Aaron Nagler speaks with Michael Cohen of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about the banged up secondary the Green Bay Packers will have to work around as they take on the Cleveland Browns. (Dec. 8, 2017)
GREEN BAY – When the Green Bay Packers started training camp, they made the decision they would play as many of their defensive backs in as many positions as possible, even though they were more than three years into rebuilding their secondary and mostly knew what they had.
It seemed like many of those defensive backs had played themselves into specific roles and would benefit from playing one position, but still they were shuffled around.
Three months into the regular season, the Packers head into a must-win game at Cleveland with a patchwork secondary that will feature either safeties or undrafted rookies playing key cornerback positions. Give them credit for creating a backup plan early in the season, but for a team that needs to win out to make the playoffs, even the 0-12 Browns are a threat to exploit their secondary.
If you’re keeping score at home, rookie Kevin King became the fourth defensive back to be lost for the season when he was put on injured reserve Wednesday with a shoulder injury. He joins Herb Waters (arm, Aug. 5), Quinten Rollins (Achilles, Oct. 16) and Kentrell Brice (ankle, Nov. 11).
In addition, cornerback Demetri Goodson was on the physically unable to perform list until Wednesday when he replaced King on the 53-man roster. He has a hamstring injury and probably won’t be able to help in Cleveland this week.
Throw in starter Davon House, who has a left shoulder injury that likely will sideline him against the Browns, and the Packers are down five roster-caliber cornerbacks and a safety since the start of the season.
Weighing it all, defensive coordinator Dom Capers felt his only choice was to dig deep into his safety position to make up for the cornerback losses, choosing in the last two games to go with Morgan Burnett and Jermaine Whitehead at slot positions in the nickel and dime defenses over undrafted rookie corners Lenzy Pipkins and Donatello Brown.
“It’s kind of what we’ve been doing all year,” Capers said of making do without corners.
The results with Burnett and Whitehead in the slot together have not been great statistically. Quarterbacks have completed 8 of 12 passes for 122 yards and two touchdowns (139.53 rating). Twice the quarterback was sacked and the rest of the plays were inconsequential runs.
The Packers lost by three to Pittsburgh and beat Tampa Bay in overtime in the two games that combination was used.
Pipkins and Brown have been given increased snaps in practice this week and may play some, but the coaches must trust that the rookies won’t make costly mental errors, especially in a four-game, must-win stretch.
Pipkins played some slot corner against Minnesota when House, King and Rollins were unavailable because of injury. But the coaches went with Whitehead because of his experience and versatility.
"All the young guys, having high energy and having all that, that’s outstanding,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “But you have to play within the scheme of the defense. You have to understand formations and how they’re going to try to attack us and what we’re trying to take away. You just can’t go out there and have high energy.
“Once those young guys understand that, their quality of play will improve.”
Complicating matters this week is that without House, second-year pro Josh Hawkins must start at one of the outside positions opposite Damarious Randall, Capers’ top cover corner. Hawkins can only play one position and so will be locked outside.
Capers probably wants to match Randall against Cleveland’s stud receiver, Josh Gordon, but that presents a problem. If the Packers are in nickel and Randall has to cover Gordon in the slot, it means Burnett would be playing an outside corner position. He just doesn’t have the speed to handle that assignment on an every-down basis.
So, Capers must decide if it’s better to have Randall follow Gordon around or just leave Burnett in the slot and give him safety help any time he has to cover Gordon.
“It’s kind of what we've been doing all year,” Capers said. “We'll have our game-management meeting and see who's available to us. But we've had our two youngest guys, Pipkins and Brown, have practiced a bunch this week. So, we've got to make sure they're ready to play.”
Ten years ago, safeties playing corner would have been a huge problem. Safeties played either in the box and forced the run or deep and helped double-cover receivers. But with the increasing number of fast tight ends and big receivers in the NFL, teams are looking for safeties who can run and cover.
“Look at our personnel guys and what they look for in terms of being able to play safety in this defense – being versatile, being interchangeable,” safeties coach Darren Perry said. “That’s been that way since I’ve been here. They’ve got to be able to cover. We ask them to do that a lot. Now, they’re getting an opportunity to do a little bit more.”
It’s no coincidence the Packers drafted safety Josh Jones in the second round. He measured 6-1 and 220 pounds, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.41 seconds and bench-pressed 225 pounds 20 times at the scouting combine in March. He’s what today’s safety looks like.
Jones said there’s no such thing as pure safeties in the NFL anymore. They are defensive backs who are called upon to play man-to-man coverage whether they’re in a safety or corner position.
“That’s why they don’t split up the safeties and corners in the drills at the combine,” Jones said. “It’s just one group. They test them on the same drills because they do the same things.”
Despite not having the quickness or speed of Jones, Burnett has adapted to a hybrid position. He has learned what he can get away with as a safety covering a wide receiver or tight end. He’s not going to play man-to-man coverage the same way Randall would on a down-to-down basis, but there are times he must play like a corner.
“The corners are used to getting up and pressing on the wide receiver; safeties are more playing off and cushioning and absorbing cushion and that type of thing,” Capers said. “But you take a look at a guy like Morgan, I thought Morgan did a good job last week getting up and pressing their receivers. Obviously, his experience helps a lot."
Whitehead isn’t a big safety (5-11, 197 pounds) and he played some cornerback at Auburn. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.59 seconds and posted a 37-inch vertical jump at the combine in 2015.
Whitehead spent most of last season and the first six games this season on the practice squad before he was elevated to the 53-man roster, mostly for special-teams purposes. In the weeks since then, he has shown enough for the coaches to pick him over Pipkins and Brown.
“He’s a very smart football player,” Burnett said. “He understands concepts, he understands what you’re trying to get out of certain defenses, he understands route concepts that offenses are doing. And then his play-making ability, he has confidence and he believes in himself.
If this season has a lesson attached to it, it is that general manager Ted Thompson must keep addressing the cornerback position because the Packers don’t have enough.
But that’s an offseason problem. There are more immediate concerns.