GREEN BAY - They call the position safety for a reason.
You’re the last line of defense, the guy who protects the most vulnerable part of the field and provides comfort and security to the players around you. Safety in numbers? Exactly. You’re the one who gives your team a man advantage whether it’s doubling a receiver or covering an open gap along the line of scrimmage.
There must be trust among defenders that the safety will be there for you.
If you’re part of the Green Bay Packers defense, you have a reason to be wary.
Starting safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Kentrell Brice haven’t been there enough this season and never was it more evident than in the Washington game last Sunday. Each was more than partly responsible for allowing touchdown passes and together they accounted for six of the team’s 12 missed tackles.
It was not a good day and most disconcerting was that it was a continuation of the Minnesota game the week before.
The 41-yard touchdown pass quarterback Alex Smith threw to receiver Paul Richardson in the first quarter was the same kind of route Kirk Cousins had completed to Stefon Diggs for a 75-yard touchdown in Week 2.
The 9-yard slant Jamison Crowder scored in the second quarter required the same kind of safety help that Kevin King could have used on a 14-yard touchdown to Laquon Treadwell in Week 2.
If Minnesota and Washington were able to beat the defense with similar plays, it makes sense that the Buffalo Bills, the Packers’ opponent Sunday at Lambeau Field (noon kickoff), will test them again on it.
“What I always tell guys is when you give up the ball like we did to ‘14’ (Diggs) over the top, you’re going to get tested at least the next four weeks because it’s on everybody’s tape for the next four weeks,” secondary coach Jason Simmons said before the Washington game. “We’re going to get tested. They should test us because we put a negative play on film. That’s just part of it.”
By most accounts, there isn’t anything terribly complex about playing safety in defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s defense. Creating deception with pre-snap alignments may be the trickiest part, but many teams do the same thing.
On the Richardson touchdown, the Packers were in a quarters coverage with rookie cornerback Jaire Alexander and Brice splitting responsibility for the left side of the field. Brice was closer to the line of scrimmage, which might have been done to make Smith think the Packers were in a single-high coverage.
At the snap, Brice bailed out and ran straight down the field just inside the left hash mark. Alexander was properly aligned to the outside of Richardson. But with the ball in the air, Brice started to drift too far out of his quarter.
When the ball was underthrown Richardson came back for it and caught it in Brice’s quarter. It was a difficult play and almost excusable given the unexpected poor throw, but the ball was also up for grabs and if Brice could have tracked it in the air he might have had an easy interception.
“He was where he was supposed to be at,” cornerback Tramon Williams said. “It was an underthrown ball. That’s a hard play to make.”
If the Packers are going to survive playing with two rookie corners, however, it’s a play Brice must make. Brice was far guiltier on the touchdown to Diggs because he was the single deep safety and bit on a route he shouldn’t have, leaving cornerback Davon House one-on-one against one of the best receivers in the league.
Brice also missed four tackles in the Washington game, including back-to-back plays on tight end Jordan Reed’s 34-yard pass and running back Adrian Peterson’s 41-yard gain. Those were two critical plays on a drive that started at Washington’s own 2.
“I think it’s frustrating when you make it easy for them,” Pettine said, speaking of the defense in general. “This is the NFL. We’re going against elite athletes and there are going to be times when the ball is thrown up and we’re in position to make a play and they’re just better on that play than we are. There are times when you’ve just got to tip your hat and move on to the next one.
“But when we bust a coverage or whatever it is, end up out of position, and make it easy on them, those are the ones that are obviously, in my book, are a lot harder to take.”
It probably drove him nuts then the way that drive ended.
On first and goal at the 9, Washington lined up with three receivers to the right and Reed to the left. The Packers had seen the slant route on tape and knew Washington was trying to draw Clinton-Dix over to the Reed side to help Brice, who was lined up in press coverage against the tight end.
Before the play started, Williams pointed over to Clinton-Dix to make sure he knew that the slant was coming his way. Williams followed Crowder on the route but was a half-step behind and was counting on Clinton-Dix to cover the middle.
But Clinton-Dix was late and the pass was completed.
“That’s why we had the coverage that we had at that point,” Williams said. “That’s one of the things they like to do, that’s one of the guys they like to go to there. So, we know that. We just didn’t execute. That’s all it was.”
Clinton-Dix was trying to give Smith the illusion he was going to double Reed and leave the slant open. But he waited too long to break on the slant and rather than risk a fine for crushing Crowder he pulled up.
“That’s a decision that he’s making in a split second,” Pettine said. “I don’t know if he thought he was just too late. Tramon was there, too. You see a lot of guys who are reckless and you end up hitting your own guy. I think the way he reacted to the play, he knew he was a click late.
“You could see how upset he was. All that's happening in a blink of an eye.”
Had Clinton-Dix not been guilty of giving up the middle on the Treadwell touchdown, it might be considered just an isolated incident. Clinton-Dix is in a contract year and can’t keep putting plays like that on his resume if he wants to make big money.
He can’t keep missing tackles like the one that turned a short completion into a 20-yard gain against Washington, either. He did have an interception, his second of the season, but like his previous one, it occurred with nobody around him.
Pettine said he weighed whether some of the plays the Packers gave up were personnel-related, but he really doesn’t have many options at safety. It’s likely Josh Jones will return this week from an ankle injury, but Brice beat him out for a starting job in camp when both were healthy, so they must feel less than certain about him, because he’s a fast, powerful athlete.
Jermaine Whitehead is an intelligent player, but the coaches have chosen to play him closer to the line of scrimmage because he can cover receivers and backs. Undrafted free agent Raven Greene is an intriguing athlete, but he played at James Madison and isn’t ready to play snaps on defense in the NFL.
Maybe it’s just a matter of the two safeties getting comfortable with Pettine’s system. There are 13 games left for them to show the first three weeks have been an aberration. For better or worse, they are the Packers’ safeties right now.
It’s time they start providing a last line of defense.
“It’s a new scheme, new team and (it’s a matter of) learning things and playing it out,” Williams said. “If it happens again, I’m going to trust my teammate to be there. It’s just one of those things where you have to trust it."