Packers' secondary can't match Ravens' investment in experience

Michael Cohen
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers cornerback Damarious Randall (23) celebrates his interception against the New Orleans Saints in the first half Sunday, October 22, 2017, at Lambeau Field.

GREEN BAY - If a single position group could underscore the philosophical differences between Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson and Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, the juxtaposition of their respective secondaries does the trick.

When it comes to Thompson, a steadfast believer in the draft-and-develop philosophy, the preferred method of unearthing cornerbacks and safeties has been an even mixture of draft picks and college free agents. The crop of defensive backs on the 53-man roster consists of two first-round picks (Damarious Randall, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix), two second-round picks (Kevin King, Josh Jones), one third-round pick (Morgan Burnett), one fourth-round pick (Davon House) and five undrafted rookies (Donatello Brown, Josh Hawkins, Lenzy Pipkins, Marwin Evans, Jermaine Whitehead).

When it comes to Newsome, whose checkbook is more accessible than Thompson’s, there has been an obvious willingness to spend money in free agency for the sake of strengthening the back end of the defense. Of the four starters in the Ravens’ secondary — cornerbacks Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr, safeties Tony Jefferson and Eric Weddle — three of them were signed as unrestricted free agents within the last two years. 

“With the veterans, you kind of know what you’re going to get out of them,” House said. “They’ve been in the league, they’ve been in the league for a while. Most guys you think about bringing in, they’ve produced before. With young guys you really just don’t know, so you’re taking a chance on hopefully he pans out and he is what he’s supposed to be. It’s probably more safer to go out and grab someone than try to do it in-house.”

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Baltimore’s shopping spree began March 16, 2016, when Newsome signed Weddle to a four-year deal worth $26 million, with $13 million guaranteed. Weddle, the former San Diego Charger, has more interceptions this season (three) than Clinton-Dix, Burnett, Evans, Jones and Kentrell Brice combined (two). He is 32 years old. 

A year later, in 2017, Newsome loosened the purse strings again to strengthen his secondary. On March 10 he signed Jefferson, the former Arizona Cardinal, to a four-year deal worth $34 million, with $19 million guaranteed. Ten days later he signed Carr, formerly of the Dallas Cowboys and Kansas City Chiefs, to another four-year deal worth $24 million, with $4 million guaranteed.

Jefferson, 25, is second on the team in tackles and has as many sacks as every Packers safety combined. Carr, 31, has three interceptions and seven passes defensed this season.

“That was probably an area that we really targeted to get strong at and we were able to do that,” coach John Harbaugh said in a conference call this week. “Didn't miss on one player. All those guys have come through even beyond our expectations, and it’s been important for us.”

The Ravens' fourth starter, Smith, is a former first-round pick from Colorado in 2011. Smith is having the best season of his career at age 29, according to Harbaugh, with two interceptions, eight passes defensed and one touchdown through nine games. (Smith did not practice Wednesday or Thursday with an Achilles injury, and it is unclear if he will play this weekend.)

Predictably, there is a massive experience gap between the starting corners and safeties for each team. The Ravens have 33 years of experience among their top four defensive backs, three of whom have been in the league for at least seven years. Meanwhile, the Packers’ starters have just 20 combined years of experience with House and Burnett accounting for 75 percent of their total.

“They definitely have a good secondary,” backup quarterback Joe Callahan said. “They have a lot of veterans, a lot of experience back there. That’s something, especially in the NFL, that you can’t take for granted. They’ve had a ton of opportunities, they’ve seen just about every look and then they’ve got some good players on top of it.”

Of course, breaking the bank in free agency is anything but a guarantee of on-field success, something the Packers experienced firsthand during their high school-style breakup with tight end Martellus Bennett. Social media wars aside, Bennett was a massive disappointment during the seven games he played, especially considering the three-year, $21 million contract he signed in March with $6.3 million guaranteed.

As Harbaugh noted, the Ravens have found considerably more success with their three acquisitions in the secondary, an opinion easily validated through statistics. Under defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who previously worked for coach Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots, the Ravens rank near the top of the league in a handful of important categories. And while there are myriad factors that contribute to overall defensive success, the play of the secondary is certainly influential.

Consider this comparison between the Ravens and Packers:

» The Ravens lead the league in interceptions with 13; the Packers are tied for 20th with six.

» The Ravens have allowed the third-fewest passing yards per game this season (184.7); the Packers rank 20th (242.6).

» The Ravens are second in opposing quarterback passer rating (69.8); the Packers rank 22nd (95.9).

» The Ravens are third in yards per attempt for opposing quarterbacks (6.4); the Packers rank 27th (7.9).

» The Ravens are second in opposing quarterback completion percentage (56.7); the Packers rank 28th (67.1).

The contrast is jarring and could decide the outcome of Sunday's game at Lambeau Field. It makes you wonder if Davon House was right.

“They certainly made some plays,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said. “You mentioned it as far as their ability to create turnovers, that’s one of the things that really stands out. I believe they’re one of the best in the league. I believe they have 18 turnovers, somewhere along those lines, 13 obviously by interception, so I think they do a great job of that. They play with very good awareness on the back end of things." 


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