GREEN BAY – Ha Ha Clinton-Dix smiled, and laughed softly.
Leaning on his locker inside Lambeau Field, the Green Bay Packers’ fifth-year safety looked down the row at Jermaine Whitehead, who had his headphones on and was digging into a piece of salmon.
“He’s our new Micah Hyde,” Clinton-Dix said. “He’s a guy that can do everything.”
It’s high praise from Clinton-Dix, who paired with the versatile Hyde for three seasons. And while the defense and its calls have changed under Mike Pettine in 2018, there’s reason to make the comparison.
Whitehead may not have the ball-hawking numbers that the versatile Hyde put up in Green Bay and now in Buffalo, but Pettine has trusted Whitehead to play a variety of roles in his defense.
“What jumped out to all of us in the beginning was his ability to understand all the details very quickly,” Pettine said. “He’s one of the smartest guys on the defense. He knows it inside and out.
"It got to a point during the spring and during training camp, when I would ask the group a question, he was the student and I had to tell him, ‘Hey, anybody other than Whitehead?’ It was encouraging to see how fast he picked it up.”
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With that knowledge of the defense in hand, Pettine has expanded Whitehead’s role beyond just that of playing safety.
He has shown some coverage versatility in that he has been dropped into coverage as a nickel cornerback. And, perhaps more importantly for Pettine, Whitehead has become a reliable asset near the line of scrimmage.
“Even though he’s a smaller guy for a dime linebacker, he has a really good sense of fitting the run and understanding based on the stunts that are occurring in front of him or how the blocking begins to unfold, where to fit and when to trigger,” Pettine said.
Whitehead, in his third year with the Packers after spending 2015 in San Francisco and Baltimore, smiles a bit at the recognition. He slightly rolls his head though, as if to let the positive words run off.
“Definitely a compliment,” he acknowledged. “But I come to work and just try to do whatever it takes to get on the field, try not to make too many mental errors, try to help the teammates who are left and right of me by doing my job. That’s all I really can do. I’ve been blessed and fortunate to have a coordinator who will let me get on the field.”
He said Clinton-Dix and fellow safety Kentrell Brice have pushed him in practice the last few years to play to his potential, but he was just looking for a role to fall into.
“This year I’ve been pushed into a role that comes with a lot,” he said. “I’m glad I’m able to produce a little bit out there.”
Whitehead has contributed more than a “little bit” for this Packers defense. Before Whitehead missed the game in Detroit with a back injury, Pro Football Focus rated him as the 15th-best safety in the league out of 89 qualified players (76.6 rating). Whitehead also was No. 3 among safeties with four quarterback pressures.
He returned Monday night against San Francisco, playing 27 snaps on defense and 26 on special teams. He recorded two tackles while also once again resuming his role as one of Pettine's blitzers.
“They could put him at punt return and he’ll go back and catch punts if it came down to it,” Clinton-Dix said. “He’s our do-it-all guy. When they put him at corner he can play it. He’s very smart, talented and he knows football. He’s a guy that you can give him zero reps at corner and you can put him at corner and he’ll go play there and won’t have any ME’s (mental errors). He’s our dual star in our defensive package. He’s our go-to guy, really, when we need him.”