Secondary shakeup: Rudy Ford to safety, Darnell Savage to nickel pays off for Packers
GREEN BAY − Rudy Ford dropped the ball on Wednesday.
On the Green Bay Packers' first day of preparation for Dallas, the defense was rehearsing a look they knew they’d see against Mike McCarthy’s Cowboys. When the ball was thrown to the end zone, Ford was in place to make the interception, but he couldn't finish the play.
Cornerback Jaire Alexander picked the dropped ball off the ground and threw it at Ford three times. Keep your hands on it, he said. That can’t happen in a game. Cornerback Rasul Douglas jogged over and told him much the same.
“He ran right to it, went through his hands,” Douglas shared after the game. “Told him, in a game you’re gonna get it again and you’re gonna pick it.”
Ford made the catch Sunday, becoming a huge factor with two interceptions in the Packers' 31-28 overtime win, putting a stop to their five-game losing streak.
On the first, the Packers were down 7-0 midway through the second quarter. The defense had just been on the field for a drive that lasted more than 8 minutes and resulted in the first score of the game. The Packers offense answered with three plays that ended in quarterback Aaron Rodgers giving up a sack fumble deep in Green Bay territory. The Packers had seen this story play out all too often over the past five weeks. An anemic offense, unable to provide enough breathing room to a defense that would fold when punched in the mouth.
Instead, on a third-and-goal from the 11-yard line, Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott stepped up in the pocket and fired a dart over the middle to tight end Dalton Schultz in the end zone. Because Schultz and receiver CeeDee Lamb were running routes in such a tight space, it brought Ford, who was on Lamb, into Prescott’s throwing lane at the goal line.
“(Schultz) said he just got knocked off his route in a sense, thinking he was going to cross face and make a play,” Prescott said after the game.
It was exactly as the Packers had practiced all week. But this time, Ford made the play.
“In practice, he was dropping a few balls and I was like ‘Yo Rudy, don't wait till the last minute to try and catch these interceptions,’” Alexander said. “And then he comes out here tonight and catches two of them. So like, I'm not gonna take credit for it, I didn’t catch it, but he came out and he was prepared.”
The Packers offense took the turnover from the 35-yard line and put together a three-play, 67-yard drive that ended in a 58-yard touchdown to rookie Christian Watson to tie the game.
On the next drive, Ford picked off Prescott again. On the previous play, Alexander had cloaked Michael Gallup to force a third-and-10. Prescott took a shot over the middle, sending a line drive toward Lamb, but Ford jumped the route and took it the other way for a 34-yard return.
The Packers responded with a 12-yard Aaron Jones touchdown run.
“That one was just miscommunication,” Prescott said. “Thinking he was going to cross face him seeing something different.”
Ford, a special teams ace who came to Green Bay as a free agent hoping to play more defense, started at safety with Darnell Savage taking more snaps as a nickel corner. The shuffle came after corner Eric Stokes was placed on injured reserve this week with a knee and ankle injury, forcing Rasul Douglas to move from nickel to outside.
Coach Matt LaFleur played his hand close to the vest during the week, refusing to reveal who would play slot with the shift. On Sunday, the change moved Savage closer to the line of scrimmage, and he responded with eight tackles and one pass breakup.
“It was fun,” Savage said. “Definitely a good feeling. Even more important we got the win.
"Injures always happen, everybody’s gotta be ready to go in there and move around and be able to play at a high level. With Eric banged up, I got asked to play a little bit of nickel so I think I had fun tonight.”
Said LaFleur, “It’s more or less, you go into every game with maybe a different plan. But Rudy’s been doing some good things and when given opportunities on defense, he’s maximized those and he plays with a lot of speed. You can feel his speed out there, and he’s physical, too.
“Then, to get Savage a little bit more involved closer to the ball and see if he can do something in that position, so that’s just the route we chose to go this week.”
Defensive coordinator Joe Barry had praised the idea of Savage as a slot two weeks ago, but said in the end it wasn’t practical.
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“I think Darnell Savage would be an unbelievable nickel and we've put him in there at times over the years,” Barry said Nov. 4. “But, you know, in order to do that, if you're going to move him to the nickel corner position, you got to feel comfortable with someone in at safety.”
With injuries forcing his hand, Barry made the switch and it paid off.
“I told you we've got a super dynamic secondary,” Alexander said. “And with Sav subbing in at nickel, he was able to be around the ball more and I knew that's what he wanted to do so. And then Rudy, man, Rudy stepped up so big tonight. He changed the game for us on defense. A real soft-spoken person, but for him to step up like that, that was amazing. And we need to just keep doing what we doing.”
Ford, for his part, deflected the praise.
“It takes all of us to win a football game and everybody contributed,” Ford said. "We had plays all over the field so it took all of us. It was very good to see different guys in different spots, able to make plays.”
The selfless answer is common for Ford, who is notoriously the quiet one in an otherwise rambunctious secondary. After the game, his teammates surrounded his locker, chanting over and over, “Rudy! Rudy! Rudy!” He helped change the game on a night they needed it badly, and Savage promised they were going to make Ford soak in every moment.
"Rudy is such a quiet and humble soul, he deserved that. He played his butt off tonight, he deserved that, I’m really happy for him” Savage said. “We gonna do whatever we can to get that (excitement) up out of him. We gonna turn up a little bit just to get a smile on his face.”