Opportunities abound for new roles in Packers' secondary
GREEN BAY - In their first practice Wednesday since safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was traded to Washington, the Green Bay Packers showed only a glimpse of how they might line up in the secondary.
It wasn’t a full look because safety Jermaine Whitehead, who is a candidate to replace Clinton-Dix, missed practice with a back injury, making it unclear where he would play if healthy.
He played all but three snaps against the Los Angeles Rams last Sunday, mostly at his nickel linebacker spot, but he also replaced Kentrell Brice at safety for about a dozen snaps and could be an option there either on a full- or part-time basis.
The Packers let reporters watch only a short amount before closing practice, so the media did not get to see how defensive coordinator Mike Pettine lined up his unit during the more important team drills.
The player who would probably be the best fit for the vacant position, cornerback Tramon Williams, did do some work with the safeties. When he and Pettine were in Cleveland in 2016, Williams, 35, started two games at strong safety and would have no problem moving.
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Williams is also coming off a game in which he played mostly in the slot and several times blitzed or dropped into zone coverage like a safety.
Williams would make the most sense because the Packers feel good about their cornerback position after rookie Jaire Alexander and Kevin King played well against the Rams, Whitehead could stay in his nickel linebacker spot and cornerback Bashaud Breeland could get on the field.
Breeland, who hasn’t played since signing as a free agent Sept. 26, has experience playing in the slot and would add a physical presence in the secondary. He is also an option to play at safety, although that would probably have to come later down the line after he becomes comfortable in Pettine’s defense.
“I don’t know what my (role) will be, but I’m ready to play,” Breeland said after practice. “I’m ready to help in any way that I can. I hope this is the week that I get to play.”
However, if Williams is the safety, the Packers lose some size at the position and their most consistent coverage man on the perimeter. There are no guarantees King and Alexander are going to be as good as they were last week and a good cornerback is more important than a good safety.
Thus, Whitehead, who is about the same size as Williams, could be the pick. He’s extremely bright, and the coaches wouldn’t have to worry about him not being in the right place. Neither he nor Williams is going to be a force in the run game and Brice might have to play more near the line of scrimmage regardless of who starts.
A less likely option to replace Clinton-Dix would be second-year pro Josh Jones. The coaches haven’t put him on the field despite him being fully recovered from an ankle injury he suffered in the final exhibition game and starting him against New England quarterback Tom Brady would be risky.
One thing that has become evident under Pettine is that he is going to base his decision on that week’s opponent. Pettine rotates players continuously to create better match-ups and so just because a guy starts, it doesn’t mean he’s going to play in that position the entire day.
Asked if it would be easier to stick with one guy, starting safety Kentrell Brice said that although he and Clinton-Dix were paired together on just about every play this season, it didn’t matter to him if the Packers went to a rotation.
“I try not to coach the team, I just play ball,” Brice said. “They tell me the assignments and what we’re doing this week and I’m going to come in and play ball. So, we really don’t look at stuff like that.”
Brice and Clinton-Dix were used to playing aside one another and Brice will have to build chemistry with someone else now. Brice said it was tough to part with a guy he had played with for three seasons and considered to be a mentor.
It’s not that Brice or anyone else in the secondary should have been surprised by the trade given all the reports of a possible deal Sunday and Clinton-Dix’s certainty that they were true. He undoubtedly told his teammates that he might not be around come Tuesday and to be ready to move on without him.
“It’s tough on a personal level for me just because I dropped him off at the airport yesterday,” Brice said. “He’s like a big brother to me. We just had our talk. He gave me advice, I gave him advice. We love each other and parted ways.”
Clinton-Dix was a fixture at safety for the Packers, playing all but three snaps since Week 12 of his rookie season in 2014. But the Packers weren’t going to sign him to a contract extension any time soon and it was clear he was unhappy.
“Obviously, Ha Ha’s a very good player,” general manager Brian Gutekunst said. “But we have a lot of bodies that have been itching to get out there, a lot of guys that haven’t had their opportunities yet. And I think they’re really excited as am I to see what they can do.”
Coach Mike McCarthy said he didn’t know if the Packers would settle on one player to replace Clinton-Dix because of Pettine’s style of going with multiple personnel packages in a given game.
He said he liked the idea of his defensive back group competing for playing time and feels there are some who are ready to play a bigger role.
“There’s opportunity there for a couple guys,” McCarthy said. “How we play guys and how we line up, that’s really what Sunday night is for. It’s a game where the scheme aspect of it is a big challenge.”