start the game. He took points off the board by popping the ball out of tight end Vernon Davis’ hands at the last instant in the end zone after the muffed punt. He broke up a later third-down pass to Davis to get the defense off the field. And he had tight coverage on a fade route in the end zone to receiver Ryan Grant on the final drive of the first half, though Cousins finally got the score on fourth down a couple plays later.
“(Hawkins) stepped right in, his number was called,” safety Morgan Burnett said. “He did well from a communications standpoint, and he made a play in beginning in the back of the end zone against Vernon Davis, then he came up and made some good solid tackles. You don’t see too many cornerbacks that have that want-to to tackle. Our cornerbacks today, you could see those guys, they didn’t have a problem sticking their head in there.”
Rollins didn’t break up any passes but was in position to maybe even intercept one if safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix hadn’t broken up another third-and-five that forced a punt. Rollins also knifed into the backfield for a tackle for loss.
King broke up one pass, had a tackle and didn’t give up any big plays. He more than anyone looked better than he did last week in his debut.
Overall, this was exactly what the defense failed to do so often last season. The lasting impression of the Packers’ 2016 defense was forcing third and long, and then giving up the pass that kept the drive alive. On this night, the Packers got off the field on Cousins’ first five drives if you include the red-zone stop after the muffed punt.
Again, this is preseason, so don’t forget the caveats. But in a game setting against another team, and a decent quarterback, they gave some reason to think their secondary will cover better than in 2016.