Packers put emphasis on reaching new heights with revamped secondary
GREEN BAY – For as much interest as the Green Bay Packers have paid to the height and wingspan of their re-made secondary, it probably would make sense if they just put the players’ arm lengths on their jerseys.
It might make game-day introductions a tad schoolish, though.
“Starting at strong safety, No. 31¾, Morgan Burnett. Starting at cornerback, No. 31 7/8, Davon House. Starting at free safety, No. 32 3/8, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.”
Of course the Packers won’t be putting inch totals on the back of their jerseys, but their commitment to length in the secondary became official this off-season when they signed House in free agency and drafted cornerback Kevin King (32) and safety Josh Jones (32) in the second round.
The very best cornerbacks in the NFL – Patrick Peterson (32), Richard Sherman (32), Xavier Rhoades (33¾), Darius Slay (32 1/4), Marcus Peters (31½) – need to have their suits tailored and the Packers are trying their best to dress their secondary similarly.
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Why such interest in long arms?
The better to play bump-and-run coverage, which has become a necessity in the NFL with offenses spreading out the opposition, seeking a quick release at the line of scrimmage and timing up every throw. Passing rules favor the receivers so much that about the only place a cornerback can make contact with his man without drawing a penalty is in the 5-yard bump zone at the line of scrimmage.
Last year, the Packers pass defense reached abysmal depths, ranking 31st in yards allowed (4,308), tied for 30th in touchdowns allowed (32) and 25th in opponents passer rating (95.9). There are other rankings emblematic of their far-reaching failures, but they don’t need to be rehashed here.
Despite it all, the Packers still made it to the NFC Championship Game, which raises the question: How far would they have gone with even an average pass defense?
Rather than count on the unlikelihood the secondary will be injury-free and put all his faith in cornerbacks Damarious Randall (30¼) and Quinten Rollins (30¼), general manager Ted Thompson re-signed House, a fourth-round pick in 2011 who left for Jacksonville in free agency two years ago, and drafted King and Jones in the second round.
It was clearly something both Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy saw as necessary to the team’s success.
“Bump-and-run is something every defense wants to do,” McCarthy said shortly after the draft. “When you’re playing against free access or vision-coverage (zone) defense, obviously, it keeps the (offense) more in a rhythmic passing game.
“The fact you can play bump-and-run every snap, I think every defensive coach in the league would do that.”
As the Packers enter the 2017 season brimming with hope, their defensive plan is to get their hands on as many receivers as they can, disrupting timing, leveraging routes to their help and being in position to make plays on the ball.
Even their safeties, especially Burnett and Jones, are going to face press coverage situations with the choice of using their long arms to keep a receiver from getting a free release from the line of scrimmage.
“That’s how we’re going to get down this year,” said cornerback LaDarius Gunter (31 1/2). “The coaches made that as clear as day. We know what kind of defense we play.”
Under defensive coordinator Dom Capers, the Packers have been mostly a man coverage team. When they won Super XLV, they had three corners – Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams and Sam Shields – who excelled at press coverage.
They didn’t necessarily get their hands on receivers every snap, but they had that in their bag of tricks.
This team has three tall cornerbacks in House (6-0), Gunter (6-2) and King (6-3), three tall safeties in Burnett (6-1), Clinton-Dix (6-1) and Jones (6-2) and lots of long arms that facilitate jamming receivers at the line.
“When we’re in press, you know, we have a number of techniques that we use,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. said. “But as much as possible we want to get our hands on people. Will you always get your hands on people? No, you won’t.”
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By the end of last season, the Packers were playing soft in the secondary. Randall, on one side, was nursing a bad groin and didn’t feel he could press effectively. Gunter did his best to jam the likes of Odell Beckham Jr., Dez Bryant and Julio Jones in the playoffs, but when you run the 40-yard dash in 4.65 seconds, you should be covering a No. 3 or 4 receiver not Pro Bowl-caliber players.
Other than Gunter, no one tried to get his hands on receivers in the Packers’ 44-21 loss to the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game. The result was 392 yards and four touchdowns for quarterback Matt Ryan.
When the New England Patriots faced Atlanta in Super Bowl LI two weeks later, they played press coverage during their second-half rally, getting their hands on the Falcons' receivers whenever they could. Certain situations called for off coverage, but with the corners mostly up, New England’s corners disrupted routes and converged on ball carriers any time there was a handoff.
“Against inexperienced quarterbacks, that’s when you’re probably going to want to play zone,” Clinton-Dix said. “But in the big games with the best quarterbacks you’re going to play man-to-man. You have to just bulk up and challenge them, I believe.”
A key objective in training camp was to prepare King to play on the perimeter, where bump-and-run is used the most. King played in a Seattle-type Cover 3 scheme at the University of Washington where he could press, but much of what they did was a single-high zone.
King has a physical combination you don’t often see in cornerbacks: height, arm length and speed (4.43 seconds in the 40-yard dash). In addition, his foot speed (6.56-second three-cone shuttle) is remarkable and his vertical jump is 39½ inches.
If he plays well enough, the Packers could have two long-levered corners (House and King) on the outside and use a combination of Randall and Rollins in the slot. When Capers goes to his “Nitro” scheme, where a safety lines up as an inside linebacker, it could result in Burnett or Jones playing man coverage on a slot receiver.
“There’s some guys who are going to be big-time press guys, obviously, me, ‘Gunt’ and King,” House said. “We’re tall guys. That’s the reason they drafted us and brought us here was to press.
“ ’Q’ and ‘D’ are mix-up guys, kind of like Tramon and Sam, where they can play off or they can press. We’ll have a good mixture, but primarily I would probably say we’ll be bump and run.”
To prepare for what he will see this season, King worked with receiver Davante Adams on bump-and-run techniques. Adams might be the toughest of the Packers’ receivers to jam because of his quick feet and upper-body strength.
Adams talked frequently with King about when to jam and the best ways to do it. King may have long arms, but he has to know how to use them effectively.
“I compare him to guys like Sherman who have real long arms and use their length to their advantage,” Adams said. “As long as he learns to use it and control it and not be so aggressive all the time.
“The downfall of long arms, they just start to lurch at you and miss, especially those long-legged guys who it’s kind of hard to pick up speed right away. You can’t get away with it (all the time). Guys are too smart, too quick.
“If there’s a guy who’s just lunging at me all game, I’ll have 300 yards.”
King has been described as a quick learner and it was evident after a rough start to camp that he was starting to understand more when he should use his hands and when he shouldn’t.
Even if he’s playing slightly off the receiver, he can still get his hands on him and that’s part of the cat and mouse game he’ll play each week. How often he gets his hands on the receiver will depend on how well he mixes things up while still sticking to his training.
“It’s being consistent,” King said. “In college you can get away without being consistent because I was more athletic than everybody. I can get away with doing my technique one play and maybe not the next play.
“In the pros, you have somebody who gets paid as well, somebody who might be as good as you. You really have to hone into the little things.”
One of the remedies for press man coverage is to run stack formations where one or two receivers are behind a receiver stationed on the line of scrimmage. Not only does it prevent bump coverage on at least one of the receivers, it’s easy to rub out one of the corners using a “pick” route – the equivalent of a basketball player setting a pick for a teammate.
The Packers played stack formations poorly last year, but Whitt said they have a plan on how to attack those in man coverage and have worked on it in training camp.
The area Whitt wants to clean up the most is big plays, which man-to-man teams are prone to allow when one of their corners gets beat on the release and winds up a step behind the receiver. If Capers wants to play a pressure defense, using his safeties to help play the run and get after the quarterback, he’ll need to have faith in his corners.
“I think it just comes down to trust,” Clinton-Dix said. “It’s OK to make mistakes, you’re not perfect. But just make sure you play fast. That’s what it boils down to. I have to be confident with everyone I play with. I should be able to depend on you like you depend on me.
“That’s what this game is all about.”